Mysterious iPhone Data Usage

posted in: Gadgets & Tech | 11

Yesterday evening I had a look at the Usage on my iPhone4, just for interest.  And what a horrible shock I had.  Just six days since I reset my usage statistics (on 8th October, to coincide with my new billing period) I have apparently used a massive 450MB of data… 450MB in six days?  NO WAY!

Data Usage

So I had a look… what was it last month? Total was 699MB. Hmmm.

It all matters now, thanks to O2 getting rid of unlimited data for its customers. I had to change my tariff when I upgraded from my iPhone 3G to my gorgeous iPhone4 at the end of July. While for the 18 months of my last contract I had unlimited data, as with the first three months of my new contract, now O2 are limiting me and the majority of its customers to 500MB per month.

I obviously knew this when I took out the new tariff and upgraded. When it comes to spending money I like to be careful because I don’t have money to waste. O2 said (in response to people complaining about no unlimited data) that 97% of customers use well under 500MB per month.  So I did some calculations to see whether 500MB per month was enough for me or if I should look at moving from my preferred carrier to another who was going to offer more data for my money. Before I upgraded I went through all my bills (thanks to My O2) and looked at the cellular data usage figures.  Between January 2009 and June 2010 I was using somewhere between 200 and 350MB of data per month. As I had no plans to use my new phone any differently, and those figures included use of twitter, facebook, uploading photos, surfing the web, some blog posts, playing games that send data etc, as well as the very odd YouTube clip or download of an app, I wasn’t worried.

I was quite content that 500MB each month would be plenty, even with me using my phone more than I had been.  I decided it was fine to go with the £30 per month O2 tariff with unlimited texts, 100 minutes (I don’t talk much!) and 500MB data.

Oh how wrong I was!

500MB in six days. It must be a mistake! It must be. So I checked My O2 online (because the My O2 iPhone app doesn’t include data usage for some strange reason) and that said the same. But how? What had I done differently? Nothing!

When at home I am on my WIFI network and when I’m at work I hardly use my iPhone at all, so that usage is not even covering the full time!

What was using my data?  I had a look online and it seems I’m not the only one – by a long way. There are forum discussions on O2’s and Apple’s websites on this exact subject. “My data usage has shot up since I got my iPhone4.” “My phone is using data when I’m not using my iPhone4.” “How can my data usage be double when I’m not doing anything different on my new phone?” It seems there are hundreds of iPhone4 users who are equally as frustrated and confused about the amount of data their phone is eating.  These people are just like me – average users on their 3G not doing anything differently now but with massive and unexplained data numbers on the iPhone4.

So what can it be?

Some quick research online leaves me with a few ideas of the problems we’re all facing on unexpected high data figures:

  • I’m using my iPhone4 more than double the amount I used my 3G. I seriously doubt that! Maybe a little more, but nowhere near what the difference in data is suggesting.  I don’t download music or apps direct to my iPhone when I’m not on WIFI; I don’t watch television over 3G; I don’t shoot and upload videos on it.
  • Higher resolution photographs are obviously bigger in file size than the ones on my old 3G, but I don’t upload at full size and when looking at my usage it’s the download figures that have increased so hugely and not the upload figures.
  • Multitasking leaves apps running in the background that are using data without you realising. TuneIn Radio is supposed to be a big culprit for this as it continues to buffer radio for 10-15 minutes after you’ve pressed the home button. But I don’t use that app. On the iPhone 3G, which didn’t have multitasking, you pressed the home button and it closed the app you were in completely. On the iPhone4 you press the home button and if the app supports multitasking it “sleeps” the app and puts it into the background. To close apps completely you are supposed to double click the home button and close the app from the icon tray that appears at the bottom.  However that icon tray at the bottom includes every single app you have used, whether they are open in the background or not – it is impossible to tell which ones are open and which ones are just “recently used”.  So, are some of my apps running in the background and using up all my data without me realising?
  • Free apps are almost always supported by advertising, many using the new iAds system. Each time this downloads an ad that costs me data – is it responsible for the massive increase?  For example, I use the free version of Echofon for twitter, because I prefer it to the official Twitter app.  Each time I refresh Echofon it loads a new advert… if I refresh once a minute for one hour then that’s 60 ads. How much for each ad? If they are 100kb each that’s 6MB in an hour on top of the normal data I’m downloading. Doesn’t seem much but it would soon add up.  The solution here is to buy apps without advertisements… but if this isn’t what is causing it then I’d rather not have the expense.

After all this research last night I phoned O2 this morning in the hope that they might be able to tell me where my data was being used (if it was safari, email, specific apps).  Surprisingly enough what they wanted was to sell me a bolt on, which I don’t want to have to buy – it is £7.50 per month for another 500MB of data, which incidentally is £2.50 more than they were advertising it would be when I bought my iPhone4.  The lady I spoke to did have a look at my usage and confirmed the high usage in the last six days, mainly down to Sunday, but she couldn’t tell me on what. Sunday?  That’s made me really confused.  Oh, and they couldn’t really tell me what would happen if I went over my data allowance – I was first told I would be charged extra, then I was told I would be barred until next month.  The lady I spoke to was obviously trying to be helpful, and was very polite, but she didn’t have the answers.

What can I do?

I’ve started by changing my settings to fetch email manually instead of every 30 minutes as it has been for the last 18 months or so.  This means that instead of automatically downloading email even when the phone is in sleep mode, it only does it when I open the email app.  Obviously this doesn’t reduce the number/size of emails that are downloaded, but I can choose to download them when I am connected to WIFI (which is free!) rather than using my 3G connection when I’m out and about.

I have opted out of receiving interest-based ads from the iAd mobile advertising network.  While this doesn’t stop me getting ads on apps that use them, it stops my browsing information being used to decide which ads I see – it might save a few kb.  If you haven’t done this and want to go to in safari on your iPhone4 (or any device running IOS4) to opt out – if you are concerned about “big brother” you’ll do this now.

For this month, with only 50MB or less left in my allowance I’ve taken the drastic step of turning cellular data off.  This is mainly because it’s not clear what will happen if I exceed my limit – will it just slow down, will I be charged per MB, will I be forced to take out a bolt-on?  Even the O2 rep didn’t really know and her colleague told her something different to what she thought.  There is a bolt-on which is an extra 500MB for another £7.50 a month, but I really don’t want to have to start adding extra things to my monthly outgoings.  This is most frustrating – what is the point of having a smart-phone where I have to switch off the “smart” bit in order to keep within the terms of my contract?

What should be done?

Well my first thought is that O2 should never have got rid of unlimited data on their iPhone tariffs.  It is the most important aspect of the iPhone and O2 are limiting its use, which is a real shame. O2 say that 97% of customers will have no problem with the 500MB limit: “We’re confident that the majority of customers will see little or no change as a result of this announcement, in fact based on average use today 97% of our customers will see no change at all as the minimum bundle of 500MB is 2.5 times the average use.” (here) – however, looking around the web and looking at my own usage, this is probably nowhere near the case.  I wonder how many people haven’t realised?

My real want if for O2 to go back on their decision.  But of course that isn’t going to happen.  There is something about the iPhone4 that is using much more data than a customer would normally.  They can see that with unlimited data I wasn’t getting anywhere near 500MB a month, but now there is a limit it’s way up.  If I didn’t take the micky with my data usage when it was unlimited, why would I do it when I would have to pay for it?  On the O2 website it says “We recognise some customers might not be aware of their current data usage so in their first month we will send them text notifications at 80% & 100% but we won’t immediately control their data usage. This will help them to get a better understanding of how much data they use before we apply controls once they’ve used their monthly bundle up. If these customers continue to use a lot more data (more than double their bundle) we will manage them through our high-user programme and stop their data access until the end of their billing period.” (here) so does that mean unless I go over 1GB regularly I have nothing to worry about?  Oh, and I haven’t had the 80% text… which should have come at 400MB.  At the very least O2 need to, immediately, make charges and consequences for going over data allowance very clear.

Apple have designed the iPhone4 to use more data than the 3G ever did.  Maybe not intentionally, but as a result of decisions they have made it just eats data.  Application designers have done the same – maybe not intentionally, but possibly through bad use of the multitasking feature.  Apple need to take some responsibility and help its customers out by fixing some issues in IOS4.  With regards to multitasking, Apple need to sort the problems of a) not being able to turn multitasking off (just add an option in the settings menu) and b) not knowing which apps are using data in the background/don’t switch off when you press the home button (only have apps that are running in the tray when you double click the home button).  This would at least help people keep track of what is and isn’t open and what is and isn’t using data.  And if there are other data-eating features within IOS4 we need to be told about them so we can be better informed about the changes between it and the old software we were using on the iPhone 3G.


I absolutely love my iPhone4, it was a very expensive but happy purchase to which I am permanently attached.  But I am seriously worried that I’ll end up falling out of love with the tech if I cannot use it as I want to without spending a fortune on data each month.  I am disappointed and frustrated that the iPhone4 uses so much more data than my old 3G for doing the same tasks, and that for the rest of October I’m stuck with a phone that only works when I’m close to a WIFI router.


Thank you all for reading/commenting on here and on twitter… it seems I’m definitely not the only one.

Looking at the data usage figures on My O2 it itemises it per “session” which is from when the phone is switched on and connects to the network to when it is switched on and connects to the network again.  So for me, because I always switch my phone on at night, I get my total useage for the previous day dated each morning.  I apparently used 420MB of my current total on Saturday. I was at home all day on Saturday and therefore the WIFI was on… hmmmm.

I’ve taken the step of restoring my iPhone and starting from scratch.  When I got it I set it up from a backup of my 3GS (I’ve been meaning to do this anyway,) and I figured that this way it would wipe the whole thing and I could gradually put on apps and see where the data is going.  I’m getting more and more convinced that for me it’s the free/ad supported version of Echofon which I use for twitter, along with some ad supported games, that could be the culprit.  Echofon does seems to run in the background – I wonder if while it doesn’t get tweets while it’s sleeping, it does receive ads?  Obviously I don’t know that for sure, it’s just one thought.   At the moment I’ve got the normal Twitter app installed which doesn’t use ads and since I did the restore I’ve received 158kb data and sent 40kb (which makes sense considering I use WIFI at home).

If it is a combination of multitasking and ads then Apple really do need to give iPhone users a more user friendly way of using multitasking.  We need to know which aps are running and which are just “recently used”, have an easier way of completely closing applications (perhaps a minimise and a close button like on a computer?), and also a way to switch multitasking off completely should we choose to.

The mystery continues.


Yesterday I was out of the house all day doing the Spires and Steeples walk, and I wanted to be able to tweet my progress. I kept a close eye on data. I probably looked at twitter/posted a tweet once an hour, maybe less, and used the official Twitter app which has no ads. I also checked facebook once during the day (just the notifications screen). I didn’t open/check for email (which is now set to manual) and I didn’t open any other apps. Between 7am and 6pm I used under 2.5MB of data, which I think backs up again the idea that multitasking and advertisements may be what is causing the usage.

This morning Chris posted this on Geek-Speak following a conversation I had with him on Saturday. Very interesting.

After you’ve read this you’ll want to know what happened… THIS POST was my follow-up.

11 Responses

  1. Jay

    That’s really interesting. I’m not an iPhone user – I have an HTC Desire which has always supported multitasking. I had to change a lot of the settings on that to stop it fetching data when I wasn’t using the app – twitter etc. At one time I had 3 twitter apps installed, and it was updating all three!

    It’s not really a problem for me as far as data goes – I’m at home far more than I’m out, so I’m generally on wifi. The problem for me was battery life – all these apps running in the background were just eating my battery every day!

    I have it as I want it now, but it’s still a compromise to get a decent length of use from the battery balanced with the apps I need to use regularly. I hope you find a happy balance with yours x

    • Splodz

      Thanks Jay. I do think multitasking is probably the culprit – the phone doing more than I and others realise. Glad you worked yours out.

  2. spog

    hi guys, i am from australia and having the same problem but worse!!!!! last month my data usage was 5.2GB not mg…. my phone company tryed to bill me $6000.00….. the ombudsman stepped in and helpd… the phone company cancewlled that bill…. the sam has happened the following month but not so drastick… but still is… 3.5gb over and a bill of $1000.00…..

    • Wade

      Hi Spog,

      I recently received a bill from Optus with an excess data charge of over $800 and they stated I had used 3.5gb of 3G data in one day on my iPhone 4s. I fought the charge and luckily they dropped it.
      This has me freaked out because I always watch my usage and I’m rarely out of wifi range (home and work) for more than an hour at a time. Especially on the day of the accused charges.
      Optus refused to believe that there is something wrong with their billing system.
      I haven’t had to escalate this to the obudsmen but I sincerely hope this doesnt continue to occur.
      If you have any info, or if you would like to band together to share info, please feel free to contact me at


  3. Linda

    i recently had the same problem. Ever since I came back from Europe. I, apparently, used my whole 500 MB in just 5 days!!. As other people suggested, I turned off all my Apps (double clicking home button and such). Even with every app off (not running in the background or open) It still managed to use up 2.0 kb sent and 1.0 kb received. So, what, I wonder are these mysterious KBs from??? No body seems to know. Perhaps the ads in some of my Apps are the culprit. Even though the apps are closed and not running???

  4. Peter

    I had the same issue with O2, I recently moved to 3 and can’t complain, for cheaper I get unlimited data ad a better all round package. At first I was a bit skeptical about 3 but I have had the exact same if not better coverage, 3’s 3G network is one of the best in the UK!

  5. Javiero

    I’m having the same problem, last sunday, staying at home over wifi, my iphone 4s 5.1 downloaded 200mb over wifi and 208mb over 3g!!!!!
    I used it just for normal email and some web search, no more apps running in the “dock”.
    I’m using My Data Mgr to follow the usage, and the 400mb are at 00:26, more or less the same time as other times i had this problem.

    Other months it was 70mb, 40mb, and lots of 20mb, all at night. I have few apps, none games, and always close apps after use them (doble click home button and close them from de multitask bar)

  6. anon4cec

    Right, same problem here on my dad’s iPhone 4 I gave him. Why isn’t anyone pointing the finger at Apple regarding this? My new Samsung has a built in Data Usage breakdown per App so I know exactly what is using my data. Why is there no such app for the iPhone?

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