Apple feature blamed for $2,000 phone bill, but alert was ignored

Technically Incorrect: A Florida teen says Apple's Wi-Fi Assist feature automatically switched to cellular from Wi-Fi, leaving him unawares. But he'd passed over a warning from AT&T.

Technically Incorrect offers a slightly twisted take on the tech that's taken over our lives.


feingold.jpg

Ashton Feingold and his iPhone.

CBS Miami screenshot by Chris Matyszczyk/CNET

One of the better pieces of advice is: Never let your teen make a decision that might involve money.

This may recently have crossed the mind of a Florida father whose teenage son ignored an alert from AT&T while using the iPhone service his dad pays for.

Son Ashton Feingold told CBS Miami this week that the friendly warning "just said, maybe 65 percent of your data has been used."

I can't remember ever getting a text from AT&T that included the word "maybe." Still, Feingold says he ignored the alert because he'd gotten such warnings before with no dire consequences.

This time around, however, his dad received a bill for $2,021.07.

The two blame Apple's Wi-Fi Assist feature. This automatically switches your phone from Wi-Fi to cellular if it decides your Wi-Fi signal is too weak. It's on by default in iOS 9, a recent version of the software that runs the iPhone.

I confess that I've never seen it kick in. Moreover, you might know when it does because, in Apple's words, "You'll see the cellular data icon in the status bar on your device."

Ashton's dad, Jeff, told CBS the monthly bill was usually around $250 and that he had no idea what Wi-Fi Assist even was. His son says he assumed he was still connected to Wi-Fi. Some might imagine the text from AT&T was a suggestion he wasn't.

Apple didn't respond to a request for comment. AT&T said it sends customers three standard texts of warning as they approach their limit.

The Wi-Fi Assist feature can be switched off. It is, though, yet another example of a tech company inserting a supposedly helpful feature into a gadget by default. One can understand some not being able to realize the feature's intent or grasp its implications.

That's why Wi-Fi Assist is now the subject of a lawsuit, filed in San Jose, California, in which users claim Apple gave insufficient warning about the feature's ramifications.

Some say, however, that the reason people are burning up data is the way they have their iPhones set up. Clearly, if you try using, say, your Nexflix app on cellular, the data charges will quickly mount. You can set your phone so that certain apps don't work on cellular. But again, it's up to you to do the work, and it may involve more than one app.

The simpler solution, then, might be to ensure that your Wi-Fi Assist is switched off, provided it's not something you'll need very often. (Go to Settings and then to Cellular, and at the very, very bottom you'll see the green toggle that you slide to Off.)

There again, the even simpler solution might be for Apple to make the feature opt-in.

Either way, it's still unwise to ignore your provider when it tells you you're near your limit. Families with teenagers, then, might at least consider going with an unlimited data plan. As many of us know, teens and limits rarely see eye to eye.

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