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Ask Maggie: On wireless data roaming; gauging usage; and venting about billing

CNET's Maggie Reardon answers questions about wireless broadband services, including why usage-based data billing may not be a bad thing for all consumers.

Wireless broadband services are great. But how much data are you actually using and how much is it all really costing you?

Ask Maggie

In this week's Ask Maggie advice column, I answer a few questions about wireless broadband services. Specifically, I explain why using a U.S. wireless broadband data stick is probably not a good idea without a special data plan.

I also try to explain why it's better to keep your home broadband service if you're thinking of subscribing to a wireless broadband service. And finally I try to provide some insight as to why usage-based data billing may not be a bad thing for all consumers.

Ask Maggie is a weekly advice column, which means that I am always looking for more questions. If you've got a question for me, please send an e-mail to me at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header.

Roaming abroad on wireless

Hi Maggie,

I don't know much about computers. I just bought a mini so that I could take it with me to travel.

While in Italy in March, my friend had mini-computer, and she had a Sprint Air card. When she got home, she was shocked at her bill, as she was charged for roaming every time she used her computer in Italy!

If I go ahead and buy the Novatel USB broadband modem for my Acer mini, and I purchase 10 days worth of Virgin Mobile wireless broadband service, is that my total expense? Or do I have to worry about roaming charges. How does that work?

Thanks. And remember, I need very simple explanations!


Dear Lynn,

Virgin Mobile offers a $10 wireless broadband service that gives you 100 megabytes of data for 10 days. This service and all of Virgin Mobile's prepaid wireless services are only for mobile broadband access in the U.S. So if you travel in the U.S., you will be able to get Internet service wherever the Virgin Mobile service is available. And since Virgin Mobile is owned by Sprint Nextel and uses Sprint's 3G wireless network, it's available wherever Sprint is available.

If you are traveling outside the U.S., like your friend who went to Italy, the situation will be different. In that case, if you use your wireless data card you will be charged roaming fees. And as you know from your friend's experience, that can be very expensive. I'd suggest that if you plan to go overseas, see about renting an air card from a local carrier. It depends on where you are traveling and if this is possible.

For more information about traveling internationally with a cell phone check out this FAQ about swapping SIMs while traveling abroad. I also published a more general FAQ about traveling abroad with a cell phone.

The other option is to take your laptop and look for Wi-Fi hot spots while you're traveling abroad. Your Acer Mini will work all over the world with no problem from a Wi-Fi hot spot.

Good luck!

How much data is enough?

Hello Maggie,

I'm a Verizon Wireless subscriber, and I am still struggling with the smartphone vs. non-smartphone debate. (Am I ready for having all that power all the time? I'm not sure yet.) But I have a few more general questions that I thought you might be able to help with.

  1. If a phone is capable of being a mobile hot spot is it actually possible to use that as a replacement for my home broadband service, or is it not that powerful? At home I broadband to check e-mail, watch shows on Hulu etc.
  2. I know that for Verizon Wireless, data plans are required for all the smartphones. So do you know if people often go over the prescribed usage, or is that really difficult to do? I don't have a sense of a normal amount of data usage not having had a data plan.



Dear Sandhya,

Verizon Wireless limits the amount of data that its wireless broadband subscribers can use each month. The cap is 5GB for the month, and then customers are charged extra if they go exceed that amount. But this cap only applies to people subscribing to a 3G wireless service that uses a laptop or Netbook. If you are using a smartphone, the service is unlimited. But if by chance you went over 5GB, you'd likely hear from Verizon.

The carrier restricts consumers signing up for the $30 a month unlimited data plan from tethering their device to a laptop to provide Internet service. And if you used the phone to create a Wi-Fi hot spot, you will be charged an additional fee for that capability and you will be limited to the 5GB cap per month.

Many people believe the 5GB cap also applies to smartphones, but if you read Verizon's Web site and terms of use, nowhere does it indicate that this cap applies to smartphones. Yet it clearly states this cap applies to wireless broadband service, which includes tethering services.

In theory, you can definitely use Verizon's Wi-Fi hot-spot service in lieu of your home broadband connection. But I would not recommend doing this unless you are a very light Internet user. For one, you will get faster speeds from your home Internet service than you would from a 3G link. (Remember that even though your phone will be using Wi-Fi to connect multiple devices, these devices will all be using a single 3G connection, which is much slower than most home broadband connections.)

Also, the fact that you said you like to watch shows on indicates to me that you might be more than a casual Web user. Reading and answering e-mails uses very little bandwidth, but streaming video eats up tons of bandwidth.

Verizon has created a useful tool on its Web site to help customers shopping for wireless broadband service to figure out how much data they need. The tool specifically asks how many e-mails you send and receive per day. It asks if you play online games, download apps, stream music or video, and how many pictures you upload.

According to Verizon Wireless, watching one hour of streaming video per day would eat up 7.2GB or data per month. Streaming one hour of music per day would eat up about 2.2 GB of data per month. But sending and receiving about 100 e-mails a day would only consume about 60MB of data per month.

So if you want to watch a lot of Hulu at home, stick with your existing home broadband service.

As for your question about smartphone data usage, you won't need to worry so much. If you plan to stay with Verizon Wireless, you will get unlimited data usage for your smartphone. As I described above, the 5GB does not apply to smartphone customers. And the reason is simple, very few people would even come close to exceeding that 5GB limit if they are using their phones within the bounds of Verizon's terms of use. This means no tethering the phone to a laptop or using it to provide Wi-Fi to other devices.

According to Validas, a company that analyzes cell phone bills and usage for consumers and corporate customers, on average Verizon cell phone subscriber consumes about 147.2MB of data per month. Verizon's smartphone users use about 421 MB of data per month on average.

Even if Verizon adds a usage cap or you go to AT&T, which caps its service at 200MB and 2GB, you should be fine.

Deciphering data consumption

Dear Maggie,

How can wireless providers charge by the gigabyte when I have no control over how much data a Web site serves up? This is akin to making a call and the person who answers the phone gets to decide how many minutes I am charged regardless of how long we talk and they won't tell me the number of minutes that I am going to be charged until the call is finished!

This seems not only counter-intuitive and quite insane.

Thank you,


Dear Tom,

I understand your frustration. Wireless operators have been offering unlimited wireless broadband for the past few years in an effort to get consumers hooked on wireless broadband. And now that they've snagged millions of wireless consumers as data customers, they want to put the kibosh on unlimited and start charging customers for what they use.

Most people believe they are getting a good deal when they buy in bulk or go to an all-you-can eat lunch buffet. But these so-called "deals" are only a better value if you actually consume a lot of what's being offered. If you don't, you are simply paying for more than you need.

While I agree with you that it doesn't seem to make sense to charge someone based on bandwidth when you have no control over how much bandwidth a particular Web page or application uses, I don't think that usage based billing is always a bad thing.

Most people pay a public utility for water, which is often calculated by how many gallons are used each month. Personally, I have no idea how many gallons of water I use when I shower or when I run my dishwasher or clothes washer. Maybe my toilet uses more water than someone else's toilet. I have no clue, but I am still charged for my water usage based on how many gallons I use each month.

Like water, bandwidth and network infrastructure is a finite resource. It costs money to build and maintain these networks, so it makes sense for operators to charge people who use those resources more often a higher fee than people who use it very little.

But I do agree that it's difficult for today's consumer to know how much data certain applications use, which makes choosing the right plan more difficult. Verizon has put together a useful tool to help consumers figure out how much data they are likely to consume each month. The carrier also provides a cheat sheet on its Web site to help consumers understand how much data certain activities consume.

• 1 e-mail (text only) = 20KB
• 1 e-mail attachment = 300KB
• 1 Web page = 180KB
• 1 app/game/song = 3MB
• 1 minute of streaming video = 4MB
• 1 minute of streaming music = 1.25MB
• 1 photo download/upload = 500KB