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Apple tries to ease fears that Wi-Fi Assist is a data gobbler

Wi-Fi Assist can switch your phone to a cellular connection if your Wi-Fi signal gets too weak, but concerns have cropped up that it may eat up too much of your mobile data. What does Apple say?

Should you use the new Wi-Fi Assist feature in iOS 9? Apple says yes and explains why. Screenshot by Lance Whitney/CNET

Apple is aiming to assure you that its new Wi-Fi Assist feature in the iOS 9 software won't gulp down all your mobile data.

Introduced in Apple's latest mobile operating system in mid-September, Wi-Fi Assist is the company's attempt to keep your Internet connection alive if your Wi-Fi coverage is poor. Turned on by default, the feature automatically switches you to a cellular connection if it senses that your Wi-Fi signal is too weak.

Wi-Fi Assist has quickly become a source of controversy. Some users have expressed concerns that the feature uses mobile data, otherwise known as cellular data, without letting them know. That may be a particular worry for people whose mobile plans allow for only a small amount of data, such as 1GB, per month. Others have praised the feature, saying that the feature's mobile data usage is small and that it comes in handy in spots where your Wi-Fi signal drops.

Apple has weighed in on the controversy by explaining when and how the feature works in an "About Wi-Fi Assist" page updated on Tuesday. Here is what Apple says:

  • The feature "will not switch to cellular if you're data roaming." So you won't have to pay extra fees if you're out of your normal coverage area.
  • Wi-Fi Assist only works with apps running in the foreground and won't download content from apps in the background.
  • The feature doesn't go into effect with certain "third-party apps that stream audio or video," and it won't download large file attachments.

You'll also know when Wi-Fi Assist is activated because you'll see the cellular data icon in the status bar on your iOS device.

There's always a "but," though.

"Because you'll stay connected to the Internet over cellular when you have a poor Wi-Fi connection, you might use more cellular data," Apple said on its webpage. "For most users, this should only be a small percentage higher than previous usage."

So what are your options? You can turn off Wi-Fi Assist if you don't want to risk going over your data allotment. You can keep it turned on for now and monitor your data usage for a couple of months to see if there are any spikes. You can also control Wi-Fi Assist by disabling the use of cellular data for any specific app installed on your device.

Apple did not respond to CNET's request for comment.