Study: Carriers overcharging on actual data consumption

Researchers at the University of California-Los Angeles say a data-counting issue in mobile networks may be causing operators to overcharge their customers for monthly data consumption.

UCLA researcher Chunyi Peng, along with three colleagues, determined that even typical use of a phone could lead the data to be over-counted by 5 to 7 percent, reported Technology Review, which is published by the Massachusetts Institute of Technology.

The researchers came to their conclusion after using a data-logging app on Android phones to check the data use being recorded by mobile networks. "The carriers were found to usually count data correctly, but they tended to over-count--and hence potentially overcharge--when a person used applications that stream video or audio, and particularly when coverage was weak or unreliable," said the article.

Peng said the study was performed on two large U.S. cell-phone networks that together account for 50 percent of that nation's mobile subscribers. That leaves unclear which networks were tested as the market leaders, AT&T (NYSE:T) and Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ), are generally estimated to hold a combined  65-70 percent of the U.S. market. AT&T reported 105.2 million customers at the end of 2012's second quarter, while Verizon reported 111.3 million. Overall, the United States has some 325 million wireless subscriptions.

The data-consumption counting problem stems from the fact that operators count data sent over their networks whether or not a handset receives it, said Peng, who presented her work last month at the MobiCom conference in Istanbul. Video and audio streaming apps are particularly affected because their protocols do not require the end user's device to acknowledge the receipt of every chunk of data, or halt data transmission immediately, as Web browsers or many other apps do. Thus, video apps might keep sending data over the network long after a device has lost its connection.

Though operators may consider their current data-counting practices fair, since their networks bear the burden of carrying data regardless of whether a device receives it, Peng suggested operators could do a better job of charging customers for what their devices actually receive. "From the perspective of a mobile user, I think it's not fair," she said, "because I didn't get to use it."

On the flipside, the same researchers found a way to hide data from a cellular network by disguising a data request as a DNS request, which is normally used by a Web browser to convert a user-friendly domain name into its numerical IP address. Peng said the team was able to use 200 megabytes of data without the carrier recording any of it.

Technology Review noted that Benjamin Lennett, a technology policy director at think tank New America Foundation, said that if the FCC is willing to allow usage-based prices, the agency should "ensure that consumers are being charged accurately."

Despite their growing use by carriers, usage-based data plans have not won over all mobile customers. A recent consumer survey conducted by Parks Associates revealed that 31 percent of AT&T subscribers, 30 percent of Verizon subscribers and 35 percent of T-Mobile USA subscribers say they prefer unlimited data plans, while 44 percent of Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) subscribers selected that option.

For more:
- see this Technology Review article

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