I Changed Cellphone Carrier, and My iPhone is Bleeding Data

If you’re a regular reader, you’ll know that I recently moved from France to England. About a year ago, I wrote an article for TidBITS about how a company called Free had shaken up the cellphone industry in France. I had an iPhone contract with unlimited calls, texts and data (truly unlimited; no “fair use”), for only €16.

Well, my arrival in the UK changed things. One quickly learns that there’s little competition in the phone market, and prices are higher. While there are carriers that offer unlimited calls and texts, unlimited data is rarer. And one carrier, Three, that offers unlimited data, doesn’t offer unlimited calls and texts.

I started out using GiffGaff, a company run by O2 that sells pre-pay SIM cards. It was practical, and fairly inexpensive, but it doesn’t allow tethering, which I occasionally need. So I switched to EE, which offers good coverage (the company, Everything Everywhere, was born of a merger between Orange and T-Mobile), and decent prices, with an unlimited call and text plan. But since I didn’t use a lot of data, I settled for their basic 500 MB per month plan at £21 a month, or about 50% more than what I was paying in France (but, remember, my French contract had unlimited data).

Before moving to EE, I was using about 250 MB per month. The last two weeks with GiffGaff, from when I topped up my SIM card on April 15, to May 2, when I switched, I used about 120 MB of data. That made me think that the 500 MB with EE would be more than enough. But things got weird.

I went away for a few days, without Wi-Fi access, and discovered that my phone had eaten 260 MB in just the first five days of my contract. I was using the exact same apps and services as with GiffGaff, with the exception of an EE app to track my usage. I called EE customer service, and they were not very helpful. While the person did give me a credit for 250 MB of data, she suggested I download an app that would track data usage by app on my phone. This app no longer works on iOS 6, but I found another. This app showed much less data usage than what the iPhone – and EE – was reporting. While no such app can be precise, it only shows about half the data that the iPhone and EE report that I’m using.

I’ve tried all the usual troubleshooting routines. I’ve turned off all services – push notifications, automatic email checking, iCloud, location services, etc. – and data was still going in and out of my phone. I’ve restored the phone – an annoyingly time-consuming process – and data is still flowing like a broken tap. Here are two screen shots. The first is when I restored the iPhone; data is 0. The second is less than an hour later, while the phone was syncing.

2013-05-08 20.17.57 2013-05-08 21.10.36

In less than one hour, 19 MB was used, doing nothing. (There were some push services on, and perhaps one or two emails downloaded, but nothing else.) Imagine if I was using the phone? If usage continues at that rate, it could exceed 200 MB per day!

The only possibility is that EE’s carrier services have an issue which appears on some iPhones. I’ve seen hundreds of reports of different iPhone users having similar issues on all sorts of networks, and no solutions anywhere regarding how to track down what’s using up all the data.

So my only solution is to cancel the contract with EE: they clearly mis-sold me this contract; there’s a latent defect in their network service, which would clearly cost me much more were I to continue using them with my iPhone. (I’m paying £21 a month, and I would need to pay at least £31 a month to have enough of a data allowance.)

So, dear reader, have you confronted a similar problem of suddenly excessive data usage, with EE or any other carrier? Have you found a cause and a solution? I’m curious. From everything I’ve seen on the internet, there is no clear cause, and no solution, other than to turn off cellular data, which kind of defeats the purpose of having a smart phone.

2013-05-09 10.11.34Update: I’ve spent way too much time trying to solve this problem over the past two days. At the suggestion of a friend, I downloaded an app called ActMonitor, which shows system processes that are active, but also shows real-time incremental data transfers. So I could see exactly when data was coming into and going out of my phone, though not by process, which would have solved the problem immediately.

With this in hand, I tried turning on and off features, such as push, iCloud, etc. I rebooted the phone, and saw that there was about 2 K/sec going out and coming into the phone. When I turned off push, this stopped. But when I turned push back on, the data did not start sending again. This suggests that there’s a carrier problem with the way it handles push; it’s as though the first time, the carrier’s servers don’t register something correctly, but the second time they do.

For now I’ll leave push off – it’s useful to get emails more quickly in some situations, but not a deal-breaker – and see how much data I use over the next few days.