Rogue apps causing bill shock, battery drain
Bill shock ... many popular apps still use data when not in use. Photo: Reuters
Smartphone apps can cause you to chew through your monthly mobile data limit in a matter of days, while free versions of apps often end up costing more than the paid premium version and eat up your battery life, new data shows.
Consumer advocates and telecommunications experts warn that some of the most popular apps are causing bill shock even when not in use. An Ericsson report says free versions of apps can use 25 per cent more battery life than paid versions.
People don't realise that having apps open in the background is using data almost constantly.Elise Davidson, Australian Communications Consumer Action Network
In the year to June there were 8761 complaints to the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman about disputed mobile internet charges, a 150 per cent increase from the previous year.
Feeling the drain ... free versions of apps can use 25 per cent more battery life than paid versions.
Australian firm Amethon, which provides big data analytics for mobile network operators, showed Fairfax a draft whitepaper titled Mobile applications: A clear and present danger.
It said a "large number of defective apps" variously generate "unreasonably large volumes of data usage"; "high numbers of transactions and object downloads over a short period of time", "regular data pulses" and "long session durations" that cause data to be consumed even with no user interaction.
By analysing anonymous traffic generated by apps running over mobile networks around the world it found that Facebook, while generally efficient in its data use, exhibited "disturbing behaviour" for some users of the iPhone app including "high numbers of transactions, high data usage or regular data pulses".
In one example given, the Facbeook app generated 50MB of data and 170,000 transactions over a five hour period, despite the fact that user interaction was not constant.
Elise Davidson from the Australian Communications Consumer Action Network (ACCAN) said this meant affected users who left the Facebook app open constantly would chew through an entire 1GB monthly download quota in five days.
"People don't realise that having apps open in the background is using data almost constantly," said Davidson, adding that around half of mobile users don't monitor their data usage.
"If you're receiving really high bills for excess data charges and you can't figure out why, you might have a rogue app.
"The average number of apps that people have got is about 28, so if you've got all these apps running at the same time it can really quickly chew through your data allowance and this correlates to a big increase in complaints about disputed internet charges between customers and their providers."
A free Sudoku iPhone app caused 10,000 ad images to be requested per hour over a 36 hour period, consuming more than 700MB of data in that time.
The Stagefright Android Media Player app, when the user only requested one YouTube video, downloaded 6.8GB worth of data over a 52 hour period, Amethon said.
Ericsson's Mobility Report, released this month, measured the impact of free (ad-supported) and paid versions of two "highly popular" Android game apps — one single player, one multi-player — on data usage, smartphone battery consumption and network access.
The report found that with the single player and multi-player games respectively, the premium version used 1.3kB and 12kB of data for a typical 10-15 minute game session but this shot up to 220kB and 140kB of data in the free apps.
The analysis did not examine the added traffic from clicking on the link in the advertisement.
"For the user, this background traffic could lead to extra charges, which could even exceed the cost of the premium version of the app," Ericsson found.
The report also found that with the single player game the premium version only accessed the network once while the free version in the same time frame polled the network 30 times. This "directly and negatively" impacted battery life.
"The advertisements in the free single-player game increased battery consumption by 25 percent compared with the premium version," the report found.
It added that the characteristics of the two game apps measured were not unique and other apps created a similar impact.
"In some cases you're better off shelling out $2 or $5 to buy a premium version of an app rather than sticking to the free version because this new research shows that the free version will chew through your data a lot more quickly and it's going to cost you a lot more than $2 or $5 when you go over your data limit," said Davidson.
Telcos have until September next year to start sending out usage alerts when customers reach 50, 85 and 100 per cent of their download quota but under the rules these notifications can be delayed by 48 hours.
Davidson said Telstra and Optus had already started sending alerts and encouraged other carriers to do the same.