Scared of iPhone 3G overages? Here's what to do

There are several simple ways to avoid exceeding your cellular data limits; try them before buying a pricey tool

It didn't take long for mobile management vendors to start scaring businesses about potentially huge overage charges that employees could incur now that AT&T and other carriers have stopped offering unlimited 3G data plans to new customers. But chances are that most organizations don't need to buy a pricey mobile management tool to monitor their 3G usage.

The iPhone and iPad both come with tools that do much of the work for you. Before you panic and buy a mobile management tool you don't need, try these options first.

[ Find out how to say yes to (almost) any smartphone in your business with InfoWorld's guide. | Learn what the Apple iPhone Configuration Utility can do for you. ]

1. Turn Wi-Fi on. The iPhone and iPad automatically switch from 3G to Wi-Fi when a known Wi-Fi access point is in range. For some time now, the iOS (the new name for the iPhone OS) has managed the Wi-Fi radio very intelligently, so it doesn't burn through your battery life looking for hot spots or when in range of a Wi-Fi access point. That means you can leave Wi-Fi on and forget it; do so in the Settings app on your device.

2. Use your free Wi-Fi when traveling. Also, if you're at AT&T customer, you get free access to AT&T's Wi-Fi hot spot network in the United States, which includes many Starbucks and McDonald's locations. As of iPhone OS 3.0, you don't even need to log in; the network recognzies iPhones and logs them in automatically. Meanwhile, other carriers include Wi-Fi service in their home countries as well as part of the iPhone subscription plan.

And you can get free Wi-Fi at many locations, including the Phoenix, San Diego, and Seattle airports; at Apple Stores; and in many New York City parks, just to name a few. Scan the areas where you travel and connect to these; your iPhone and iPad will reconnect automatically the next time you're in range. (To disable the feature, tap the triangle icon to the right of the network name, then tap the Forget This Network button in the network details pane that appears.) Note that if you use an Android smartphone or a BlackBerry, they can also be set to autoconnect to known Wi-Fi networks.

Just watch out for those phishing Wi-Fi devices meant to steal your credentials (usually labeled "Free Public WiFi"); the iPhone doesn't alert you to them as the Mac OS does with a special icon. If you go to the network details pane, you'll see that the "access point" has no Internet connection and is either a phishing device or an overloaded or improperly configured Wi-Fi device because its IP address begins with 169.

3. Secure your connections. If security is an issue, configure the iPhone or iPad accordingly. The devices support VPNs (set them up in the Settings app), so traveling employees using public hot spots can safely connect. Likewise, be sure to turn on SSL at your mail server, and if using Microsoft Exchange or corporate Gmail, set up ActiveSync security policies such as remote wipe and on-device encryption.

You can also restrict users to specific Wi-Fi networks, using the free iPhone Configuration Utility. Its Wi-Fi pane provides a ton of controls over required protocols, authentication, and the like. A tip: You can set multiple approved Wi-Fi access points; just click the plus (+) icon in the upper right of the pane to add a new network. You can distribute the configuration profiles via email or a Web page.

4. Understand the data usage tiers. AT&T's new data pricing no longer has an unlimited usage option, but that doesn't mean you'll be paying unrestricted amounts by the megabyte or even kilobyte once those limits are exceeded, as is the case with voice minutes. For example, if your iPhone has the $25-per-month 2GB data plan and you exceed 2GB of usage, you are charged $10 for an additional 1GB. That's not trivial, but it's also not a bank-breaker. (Tethering costs $20 per month extra.)

Likewise, exceeding the allotment on an iPad pay-as-you-go plan buys another tranche of data if usage exceeds what you already paid for. Again, many carriers outside the United States are taking a similar approach. For laptops, Virgin Mobile USA offers a USB 3G radio that has reasonably priced pay-as-you-go options similar to AT&T's iPad plans; if you exceed your 3G usage, it simply won't connect to anything other than the Virgin Mobile account page from which you can buy another data tranche.

5. Prepare for travel abroad. Where you're liable for exorbitant charges is when you bring your device outside the country and end up paying excruciatingly high international data roaming charges. As I've described previously, you have a few choices:

  • Turn off the cellular radio (switch to Airplane Mode in your Settings app) and rely on Wi-Fi. You can get inexpensive Wi-Fi hot spot roaming throughout the world using a service such as Boingo Wireless.
  • If you have an unlocked iPhone, get a local pay-as-you go data plan and a local 3G SIM card. Rates are usually much cheaper than international roaming charges, but be careful when ordering such services over the Internet, especially ones offering multicountry roaming. They're often no cheaper than what AT&T charges for international roaming, once you include their SIM card fee, shipping charges, connection charges, limited amounts of included bytes, and the like. It's best to get these services in the country you're visiting, after researching the options online for each of that country's carriers.
  • If you have a locked iPhone (the only option if you buy the iPhone from AT&T and Apple in the U.S.), your only option for 3G data roaming is to get one of AT&T's World Traveler add-on packages, which cost between $25 for 20MB to $200 for 200MB per month (you can cancel at any time).

6. Look at mobile expense management tools. If your organization is large and has lots of people bopping about, the techniques described so far may rely too much on manual operations and good behavior (such as counting on employees to use airplane mode abroad). You might consider using a mobile expense management tool such as Tangoe and Visage Mobile.

But beware: Most of these tools and services rely on alerting you (and sometimes the employee) after or when a policy threshold has been reached, so you may not have the information until it's too late to prevent the overage charge you're trying to avoid. You may get equivalent or even better results if you tell employees up front that they're responsible for any overages they incur and give them the basic outlines of how to avoid them in the first place.

In addition, many of these tools are designed for laptops and have limited capabilities on smartphones; iPass is an example of such a laptop-oriented mobile management tool. Their capabilities also can differ widely across smartphone models. Pin down the provider as to exactly what the tool can do for each device you have or are considering, and don't expect that detail to be displayed at the provider's Website.

These expense management tools make sense if they save you more money than they cost to deploy and manage -- which usually means they're really just for very large organizations with lots of mobile workers.

This article, "Scared of iPhone 3G overages? Here's what to do," was originally published at InfoWorld.com. Read more of Gruman et al.'s Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile computing at InfoWorld.com.

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