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Managing Our Bandwidth

Unless you’re one of the fortunate few who have an unlimited data plan, it’s likely you’re tied to a data plan with a fixed data cap, much like us. The downside is that you’ll find you need to be much more diligent in managing your usage, and the tools available today aren’t as user-friendly as they could be. And as you start to connect more devices to your access point, and take advantage of streaming music and movie services, it becomes REALLY easy to grind through your data cap, especially if you have a solid LTE connection.

Today, while traveling, we’re using a MiFi device from Millenicom, with a 20 GB/month data plan, as well as 2 iPhones with AT&T, each having a 3 GB/month data plan. As a details guy, the first thing I wanted to make sure I could do was manage the usage with as much detail as possible. As I researched options, I found there are a few decent tools available, but they all have their pros and cons. At the end of the day, they allow you to keep a rough eye on your usage so you don’t have any major surprises at the end of every month (or on a day-to-day basis).

As a quick contrast, we had a cable connection through Comcast in our last home, and we paid $70/month for our Internet connection. It was an “unlimited” plan, but as with almost all “unlimited” plans, it really wasn’t unlimited, as much as they just set a high cap which covered the majority of their customers (I believe it was 250 GB/month of usage before they’d start throttling you). Either way, our average monthly usage was about 125 GB, and that was with us not being concerned at all about usage. In fact, the first and last time I checked the usage was right before we canceled the account.

Today, monitoring the data usage on our phones is easy, as AT&T’s own app runs directly on the phones themselves, so monitoring is simple and straight-forward.

Monitoring the usage on our MiFi was originally a challenge – but I’ve found a few methods that help me keep tabs on that 20 GB every month. Here’s everything I’ve learned so far:

What We Do

We use a combination of Millenicom’s support team and Verizon’s account management tools to keep current on our usage.

MILLENICOM SUPPORT

Although Millenicom doesn’t offer any online tools (currently) to check your data usage, you can submit a support ticket through their support site and request your current usage stats. They generally reply within the same day, and they’ll tell you your current usage as of the current date (e.g. Your usage is 3.18GB as of 1/21/13).

Create and manage your account here if you haven’t already:
Millenicom Support

VERIZON ACCOUNT TOOLS

I’m not a Verizon customer (for anything), but as a Millenicom customer, I’m using Verizon hardware that Millenicom is reselling. Therefore, within the internals of Verizon, I have an account, as they still have to associate the hardware with their systems so it will work on their network. As such, it’s possible for you to create a basic account with Verizon using some information from your MiFi device – and within your account, there is a view that shows you your bandwidth usage for your device. The process is a little techy, but straight-forward.

If you are already a Verizon customer (either with your phone service or if you purchased your MiFi directly through Verizon, you won’t need to do this, as you should already have an account).

As a quick note, I’m using a Verizon JetPack (Novatel) 4G LTE 4620L MiFi device, which is what Millenicom sells with their 3G/4G Hotspot plan for $70/month. You can do everything you need to do by interacting with the controls on the MiFi itself – but I believe older versions of the device require you to connect it to your computer via USB cable and use Verizon’s software tools to get the info you’ll need.

To create your Verizon account, you’ll want to do the following:

  1. Turn on your MiFi, and navigate to the “Info” pane on the screen, and select it.
  2. The next screen should show you some information about your device, but what we want is the MDN number – this is essentially a phone number, which ties your device to Verizon’s network.
  3. Write the MDN number down, and then switch to a computer, and browse on over to Verizon’s wireless site to register a new account.
  4. Proceed through that steps on the site as prompted, using your MDN number as your phone number.
  5. You shouldn’t need to enter the billing password, as you won’t have one.
  6. Once registration is just about complete, the system will send a confirmation code, via text message, to the phone number you entered. Fortunately, the MiFi device can receive text messages, and if you look at your MiFi again, and navigate to the “Messages” pane (looks like an envelope) you should see the message that was sent. It should be instant, but may take a minute.
  7. Take that code and enter back on the site where prompted to complete your registration.
  8. You should now have a Verizon account that you can log into as desired.

Now that you have an account, you should be able to log in and see your usage. Because you aren’t a direct Verizon customer, there will be a lot of information not available to you, but all we care about at this point is seeing the data usage monitor, which is the only thing I look at when I log in.

Quick notes: The usage number is on a rolling 12 hours I believe, so keep that in mind, and although it will state a value out of “Unlimited” you do have whatever limit your Millenicom account provides (in our case, it’s 20 GB).

I’ve compared the usage as reported by Verizon and as reported by Millenicom support, and they’ve been spot-on, with slight differences depending on the time I made the requests etc.

Software Tools

There are a number of software tools available for just about every platform, including mobile devices. The challenge is that you’ll need to install software on every device that’s using your connection in order to get an accurate picture of your overall usage. Ideally, you’d like to monitor the total usage that your MiFi device itself is using, regardless of how many devices are connected to it. Therein lies the challenge, as most tools are temporal, where they will only monitor your usage for the current session. The device itself will tell you what you’re using, but as soon as you turn it off or reboot it, the usage counter will reset. The same goes for tools you can use on a computer – once you reboot the system, most will also restart their stats.

So this is where diligence really comes into play, if you’re REALLY particular about every data packet that’s being transmitted. For me, it isn’t worth the hassle to micromanage the small bits. Having a general idea, and following some of the general guidelines outlined below, has allowed us to manage our bandwidth every month, with a bit of a surplus for splurging on a streaming movie or two.

Either way, here are the software tools I’ve found to be the most usable and reliable – they will only allow you to monitor the data usage on the computer they are installed on, so keep that in mind:

FOR MAC OS X

SurplusMeter is a nice utility with a nice interface, and it’s a free tool. I found I had problems using it when I upgraded to OS X Mountain Lion, but your mileage may vary.

MenuMeters works great for an at-a-glance reference, and you can see how much data is being downloaded/uploaded, but the traffic totals will only be valuable if you keep your machine up and running.

PeakHour is an inexpensive ($1.99) app that I haven’t tried yet, but it looks and sounds promising. They are working on a 2.0 version of the app, so I’m waiting for that release before I look into it.

FOR WINDOWS

Disclaimer: We’re a Mac house, holla! Unfortunately (?) I no longer own any Windows-based computers, but these are the tools I’ve found most recommended based on forum discussions and reviews. It turns out there are a BOAT LOAD of options for Windows users — “Hey, Google!” — so here are a few to start:

AnalogX Netstat Live

NetWorx

NetGuard

FOR ANDROID DEVICES

Onavo Count

Network Monitor Mini

My Data Manager

Our Findings & General Guidelines

Monitoring data usage when you have a data cap requires you to be diligent with its use. The best way to do this is to have an idea of how much data you use for various activities. We’ve found these to be the biggest hogs:

  • Netflix Movies — according to Netflix’s Manage Your Bandwidth page, they offer 3 settings for movie quality, with “Best” using up to 1 GB per hour or up to 2.8 GB per hour if watching HD. In the US, “Best” is the default setting, so if you happen to have a solid 4G connection, it’ll be easy to burn through a quarter of your data plan in one day with one movie. If you’re a Netflix customer, you can manage the video quality setting within your account.
  • Amazon, Hulu, YouTube et al — Streaming movie/video services will all have a similar data requirement, and they’ll take advantage of the best connection they can give you to provide you with the best experience. If you have a solid connection, odds are high that every video clip or movie you watch is using the highest quality bandwidth you can provide – which will add up quick.
  • Streaming Music — Similar to movies, streaming music will take advantage of the best connection it can get to provide the best experience. If you stream a lot of music, you’re using a sizeable amount of data. I use a premium Spotify account for all of my tunes, and when I have a good, free, Wi-Fi connection somewhere, I sync all of my music for offline use. Then I never have to worry about streaming music, as it all plays locally.
  • Large Photos — If you blog or share photos with other services (i.e. Facebook or via email), you’ll want to make sure you resize them accordingly before transferring them. If you use them in their original format, and you are taking hi-res shots, you could easily transfer hundreds of MB’s every time you share them out.
  • Software Updates — Be sure none of your computers are set to download and install updates automatically. They will poll their update servers on a regular basis, and if there are any large updates, the computer will download them in the background while you’re busy doing other things. It’s a really easy way to use a lot of data without realizing it, especially if you run into an update with large files. I had a group of system updates at one point that totaled about 5.5 GB. Do your updates manually when you can take advantage of a free connection.
  • Xbox & Online Gaming — This may not pertain to many people, and it’s a rare treat when my boys get to play, but multiplayer games online, in our experience, use about 1 MB / hour of data. Not a huge amount, but it all counts in the end.
  • General Web Browsing & Email — For the most part, these activities are almost negligible compared to those above. If all you do is browse the web and use email, you should have no problems managing 20 GB of data every month :)
  • Mindless Usage — In this day and age, it’s really easy, and tempting, to grab a device that’s close by and start browsing online – for any reason, just because. When you’re bored, or think of something you want to look up, or research, or double check…and from there it’s easy to start mindlessly clicking on funny videos and images and links that friends have shared and before you know it, you’ve killed an hour doing – something – online.
  • As a general rule, I manage which devices connect to our MiFi, as I’m the only one with the password, and it’s primarily reserved for my work (1st priority) and school-related work (2nd priority). Our kids don’t get to have free-reign access to it, so monitoring usage has become much easier. If there’s a surplus at the end of the month, we’ll stream some movies or documentaries.
  • Ensure you’re using a WPA2 (Wireless Protection Access 2) passcode on your device, instead of one based on WEP (Wireless Encryption Protocol). WEP is an older and less secure protocol, and nowadays it’s rather easy for malicious folks to take advantage of your wi-fi connection for their own purposes (and using your data in the process). WPA2 is much more secure, and if you have the option, select it over standard WEP.

In the end, if you can keep an eye on your usage by checking it every week, using the methods we use, you should be able manage your usage so you aren’t incurring overage fees every month. One small bonus with Millenicom is that their 20 GB data cap is a soft cap, and they don’t charge overage fees. They’ll start throttling your connection if you abuse it, but if you’re over a little at the end of the month, you’re not going to pay for that little extra in overage costs.

If you have any questions or if any of the info could use some updating, feel free to drop me a line!

6 replies on “Managing Our Bandwidth”

Hey, thanks for the article (followed over from Facebook, Fulltime Families). We could use some advice. We currently have Verizon’s old unlimited data plan on our cell phones. I need a new smartphone and to upgrade Verizon wants us to drop our current plan and go over to their shared plan. I’m thinking that’s not such a wise move. Here’s the deal. We currently have wi-fi signal where we are, so our phones don’t get too much data use. However, we expect our upcoming travels will put us into “no wi-fi zones”. Do you know if we would be able to use our smartphones as hotspots and feed off our unlimited plan? We seem to be getting mixed messages from Verizon reps. Thanks for any suggestions!

Hey Karen,

Odds are high that you’ll be able to take advantage of your phones data plan and use it as a hotspot – if you happen to have an Android-based phone, check out this link: http://blogs.computerworld.com/smartphones/20726/android-wifi-hotspot

If you happen to have a Verizon-issued iPhone, you can look into their procedure outlined here:
http://support.verizonwireless.com/clc/devices/knowledge_base.html?id=47708#6x

Hope that helps!

Regards,
Jason

Hey Suzanne,

You are correct, and it’s been great…no issues, and a definite bump in reception :)

Regards,
Jason

Excellent article that I intend to share with others. We are scheduled to hit the road this summer and internet is a high priority. It seems “everyone” likes Millenicom. If they are a reseller, I wonder why Verizon doesn’t have a comparable service…you know, cut out the middle man.

Hey Jeff,

Thanks for the comment, and Millenicom has been great so far…I think they’re a popular option because of cost and bandwidth limits (which are reasonable), they don’t have overage fees, and the limits are what some consider “soft” – as long as you don’t abuse it, you’ll be fine.

And Verizon actually does have a similar plan, but the price is a bit higher, and I believe they have overage fees. I’m presuming the reason resellers like Millenicom can offer what they do, is that they assume all customer and technical support responsibilities, as you become a Millenicom customer, not a Verizon customer – they probably split costs when it comes to support vs. hardware vs. connectivity.

Either way, I can’t complain…service has been great!

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