The wireless carriers are finally going to take the shock out of bill shock. Unfortunately, that can still leave you with the bill.
Getting hit with extra fees for voice, texting, data or international roaming has always been a risk with wireless phones. The voluntary agreement almost all carriers announced last week to send free alerts to subscribers nearing and exceeding those monthly limits should eliminate surprise from that scenario.
But if you have to borrow friends' phones, or realize you have no choice but to eat the impending charges, the problem remains.
How bad are your risks of making a generous donation to your carrier? They depend on what type of service you're looking at, but in many cases they're lower than a lot of people think.
For example, voice overages should be rare by now. Plans with unlimited calls on nights and weekends and to other mobile phones have increased your supply of free minutes, while the rise of texting has reduced the demand for them. The wireless-industry trade association CTIA's numbers show that the average number of monthly voice minutes per subscriber dropped from 737 last summer to 682 this June.
Texting use, however, has exploded from an average of 60 a month in 2006 to 763 this year, according to CTIA. The problem there is that many people's texting plans haven't kept up; if you're on a pay-per-text plan or one that only covers 100 or 200 texts, you can easily start racking up charges.
Data can seem like the biggest risk of all, maybe because so many carriers have imposed caps on their wireless-broadband plans recently.
But most of us don't use much data. Nielsen's analysis of customer bills show that the average smartphone user only consumed 435 megabytes in the first quarter of 2011, the top 10 percent of those users still only racked up about a gigabyte a month, and only the top 3 percent would have exceeded the 2-GB quotas of AT&T and Verizon.
Why? Web browsing eats up little bandwidth, and Internet radio doesn't tax a connection much either. In my tests, Pandora drew 33 MB in an hour, while Spotify clocked in at 42 MB per hour. Video can have a bigger hit, with Netflix burning through 176 MB in an hour. But for serious damage, you have to tether the phone to a computer or rely on a wireless connection as your only Internet access, maybe because of the spotty availability of land-based broadband.
International roaming is the easiest way to incur overage fees, though. The trickle of bandwidth your phone needs to check for e-mail in the background can become a torrent of dollars at the ridiculous markups some carriers charge for data use overseas. You're safest to leave your phone in airplane mode when you get off the plane, then turn on only its Wi-Fi receiver.
So for many people, avoiding bill shock should consist of little more than checking text-messaging plans and keeping the phone off the air when out of the country. The new customer-notification regime the carriers agreed to — in part, to stave off regulations by the Federal Communications Commission — may help with that. Unfortunately, it won't affect what may be a more likely source of extra costs for smartphone users: runaway in-app purchases and outright fraud by app vendors.
Credit: Rob Pegoraro/Discovery