Regular readers will be well aware of our attention to bill shock in all its forms. Whether it’s the fear of maxing out data caps or just the lack of understanding on how much data we consume in a given month, bill shock is an ongoing issue that we can’t seem to kill.
And now we find a new way that mobile users are getting fleeced. We’ve all experienced annoying web sites (CNN, NBC News and USA Today, we’re looking at you) that automatically play videos when you click on page. For laptop users, that’s mostly a nuisance if you happen to be working in a quiet office or somewhere like the library and a loud video starts playing before you can stop it. But anyone on a mobile device with a capped data plan will take exception to video autoplay because it’s eating into their bucket of data. This is especially true when on a cellular network.
With its automatic video streaming in its mobile app, Facebook has just incurred the wrath of smartphone users already skittish about exceeding their data plans. The issue was raised by UK consumer site MoneySavingExpert.com after receiving numerous complaints from Facebook mobile users who busted their data ceilings.
Whether Facebook is solely to blame for this particular brand of bill shock isn’t conclusive – there are most likely other apps and mobile sites that will autoplay data-hogging video – its sheer number of users makes it suspect #1.
Facebook claims its mobile videos don’t consume much data and only cause an issue if you watch the video instead of stopping it – which should be obvious to anyone – but its surreptitious video is part of a larger issue.
As we’ve discussed before, the average user simply has no idea how much data they are consuming. They don’t know how streaming a Breaking Bad episode through the Netflix mobile app will affect their data plan or if watching dozens of Ice Bucket Challenge videos on YouTube will bust their limit. Analyst and Internet monitoring site Sandvine has broken down the huge spike in video traffic since Facebook instituted video autoplay, and it’s not pretty. For mobile networks, Facebook traffic has increased 60 percent in the past year!
And that’s where mobile operators come in. Sure it’s great that Sprint has upped its pool of shared data in an attempt to siphon customers away from the competition, but whether you’re left with 1GB or 2GB of data doesn’t really mean much if you have no idea what you can get within those limits. One could argue that busted data caps are good business for the operators, and while that may be the case in the short term it mostly likely has far-reaching ramifications like customer churn and a poor reputation among users.
Facebook has not eliminated the autoplay option, and in fact has enhanced its use of video recently, but it and many other tech sites have posted easy-to-follow instructions to disable the feature. But many users will probably just sit through the videos and not take the time to stop them. Maybe that’s what Facebook and the operators are banking on, but if customers speak up by deleting the offending apps and demanding their provider be more proactive and transparent about individual usage then we can hope that will go a long way to making bill shock a thing of the past.
I worry that both fixed and mobile operators are privately delighted to have found this way of surreptitiously increasing their revenues and so have no incentive to make it easier for users to monitor their data usage. In the absence of some plausible verification that the charges are valid, I wonder if its even legal for them to charge for excess data. Are we to believe that we owe them this money just because they say so? At least the gas, electricity and water companies give us meters so we can independently that their charges are valid.
Since the operators are either unable or unwilling to tell their customers whether the data downloads were ‘Breaking Bad’ episodes or someone’s ice bucket video, the least they can do is to give their customers an easy way of seeing how much data they have downloaded to date under their plan and how much is left. At least then their customers would be able to make an in formed decision.