Where have all the megabytes gone?

Modern tech is great.  Cellular networks and the Internet are like oxygen to us frequent travelers, especially people like me who work from the road.  I couldn’t do what I do without those two technologies in my Airstream.

The really amazing part of this is how quickly the capabilities of mobile tech improve. In 2003 we had no mobile Internet at all.  You had to find public wifi or haul a satellite dish around.  In 2005 we got one of the first cellular Internet data boxes on the market, as a loaner for evaluation.  It cost $3,000 and was the size of a dictionary.  When I went to rallies everyone wanted to borrow the signal.

Just a decade later we have devices the size of a pack of gum that give us Internet at speeds literally thousands of times faster.  We talk to our phones and think it’s no big deal that an artificial intelligence answers with a cogent response. And every serious Airstream traveler I meet has some form of this tech, so nobody thinks it’s worth borrowing anymore.

But there’s a big hairy downside to this, which is increased complexity.  If you don’t understand the implications of the new tech as it arrives—and some technological update arrives almost every day—you’re going to eventually get caught at the losing end of something you never saw coming.

I’m pretty tech savvy and it still happens to me regularly.  Apple, Microsoft, Verizon, and a million other players are constantly coming up with new stuff to make my life better, and most of the time it does, but at the same time it’s like someone changed the dance floor to an ice rink in mid-step.

Well, I can handle tech stuff, given some time. The human element is trickier. I’ll give you an example.

When we got on the road last May I noticed an amazing spike in the amount of data we were using.  We have a Verizon Jetpack like many other people, and I had bumped up the data allowance to 24 gigabytes (gb) per month, which is a lot.  The previous year we had gotten by on 6-8 gb per month, so I was feeling pretty smug about how we’d never have to worry about data usage again.

Strangely, before we even got to Alumapalooza in Ohio, half of our data allowance was gone.  The rest disappeared by the end of the billing cycle. I queried my fellow travelers but they denied responsibility.  I re-iterated the importance of not watching YouTube or other videos, and avoiding sites where video ads automatically load.

I pointed the finger particularly hard at Emma, since she’s a known bandwidth hog. Many teenagers these days use the Internet as a hangout, constantly interacting on social media, chat rooms, forums, even shared Google Docs—and Emma in particular is famous for having twenty to thirty tabs open simultaneously on her browser.  Her defense has always been that she avoids videos and doesn’t leave web pages open that might automatically refresh themselves (or have ads that refresh).

So I dug into the tech problem.  First, I made sure nobody else was using our wifi.  I’ve used the name “Airstream Life” for the wifi ID for years and it was possible a few other people had devices that would log onto our wifi automatically when they were nearby.

I also looked at usage logs, changed the password, checked all the laptops for applications that would automatically update themselves, and turned off or limited cloud services that automatically sync data (like iCloud, Dropbox, Google Drive, etc.)

What I found is a deck stacked against RVers who use cellular hotspots like Verizon Jetpack/Mifi devices.  There are many ways your laptop can be using data when you don’t know about it.  Some applications will automatically send data reports, synchronize files, or update themselves unless specifically told not to.  The problem here is that you’ve got to find them all.  There is no single setting that takes care of this, so the job requires a methodical approach, checking each application and service individually.

The other problem is that Apple has set up mobile operating system to update certain things when the phone or tablet is connected to wifi.  This means when your iPhone or iPad is sharing your hotspot, they think they have unlimited data and they begin to use it as such. So it’s a good idea to tell your iDevices to “forget” your hotspot.

I did all that and it didn’t help.

Last Friday Verizon notified me that 18 gb of our data plan had been eaten up by the Mifi in just two weeks.  At that rate I would run out of data in a week or so, and be unable to work, so this was serious.  I started digging through the computers, iPad and iPhones again in a frantic search for a clue as to where the data was going.

On Monday, Verizon informed me that another 4 gb had disappeared over the weekend.  I started physically turning off the Mifi whenever I wasn’t using it, but now the crisis I had feared was upon me.  I spent most of Monday at Panera Bread, nursing a chai tea latte and using their free wifi.

Then I found a useful app which helped me identify the problem.  It’s called Bandwidth+ and it’s free to Mac users on the App Store for free.  I highly recommend it.

Bandwidth app

It just sits in the top toolbar and shows you how much data you’ve used since reset.

I put Bandwidth+ on all the laptops this morning, and checked a few hours later. In four hours  … (wait a second.  Let me put that into Daddy-speak) … in four hours of working my fingers to the bone trying to provide a living for my family and put food on the table and save for a college education for my beloved daughter,  I used a grand total of 100 mb.  That’s not a lot.

Emma woke up at the crack of 10:30 a.m., promptly got on her laptop to check in on her virtual world, and in one hour she used 145 mb. In other words, she was consuming data at a rate almost six times as fast as her under-appreciated, hard-working Dad.

I also looked through the data usage logs with Verizon tech support and together we found several evenings between 9 pm and midnight when our usage exceeded two gigabytes.  (A gigabyte is 1,000 megabytes.)  That’s like eating the entire buffet table at a Las Vegas casino. You could stream a feature-length movie with two gigabytes.  Funny thing, though: those nights I wasn’t working late.

So the problem seems to be identified:  TEENAGER.

At this point there was only way to deal with the problem.  I bought another 6 gb from Verizon to get through the rest of the billing period and changed the wifi password.  If you are parked to an Airstream on the west coast sometime this month and you see a wifi signal called “Sorry Emma”, well, you’ll know why.

Modern day problems.  They’re different, but in the end, they’re the same.


  1. David B Johnson says

    Oh our beloved teenagers! I remember the days. In my teenage days it was gas and tires that we consumed at inordinate rates. Dad asked me to take a look at the new rear tires on the family car. They didn’t look too good. My sons think nothing of streaming a TV show or movie. Thanks for the tip on the bandwidth+ app. We have a jetpack for traveling in the Airstream. It’s great when we have a signal. I end up paying for a lot of video ads reading my “newspapers” on the internet. I guess gigabyte consumption is a modern problem.

  2. Bret G says

    I run 3 extensions to Firefox for the expressed purpose of not having video load. Flashblock, stops flash from running, period. Puts a play button up. If I want to play I can, or I can copy the link to Safari and play it there. StopTube stops all youtube videos from auto play, and lastly I run one called facebookpurity that stops all facebook ads from running, including video. The FBpurity app sometimes crashes my browser, but I find it worth he annoyance.

  3. insightout says

    Ahhh, the megabytes are in Pandora’s Box, as the technology revolution worsens. This is a macabre analogy, but maybe the 50 page manifesto and 18 terrorism years of Theodore Kaczynski are no longer fiction.

    Ok, sure, the Unabomber was a whack job, i.e., sending nail and mail devices to destroy professors and lumber lobbyists. However, if you could ever wade through even a small portion of his rant, he accurately predicted this future 20 years ago. Weird.

    Today, we received our Verizon bomb, $300. No nails, no explosion. Trouble is, my TEENAGER is 68 y/o. Sorry, my time is up.