Is Apple’s Wi-Fi Assist Feature Eating Into Your Mobile Data?

Apple’s iOS 9 was launched last month alongside the new iPhone 6S and 6S Plus. As the latest iteration of the tech giant’s flagship operating system it offered a number of exciting upgrades that were widely praised by Apple’s dedicated fan base. With a new improved Siri, enhanced proactive search, support for split-screen and multitasking, and a map feature that actually works…well, you really couldn’t ask for anything more in an operating system upgrade. But buried amidst all of the new features was Apple’s patented Wi-Fi Assist, an app designed to ensure that wherever you are you never lose a signal when you’re surfing the web on your tablet or smartphone. Genius, right? If a wi-fi connection is too threadbare to support your internet connection your iPhone instinctively switches to 3G or 4G mode and, hey presto, you’re good to go. Ah, but there’s the inevitable catch.

Burning Through Data Limits

Apple’s Wi-Fi Assist was designed to ensure smoother internet access for iPhone and iPad users by quietly, and unobtrusively, switching between hotspots and mobile data. For example, if you’re using Siri to search for something on the internet, and your device determines that the local wi-fi connection is inadequate to the task, it will automatically connect you via your 3G or 4G mobile network. On the upside, you’re immediately connected to the internet and the response to your search is delivered quickly and smoothly. Unfortunately, it also means that you may be using up a portion of your data limit without ever realizing what that internet search is costing you. Thousands of Apple fans have found this out the hard way, burning through their monthly data allowance and watching their phone bills balloon in the process.

The Inevitable Backlash

Apple users may have an ongoing love affair with their favourite tech firm, but they’re definitely not hesitant about voicing their opinions when they feel they’ve been let down by the company. Once iOS 9 had started to make its way to the public, and early adopters began to notice that they were burning through their data allowances, Apple users took to social media to air their grievances. The general consensus was that Apple had not fully explained the possible consequences of the Wi-Fi Assist feature, and as a default feature in iOS 9 it put users at a greater risk for going over their limits and incurring unexpected fees and penalties. The controversy over Apple’s Wi-Fi Assist has gotten so heated, that a class action suit has been filed in the United States, asking in excess of £5 million in damages. It may be a frivolous lawsuit on its face, but it is the kind of media attention that a firm like Apple would prefer to avoid.

Apple’s Response

While Apple has not formally responded to the lawsuit, they have issued a statement insisting that for most users the increase in cellular data “should only be a small percentage higher than their previous usage”. They also point out that Wi-Fi assist can easily be disabled by going into the iPhone or iPad’s settings menu, selecting ‘cellular’ and scrolling down to ‘Wi-Fi Assist’ where the feature can be turned off with a simple click. Industry insiders have also been quick to defend Apple, pointing out that Wi-Fi Assist may not be the underlying culprit when it comes to exceeding data limits. In fact, Wi-Fi Assist merely highlights an ongoing problem with all mobile devices. In short, it is the vast array of apps on any given device that are burning through the user’s cellular data. Apple fans can take advantage of the convenience of Wi-Fi Assist and still keep their data usage under control simply by restricting which apps are cleared to use their 3G or 4G data networks. Data hungry apps, particular those that are used for streaming audio and video content, should be limited to wi-fi connectivity only. This can easily be handled via the device’s settings menu, and will result in an overall improvement in the user’s data usage.

Apple has had a rough time of it over the last couple of months. Their app store has been infected with malware (twice), and their promise of extended battery life for devices running iOS 9 has failed to fully deliver. Still, Apple’s brand has yet to suffer any real damage. Complaints about the Wi-Fi Assist feature may be ill-timed, but they also appear to baseless and ill-informed. The American lawsuit notwithstanding, Apple’s Wi-Fi Assist remains one of the more useful upgrades in the new iOS 9 operating system.

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