WiFi data vs. Cell data. How to save big and come out on top.

This past weekend I was hanging out with my parents at the beach. My step dad, who uses the big red carrier that shall not be named, got this text message:


“Why do I keep getting these texts,” he shouted! “All I do is check Facebook and read my email,” he proclaimed. “Why do I keep getting charged for phone data?!”

It was the phrase “phone data” that particularly caught my ear.  “Well when are you checking Facebook and your email? Is it mostly when you’re around WiFi or when you’re around cell,” I asked. He just stared at me blankly.salsa1_text

“I have WiFi back at the house, but why are you asking me that? What does that have to do with my phone data,” he asked. My mind was blown.

Working at Republic, it can be very easy to get caught up in the day-to-day, WiFi-First world. It’s easy to forget that others, even my own stepfather, don’t know the difference between WiFi data and cell data, or more to the point, the lack of a difference.

I then explained to him: “Well, data is data. It is used whenever you post something to Facebook, stream a song, or download and read an email.  However, you have a choice of when to use that data. You can use it out here on this ferry boat we’re riding, which uses the cell towers around you to access that data, OR, you can use WiFi like you have back at the house to access that data. One causes you to get a nasty text message from big red with a crazy $15 per 250MB fee. One doesn’t.” You could see his eyes get bigger. He quickly stopped playing the video he was watching on his Facebook news feed.

“So then, do you know about background data,” I asked. You could see the confusion washing over him, which is totally understandable. I didn’t know about background data until I started working here either. To put it simply:

  • Background data is data that is used behind the scenes by apps and the Android OS. This can also include data from actions you are aware of such as playing Spotify or downloading email messages.
  • Foreground data is data that you deliberately use – streaming videos, songs, downloading a new app, etc.

So, lots of apps on your phone use background data even when you’re not using the app. Sometimes this can be helpful for notifications, etc. But then, apps like Facebook looooooooooove to preload and autoplay videos in your news feed you may not even care to watch. Those apps that use data in the background should be working for you – not the other way around!

I then let my step dad know that it’s totally fine to check his Facebook if he wants while out and about to pass the time. But was willing to bet he hadn’t turned that background data off for Facebook. On an Android phone, if you go into settings, tap “Data usage”, and then tap the Facebook app icon, you can then select “Restrict app background data.” Then, just to be totally sure, I went into the settings in the actual Facebook app too (found under “More” after you open the Facebook app), unchecked “autoplay videos” and set it to “WiFi only” and voila: Now his Facebook app isn’t eating into his cell data unless he is consciously using the Facebook app. Of course, if my stepfather had Republic service, we’d take care of some of that for him (shameless plug, shameless plug 🙂 ).



For those curious about how the Republic app handles background data – no worries. You are never billed for cell data used by the Republic Wireless apps (account management, calling, texting, etc). You are billed for any other cell data that your phone uses. But we’ve got plenty of tips for turning that off, here.

As some folks in our Community have mentioned, turning off background data in the native Android settings is a surefire way to eliminate background data. We don’t recommend that because it’s a big part of what keeps your phone functioning as designed. You can, however, control background data app-by-app through Android settings under “Data usage”. This is handy for apps like Chrome, Facebook, Twitter, Instagram & Snapchat that you want using data, but only when you’re actually using the app. (Note: Notifications for any apps you turn off background data for will not work over cell in this case. You will get them when you are back on WiFi or if you open the app. In addition, streaming apps, like Pandora & Spotify, won’t stream in the background while on cell with background data turned off.)

Your phone also keeps count of “data used” in a few different places. The only one that counts for your bill is the cell usage number in the Republic App. You can use these instructions to see cell usage for your phone.

So, back to the beach story. Later that night, back at the house, my step dad caught me chilling on the couch, watching a video on my phone. Proudly he said:  “That’s not counting against you because you’re using WiFi to watch that video, right?!” Nailed it! Now he knows how to save a little more each month and avoid those scary overage texts from his carrier.

We’ve also put together tons of WiFi tips over on our WiFi Smarts page – good for any phone on any carrier – not just Republic. Take a peek and add your own suggestions for how you’ve saved more offloading data to WiFi when available. We love helping people save, even if they are on the big red carrier that shall not be named… Our new WiFi concierge service is here to help with step-by-step guidance too, if you need it. Enjoy!

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16 thoughts on “WiFi data vs. Cell data. How to save big and come out on top.”

  1. You are using the same phrase for He who must not be named from Harry Potter. Pretty kewl. Makes me wonder if you are a Harry Potter fan?

  2. $15 for 250 Mb is outrageous. They seem To be preying on those with less knowledge. Shame on them.

    I never did like the color red.

    1. One of the many reasons I left verizon was it’s billing for “overage”. The charges were always outrageous, which just promoted a call to “customer service”, which always ended in having to buy a more expensive phone plan. It’s what they do, by design. NOTHING is straight forward with verizon.There is always an “additional charge”, a trick and a catch.

  3. Cool idea. Could you add an option for disabling sites loading of gifs / videos and other content that is particularly heavy on data while while on a cell network?

      1. Agreed. It easily gobbled up 20 MB after a single day, which is fine on wifi, but not so much when using cell data. That’s a typical complaint for other similar apps too. It’s nice when the developers at least provide a way to adjust the settings.

  4. So much for the unlimited talk, text and data. I was tricked into buying this expensive, carrier-specific phone thinking that I wouldn’t have to worry about additional charges. I am now stuck, due to a bait and switch.

    1. So true. Same experience. The phones are essentially RW only. I am actually in process of upgrading to Moto X 2014 unlocked version. Prematurely upgrading from Moto X. T-Mobile is my next best bet. No overages at least there. Awesome prepaid plan for $30 with good data.

  5. You might want to check your particular app. The twitter client I use, Talon, has pretty granular settings, including to disable sync, pre-fetching of data etc when you’re not on wifi. The Chrome browser, otoh, doesn’t seem to have any such settings…

    Edit: Chrome does allow disabling images, under settings / site settings / images. It’s still a pain, since there’s no option to then display images on a case by case basis.

      1. Agreed. It easily gobbled up 20 MB after a single day, which is fine on wifi, but not so much when using cell data. That’s a typical complaint for other similar apps too. It’s nice when the developers at least provide a way to adjust the settings.

  6. You still didn’t explain WiFi Data vs Cell Data and why RW charges you for WiFi Data. I mean, it’s your WiFi that you have with a different type of service provider (ISP). So how does it relate to RW? Doesn’t make sense or I don’t understand what they charge for.

    1. Hey! We do not charge for WiFi data – it’s unlimited access no matter what plan you are on. We only charge for cell data.

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