Facebook blamed for driving up cellphone bills, but it's not alone

An auto-play feature for videos on Facebook has been singled out for driving up cellphone bills, but it's not the only app that exhibits this behavior.

Wolf Gang via flickr

A default feature in Facebook’s mobile app that automatically launches videos in users’ newsfeeds has been blamed for devouring mobile phone users’ data and driving up their cellphone bills.

Consumer site MoneySavingExpert.com reported today that it has seen “many complaints” from users who believe a recent increase in data-related charges on their cellphone bills are the result of Facebook's auto-play feature. The default setting for the auto-play feature launches and continues to play videos silently until the user either scrolls past it or clicks on it; if the user does the latter, the video then goes full-screen and activates audio. The silent auto-play occurs regardless of whether users are connected to Wi-Fi, LTE, or 3G.

Although Facebook wouldn’t provide any other information to MoneySavingExpert other than that it began testing the auto-play feature last September, a TechCrunch post suggests that the feature was rolled out to users in December. By March, Facebook had launched the feature for video advertisements, inviting companies to pay for promoted videos that would silently auto-play in users’ newsfeeds.

One potential cause for a spike in data usage, as the article at MoneySavingExpert.com pointed out, is the recent ice bucket challenge trend, which has led to a deluge of 2.4 million new videos on Facebook since late July, the BBC reported yesterday. Ice bucket challenge videos have generated activity – from uploading to liking to commenting – from 28 million users, according to the BBC. That doesn't count the users who have watched the videos without liking, commenting, or uploading their own.

However, some of the complaints at MoneySavingExpert.com claim their cellphone bills explode as early as May, months before the ice bucket challenge had become a trend.

It’s likely that Facebook isn't entirely to blame for the issue, but rather, with the debut of its auto-play feature, threw gas on an already growing fire of video-sharing services.

Auto-play for video is a default setting on Instagram’s app, although the company refers to it as “preload." When users open the app, all the videos on their feeds load before they reach them so they can launch once they do. Instagram only introduced video last summer, after the Vine app, a Twitter-backed app that auto-plays and loops six-second videos, started to see significant growth.

In the first half of 2014, Instagram saw a 25% increase in usage, while Vine usage grew by 27%, according to a study released by GlobalWebIndex in May. The mobile app that saw the most growth in usage over that period was Snapchat, which also allows users to send and view videos over 3G and 4G wireless connections; Snapchat usage grew 67% in that period, according to the study.

So while Facebook’s auto-play feature is likely to have a hand in an epidemic of cellphone data overages, it’s just one culprit among many new mobile apps that are embracing video, all of which happen to be popular among teenagers, who aren't likely to know or care about how auto-play video features might affect their parents’ wallets.

Oh, and if you’re also worried about this, the MoneySavingExpert.com article provides instructions for disabling auto-play on Facebook for both iOS and Android devices. And here are Instagram’s instructions for setting the video preload feature to Wi-Fi-only.

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