A complete breakdown of iOS 6′s new Wi-Fi Plus Cellular feature

By , Aug 10, 2012

As we told you yesterday, Apple has incorporated a new Wi-Fi Plus Cellular option in iOS 6 beta 4. This new setting allows apps to use cellular data when there are issues with the Wi-Fi connection.

You can find the Wi-Fi Plus Cellular toggle in the General > Cellular panel, which is within the Settings app.

Once iOS 6 is formally released to the public, should you enable this option? Is there a risk involved when it comes to racking up extra cellular data charges with your wireless provider? We’ll answer these, and other questions inside…

First and foremost, let’s get a clear understanding of the basic premise behind the problem that the Wi-Fi Plus Cellular feature is trying to solve.

What’s the issue?

The primary scenario that will engage the Wi-Fi Plus Cellular feature, is when your device is properly connected to a Wi-Fi connection, but the service behind the Wi-Fi connection is experiencing issues.

A great way to simulate this is to unplug the ethernet cable from the router that’s coming from your Internet connection (i.e. Cable or DSL modem). In iOS firmware prior to iOS 6 beta 4, your iPhone would have no idea that something was wrong. The Wi-Fi signal indicator located in the status bar will still show a great Wi-Fi signal, but when you try to do anything that requires an Internet connection it hangs.

Amber light on the AirPort Extreme indicating an Internet connectivity issue

Your computer, or virtually any other Wi-Fi enabled device behaves the same way. It thinks the connection is okay, because the Wi-Fi connection is present and strong, but in all actuality the Wi-Fi router isn’t getting a valid connection from the modem, which is what provides the Internet connection to begin with.

Think of your Wi-Fi connection (router) as a middle man. If it doesn’t receive the product (in this case, the Internet connection from the modem provided by AT&T, Verizon, Comcast, etc), then it has nothing to give to the customer (your computer, phone, refrigerator, or any other device that relies on Wi-Fi connectivity).

Mobile phones have an advantage

Unlike most computers, set top boxes, radios, and anything else that relies on Wi-Fi, mobile phones have a distinct advantage. They have a “backup” plan — the cellular connection. Mobile phones can easily tap into this connection to remain online, and they usually do so automatically.

A mobile phone’s big advantage [Image Credit: EEbeat]

That’s exactly what happens when you leave your home, your favorite coffee shop, or anywhere else where you used a Wi-Fi connection. Once you leave the Wi-Fi coverage area, it disconnects from Wi-Fi, and your phone seamlessly switches over to cellular service, provided you have one.

All of this happens without us even thinking twice about it. When you leave a Wi-Fi enabled area, you aren’t worried, because you know you can rely on the cellular connection.

No man’s land

But what about the grey area that we mentioned earlier. What if your device shows a good Wi-Fi connection, but the actual Internet connection rationed out by the Wi-Fi router is no good?

In those cases, we already know that devices like set top boxes, many computers, and other Wi-Fi reliant products are essentially dead in the water. They may show that they have a good Internet connection, but until the issue between the modem and the Wi-Fi router gets cleared up, those devices are going nowhere fast.

As we just discussed, mobile phones have an inherent advantage when faced with this scenario — their cellular data connection. Unfortunately, many phones, including the iPhone prior to iOS 6 beta 4, weren’t smart enough to recognize the need to switch to their “backup” plan when encountering this situation.

That’s exactly what the new Wi-Fi Plus Cellular feature is. It’s a backup plan for the occasions when you encounter this “no man’s land” scenario.

Real world usage

In which situation will you actually need to use Wi-Fi Plus Cellular? Well, we already outlined one primary scenario — when your Internet provider encounters a hiccup, and it fails to provide a valid Internet connection to your Wi-Fi router.

Another scenario where Wi-Fi Plus Cellular may eventually come into play, is one that we all encounter a little more often; that grey area that occurs when we’re leaving the house or the coffee shop, and we’re still connected to Wi-Fi. We might still be technically connected to Wi-Fi, but the signal is so faint, that we might as well not be connected at all. This probably happens more often than you realize, but it has little impact on our usage due to caching, and other factors.

I’m sure that there are other situations where this feature could be of benefit to the user, but those are the primary ones I could come up with at the moment.

What about my data?

If you’re not on an unlimited data plan — and who are we kidding, as time goes on chances are you aren’t — then you only have a certain amount of cellular data allocated to you each month. Going over this allocation can result in excessive usage fees, or overage charges. For that reason, the concern over the potential data usage impact that Wi-Fi Plus Cellular brings to the table makes sense.

Minimal data usage using after trying to load a YouTube video and Netflix

The good thing about Wi-Fi Plus Cellular, is that Apple seems to have thought this through to an in-depth degree. In other words, Wi-Fi Plus Cellular does what it is supposed to do — pick up the slack when your Wi-Fi connection isn’t actually connected to the Internet — but it tries hard not to leave you financially vulnerable in the process.

On Wi-Fi Plus Cellular, large apps are a no go

With this in mind, only some iPhone functionality is allowed to use the cellular connection when in “backup” mode. That way, you’re not downloading some 1 GB app, all the while thinking that you’re connected to Wi-Fi. The results of such a thing could be pretty disastrous at the end of the month when you receive your data bill.

Spotify is a small app, so the download works fine using Wi-Fi Plus Cellular

With this in mind, Apple has implemented quite a few restrictions when it comes to Wi-Fi Plus Cellular Usage. I highlight some of those restrictions and allowances below that I’ve ran into.

  • You can download apps < 50MB, but you cannot download apps > 50MB
  • You cannot use streaming (Netflix, Spotify, iTunes previews, etc.)
  • You cannot browse the web with 3rd party browsers (Google Chrome, Opera, etc.)
  • You can use web views within 3rd party apps
  • You can visit YouTube.com, but you cannot play videos
  • You can use iMessage
  • You can send/receive and sync email, even non-iCloud email
  • You can initiate iTunes match, but you cannot stream/download music
  • You can use iCloud syncing for Notes, Reminders, Calendar, etc
  • You can sync 3rd party apps like Reeder
  • You can use Maps, 3D Maps, and Navigation

You can load the YouTube website, but playing actual content doesn’t work

FaceTime

Controversially, FaceTime is not available to use via cellular, even though the settings and infrastructure exists in iOS 6 to allow it. When you try to initiate a FaceTime call via cellular, you’re hit with a pop-up window that tells you to contact AT&T to enable the feature on your account. Whether or not AT&T will charge for FaceTime over cellular, remains to be seen.

Safari works well via Wi-Fi Plus Cellular, but not so much with Chrome

Interestingly, though, I was able to get a call to come through using Wi-Fi Plus Cellular. This allowed me to bypass AT&T’s pop up, and make the call. I could also receive calls. Unfortunately, once I tapped answer, the call just hung, and I wasn’t able to fully establish the connection. The fact that I was actually able to send and receive a call, does hold the promise that Wi-Fi Plus Cellular will work for FaceTime calls like it does for other areas. Of course, the providers may still force you to pay extra for it.

Additional Options?

Under the Wi-Fi Plus Cellular toggle in General > Cellular in the Settings app, you’ll notice a “Use Cellular Data for” option. At first this appears to be an extension of the Wi-Fi Plus Cellular option, but after some testing with iCloud Document Syncing and the like, I’ve determined that this is not the case, at least not in iOS 6 beta 4.

I was, however, able to sync iCloud Documents and Reading List. Oddly enough, regardless of whether or not the toggle was set to Off or On, I was able to sync both ways using Wi-Fi Plus Cellular, and even normal cellular data by itself without Wi-Fi enabled. Something tells me that this option, while present, is not enabled or functioning as it will in the future.

The conclusion of the matter

Wi-Fi Plus Cellular isn’t a feature that’s going to change your life. In fact, the average person will probably never realize when their iPhone is taking advantage of the feature. With the restrictions mentioned above, Apple has gone a long way to protect the consumer, while at the same time providing a more seamless and cohesive experience.

Netflix content simply won’t load

It will be interesting to see how it all plays out, and whether or not Apple will enable the option by default for new iOS 6 installs. We’ll be keeping a close eye on the Wi-Fi Plus Cellular feature, and noting any significant changes to its methodology.

In the meantime, let us know what you think about it. Is it something that you plan on using when iOS 6 is publicly released? How do you think the average customer will fare with it? Please share your thoughts in the comments below.

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  • Alex Blaha

    I find it useful when my mom uses the microwave and it interfere’s with the Wi-Fi (since the router and microwave is in the same room), so I always have to either wait for the microwave to finish or go to settings and switch Wi-Fi off. So this is perfect for me! :)

    • http://twitter.com/Max_Kas Max Kaslick

      I think you need a new microwave if it’s leaking enough to interrupt your wifi. Although it’s on almost the same waveband as wifi that doesn’t mean its not leaking radiation.
      Second, just go into your router settings and change the frequency. 802.11n also is more resistant.

  • http://twitter.com/thundiyils Jacob S

    Very useful video. If you want to watch youtube on cellular data, simply turn off Wifi plus cellular, then refresh the youtube page. Make sure you have unlimited data or enough data cap to watch youtube video over cellular data.

  • http://www.facebook.com/shingo.hoshino Shingo Hoshino

    u will be fu^&K when u have 3G unrestrictor…..

    • http://www.facebook.com/stephen.m.simon Stephen Michael Simon

      How so?

    • Impeach Obama

      luckily for me, in the country i’m living in we have unlimited data plus no throttling.

      • @dongiuj

        Me too♪

  • http://twitter.com/DevehJ David F

    Can’t use third-party browsers? Ridiculous.

    • http://twitter.com/Max_Kas Max Kaslick

      Still in beta and if your really upset just turn off the feature…

      • Scritti Politti

        ” if your really upset”

        If his WHAT is really upset?

  • http://www.facebook.com/antman217 Anthony Antunez

    Well since this feature was just added in beta 4 and wasn’t available to developers before hand could it be possible that third party apps can’t use this feature because they need to be updated to take advantage of it? Or is Apple really being an asshole about it XD

    • Scritti Politti

      This isn’t a feature; it’s a bug fix. The phone is SUPPOSED to fail over to cellular if Wi-Fi doesn’t work.

  • http://profiles.google.com/jacob.noergaard Jacob Nørgaard

    Can’t say I have unlimited data, but data is cheap here. I pay $20 a month for unlimited SMS, MMS, unlimited talk time to phones on same company, 6 hours of talk time to all others and 6GB data. I use my phone for surfing, downloading etc. every day and I never go past the 6GB. Heck, I rarely pass 2-3GB in a month.

    Speed is okay too, 6Mbit download and 1Mbit upload. Serves the purpose very well for me.

  • http://twitter.com/newyorkminute10 NEWYORKMINUTE10

    Windows 7 are smart enough and shows issue icon on the Wi-Fi icon on the right corner if like you said you unplug Internet cable from router. Jeff, you gotta try Windows 7

    • alexanderlyd

      and so does mac os x, if it doesent work it has a exlamation mark by the wifi icon…

      • http://twitter.com/newyorkminute10 NEWYORKMINUTE10

        Actually I mentioned only windows 7 because I don’t use Mac. Jeff said that windows can’t tell if there’s an issue with internet connection. And I don’t get how replies can get more likes?

      • Impeach Obama

        i gave you a thumbs up for both your comments.

      • http://twitter.com/newyorkminute10 NEWYORKMINUTE10

        Thanks. I used to like the old disqus without dislike button. It made me happy to see likes and think that for so many people my comment was useful.

      • Impeach Obama

        same here. now if you don’t say you want to marry steve jobs ashes people will give you thumbs down and treating you. maybe a little bit of an exaggeration but you get my point ;)

  • http://twitter.com/Nullbrand Niclas Ullbrand

    Jeff, idb is great! I come here all the time but come on! This breakdown vid should have been like 3mins… I’m dying over here…

  • Hugo Oskarsson

    Wiw that was a long post for a small function like this O__o

  • sasan akbari

    I won’t use it. Because in my country cellular data plans are expensive ( 0/1$ per megabyte or 5$ for 1month with 2GB download limit ) and the speed is slow( because of 2G connection!!! ). And also cellular data sucks the battery and heats my iphone. So it is not useful for me!

  • Demis Georgiou

    What’s that PERSONAL HOTSPOT option?

    • http://twitter.com/JayshonTweaks Jason Duong

      Another name for cellular tethering. (Sharing internet/data via a network carrier).

  • http://twitter.com/enigmadim Just Another Enigma

    Thanks for the making the vid and explaining the feature before returning those 5 missed calls Jeff ;) haha

  • http://twitter.com/myorangeisstuck willie

    its so troublesome

  • http://twitter.com/Telejeesus Telejeesus

    I just say you US ppl pay WAY too much for 3G/4G data.
    In Finland all dataplans are unlimited and they do not throtle after intensive usage.
    I can DL 9Mb/3Mb 24/7/356 with 9,99€ :P
    But here in Finland all GSM carrier prices are cheap(cheapest in world)
    And prepaid UK Orange is not bad either.

  • Ronald Weaver

    I cant wait to use this with 4G LTE.

  • http://twitter.com/Ghost7wee7er Ghost Tweeter

    Got to love t-mobile uk, I have unlimited data plan so never get an over usage charge. In one month when I first got my iPhone I downloaded over 10Gb of apps & movies thank you T-mobile

  • Scritti Politti

    Wait, they’re calling this a new feature? That is ridiculous. This “feature” represents the resolution of a massive DEFECT in the current OS. Your phone is SUPPOSED to fall back to cellular if Wi-Fi doesn’t work; it’s a documented bug in iOS that it doesn’t.

    This bug cripples any network-dependent application when your phone connects to any of the irritating “open” Wi-Fi networks that require a Web-page log-in. iOS will stupidly attempt to use it indefinitely, breaking any apps you’re trying to use.

  • http://twitter.com/douglashamm Doug Hamm

    I’d like to know if it works when wifi and internet work, but firewall rules block certain ports. For instance, a corporate wifi network that blocks IMAP — with this enabled, would the phone flip over automatically to 3G when checking mail?

  • http://twitter.com/TarHeelRedSox TarHeelRedSox

    Is it possible to use both networks simultaneously?

  • http://deuts.net/ deuts

    Like a broken record, this article just kept on repeating. And I think you have talked too much. Just put the damn option off and we can go on with our lives.

  • jwoolman

    Um- it’s not hard now to just go into Settings and turn off wifi when the ISP is out for the wifi connection but the wifi hotspot is active. Did it yesterday so I could keep reading on the web during a 3hr ISP outage. I’d rather have complete control like that, instead of letting the device decide when to go to cellular.

  • I Love Obama & His Haters

    In the end it’s about money. Wireless carriers trying to find a way to make us broke from excessive charges. Just turn the feature off & life goes on.

  • http://twitter.com/danieleceron Daniel Cerón

    Jeff how I enable it?, because in the release version I don’t have this option.