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
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.
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.