Dodging the WiFi assist bullet

Bill shock from high data usage is a well-known danger to CIOs with mobile workforces.

Monitoring voice, data and SMS usage, avoiding or mitigating roaming charges, opting for devices that minimise data use, and simply negotiating hard at procurement stage are all standard tactics to avoiding the problem.

But now a new threat has arrived that simply was not anticipated. It hasn’t changed the rules of the game – just made the opponent a bit more fearsome. With Apple’s latest iOS release, iOS 9, devices will now automatically connect to cellular networks when WiFi signal is low or lost. But if this switch is happening automatically and the device is intelligently identifying where WiFi is not sufficient and reverting to data, the user may well be completely unaware of the costs racking up.

And this is not an idle threat or scaremongering. Within two weeks of iOS 9 being launched, 50 of our major enterprise customers reported that iOS 9 users were using 20-30 per cent more data since the update from iOS 8. In several instances, this even appears to be caused by the automatic activation of WiFi Assist in locations where corporate WiFi was available but it was overloaded or patchy.

These data usage potholes can quickly take even the most careful employees over their data limits. So, how can bill shock be combatted, while using WiFi Assist positively and ensuring maximum productivity on work devices?

Device ID

Enterprises need to start at the very beginning – the identification of every individual employee device. Grouping mobiles together, whether by model, age, employee seniority or company department – or with pooled data plans - will lead to an absolute lack of traceability of how, why and even when data usage is exceeding limits. And if you are unaware of how data is being consumed, how can you ever hope to manage it?

By recognising each individual user and device, enterprises can then proactively enforce appropriate device and policy settings, coupled with data compression techniques, that amount to a significant edge in controlling data usage and costs.

Education, education, education

As with many elements of IT security, user education is pivotal. After all, WiFi Assist is a new iPhone feature that many employees won’t even know exists, so even the most data-conscious user can unknowingly rack up unexpected costs. Not forgetting of course the fact that Apple is currently dealing with a $5 million lawsuit over WiFi Assist, primarily on account of its omission in providing sufficient fair warning about the effects of the update.

Employees must therefore be shown how and when the feature is triggered, and why this is dangerous for the business. If this is not well articulated – and often repeated – then naivety will inevitably lead to unexpected charges.

Usage monitoring

Building on the ability to identify each device on an individual basis, every user’s data usage patterns need to be monitored for atypical behaviour.

WiFi Assist will inevitably lead to users consuming data in new ways and early warning is everything. For instance, employees who are usually office-based may suddenly start using far more data far more quickly – a clear sign that, as per the scenarios we have detected within our own customer base, the office WiFi networks are not strong enough and the devices have unilaterally switched to data.

But spotting that this has happened when the bill arrives is too late. Enterprises need to be able to be alerted to this happening as soon to in real-time as is possible, else they are inherently unable to do anything about it.

Cisco predicts that smartphone devices will be using almost five times more data within four years. This will be through a combination of faster networks, busier apps, and of course less reliance on WiFi – this latter factor made all the more poignant by iOS 9.

Enterprises need to therefore quickly deploy these three key tactics across their mobile fleet if they are to stand any chance of outrunning this trend.

Eldar Tuvey, CEO and co-founder of Wandera