Wi-Fi Assist: Should You Turn It Off, Or Does Your Phone Know Best?

Opinion: Wi-Fi Assist is a feature on iOS9 that automatically uses mobile data when your Wi-Fi connection is unreliable, allowing seamless browsing or streaming. The technology isn’t exactly new. My Samsung Galaxy S5 has had the feature under the name ‘smart network switch’ ever since I can remember, but iOS 9’s Wi-Fi Assist has been causing a stir since its release for a different reason: in iOS 9, it’s turned on by default.

It’s generally accepted as fact that the default settings for any kind of operating system will be rubbish. Apple, Android and Windows alike want you to use their phones the way they want them to be used, but as consumers we usually have different needs. This is why I always end up spending a few solid days fiddling with the default settings on any new phone, before it finally feels like ‘home’. The difference between your regular, useless default settings and Wi-Fi assist, however, is that this is a feature which can quite easily cost you a lot of money.

Data Eaters

Wi-Fi Assist has been my number one trending topic on Facebook all day and we’re already hearing plenty of horror stories about iPhone users whose mobile data usage has skyrocketed since the upgrade. We’ve already covered how little use most telcos’ woefully delayed mobile data alerts will be to anyone facing this problem, so iOS 9 users will have to pick up on this sneaky little feature on their own, or suffer the consequences. Looking at my own personal data-using habits — avoiding anything too data-hungry while on 4G yet downloading and streaming with abandon once connected to my home Wi-Fi — I can see how easy it would be to rack up a huge bill if I mistakenly believed I was downloading entirely over Wi-Fi.

Turning the setting off is easily done with just a few taps through your settings menu (it’s found in ‘Mobile Data’, beneath the app settings, if you’re one of those people who still needs to disable it), but the fact that opting out of this data-gobbling feature requires active engagement is the real problem here. I have to wonder how many people will be baffled by a steady stream of unusually high bills, before they finally discover the innocuous-looking setting that’s causing it.

Default, Not Necessary

When it comes down to it, Wi-Fi assist is not even a vital feature for most users. The average smartphone user is no doubt savvy enough to switch off Wi-Fi when they aren’t getting a fast enough connection and are happy to incur the extra costs. Given I have a bad habit of leaving Wi-Fi turned off in these situations — but the extra data I would use before eventually enabling it again is not going to be anywhere near the amount I might use up on Wi-Fi Assist. Is there a way to include a default feature like Wi-Fi Assist and still make everyone happy, then?

I still remember the very first time I turned on mobile data on my new smartphone — I had to click past a series of scary messages warning me that my service provider would charge me extra for this service and I could very well end up with unexpected costs. It was enough that I almost thought twice about turning data on at all — so what if iOS 9’s Wi-Fi assist came with similar warnings? Even if users got a pop up or a notification to notify them of when they had been automatically switched to network data, they could then benefit from the convenience of the feature without being burdened by any extra zeros on their phone bill.

While those with data-heavy plans or mobiles provided by their workplace might be finding Wi-Fi Assist is making their lives easier right now, I don’t think that this feature has any relevance to the average iPhone user. Especially not as a default feature. This is more than evident in the last few days’ explosion of panicked articles and posts which implore iOS 9 users to ‘Turn Off This One Feature Right Now!’. Data plans are still too lean in Australia and excess data charges can be steep, depending on your provider. It’s a useful tool — but one that should definitely be opt-in, rather than opt-out.

For everyone out there who has upgraded to iOS9 already — have you left Wi-Fi assist enabled? If you’re an Android user, have you ever turned on Smart Network Switch? Are you happy to manually manage your data to make sure you don’t incur extra costs, or would you rather automatically maintain a stable connection with the minimum of effort? Tell us in the comments!

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