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Siri probably isn't the bandwidth hog the WaPo warned you about

Mel Martin

Update: Former Siri director responds to the Washington Post story. Reuters was the original source of the error around Siri bandwidth usage.

"How Siri is ruining your cellphone service." That's the searing headline from the Washington Post in an article by Paul Farhi. Farhi claims that "Siri's dirty little secret is that she's a bandwidth guzzler, the digital equivalent of a 10-miles-per-gallon Hummer H1."

Where's he coming up with this? Apparently, the "Siri eats bandwidth" claim is based on a study by Arieso that reports that iPhone 4S owners consume twice as much cellular data as iPhone 4 users and 3 times as much as iPhone 3G users. Recent Android phones are also chewing up twice as much data as the iPhone 3G, while 3G and 4G mobile hotspots are by far the biggest download hogs (26x the baseline).

At least in the press release summary of the study, however, there's no mention of Siri at all; just the increased usage for the 4S, which just happens to support a faster download standard on AT&T's network. Our sister site Engadget helped put that study in perspective by pointing out that Arieso has a vested interest in the results of the research. We've asked for a full copy of the report to see what, if any, linkage there is between Siri and data volume.

[Ars Technica did a round of testing when the iPhone 4S came out, and the results showed that an average Siri user might add just 10MB of data consumption per month due to voice queries. Considering that the high-end AT&T data plan provides two gigabytes of traffic, that 10MB would represent only 0.5% of the full allocation, or 1% of a half-used allowance -- unlikely in the extreme to result in a doubling of data usage. –Ed.]

If we take the study at face value, though, why more data on the 4S? The likely answer hasn't much to do with Siri and a lot more to do with the profile of the iPhone 4S buyer.

The people who buy the latest phone are also the power users who take the most advantage of their devices. We've seen that happen before with new technology, and once people stop amazing themselves and their friends, the consumption of bandwidth drops off. I haven't seen any convincing data that says the iPhone 4S inherently uses more data than an iPhone 4, and iOS 5 iCloud features, also available on the iPhone 4 and 3GS, probably play a role in increased bandwidth use.

As for Siri, most of the heavy lifting goes on at the Apple servers, where your query is translated into data and then sent back to your phone in a quick burst. Streaming radio, Netflix and a host of other apps can use way more bandwidth, and they are utilizing the network for minutes or hours at a time, not seconds.

Of course Siri is on every iPhone 4S, so it is getting used more than some 3rd-party apps, but it's hard to believe that the average user doing perhaps 2-3 queries a day is destroying our cellular infrastructure. GigaOm this morning also poured cold water on the Post story, and there will probably be more to come.

One thing is for sure. Smartphones, and the iPhone in particular, are using more data than the dumb phones of old. Compare that to the internet connections in our homes, where Netflix has been identified as the biggest user of bandwidth in the U.S. It's up the internet providers, both wired and wireless, to keep growing their networks so they can continue to charge those premium rates; it's also up to Washington regulators and cellular carriers to make efficient use of bandwidth and future spectrum technologies.

Readers, are you heavy Siri users, and are you destroying our cellular networks?

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