Choosing a Mobile Network Provider for Your Mobile Data Collection Program
You have your new mobile data collection app and the device it will run on. You’re ready to collect data, but chances are that you will need to transmit that data somehow – most likely with a mobile data plan. How do you select a network provider? What size data plan should you sign your program team up for? Let’s take a deeper look.
Which providers work in your project area?
Without a doubt, you will want to make sure that the provider you choose has good coverage in the project area you are working in.
An easy way to check, which fits with our “designing under the mango tree” ethos, is to ask people who live in the area or even mobile shopkeepers. They will know the hotspots, or if you are stuck with a specific network provider, where you can go to get a signal.
If you can visit the areas you will be working in and verify which network providers offer the best coverage, that is ideal. If not, there are apps and platforms, such as OpenSignal, that can provide different service providers’ coverage maps.
Check ahead of time whether you should expect reception to avoid a needless search for bars.
What are the providers’ billing schemes?
If possible, we recommend going with the provider that offers billing by kilobyte of data rather than by time. Just make sure that the rate they offer per kilobyte is competitive. Also, be sure to ask how much balance each new SIM is pre-loaded with. If you don’t have WiFi during setup and training, you may have to refill prior to using SMS, remote installation, real-time data submissions, etc.
From an administrative perspective, be sure to compare their pre-paid and post-paid plans. Pre-paid plans might offer a discount, but post-paid plans will help make sure your team does not run out of data in the field.
How much data do my forms use?
Short answer: A good rule of thumb for a single form is around 7-10kb.
However, depending on the platform you use, you can sometimes get a more personalized estimate. For example, in CommCare, go to “Submit History” -> “View Form” -> “Raw XML” and save in a text editor. Then, multiply that form’s size by the number of forms per day each frontline worker will be submitting, and then by the number of day per month they will work.
For example, for a project in which a frontline worker submits 20 forms a day for 25 days per month, here’s how much data the frontline worker will need:
20 forms/day x 25 days/month x 10KB/form = 5MB/month
Don’t get caught off guard when the bill comes: Understand everything you will use data for.
What else might you use data for?
The focus of your data plan is usually on your form submissions. After all, the point is to share the data you capture. However, with forms only measuring in at about 7-10KB each, they often do not constitute the majority of the data your mobile device will use. You need to ensure you have enough data to account for the following:
- Updates to your mobile app
- Pulling down historical/case data
- Multimedia capture questions
- Background services on the phone (not related to your application)
- Additional use of data, if certain applications are not blocked (Facebook, YouTube, etc.)
At the end of the day, many CommCare projects comfortably use monthly data plans of 100 MB or less.
What else can they offer you?
Once you have a provider and plan that works for you, there are a few things worth asking for that might make life a bit easier for your team. For instance, see if you can procure a set of SIM cards in a series. Or ask if the provider offers an option for closed-user groups, so you can set up free calling (and/or SMS) between the users and staff of your program. There are no guarantees that these options will be available, but the least you can do is ask!
BONUS: Managing multiple network providers
If possible: Please avoid this!
It may seem like a way to minimize costs, but the overhead to track and manage each individual user’s usage and payment plans in the long term often outpaces the cost of managing the plans yourself. If you do need to work this way, make sure you know the provider and asses their coverage map and data plan options for each user, so you can set up a recharge plan for them.
Worst Case Scenario: No network provider or no SIMs
Some project sites do not have the network coverage you might have hoped for. In this case, WiFi is an absolute must. Even if you are collecting your data offline, you will still eventually need a way to upload the data to your database. However, if you program wants to avoid the hassle of managing a fleet of SIM cards, you might think about offering central locations with WiFi or installing designated wireless hotspots for your frontline workers to visit and upload their data. This will increase your data submission delay, but it is sometimes the only option (and a cheaper one at that).
Give your workers peace of mind in the field by letting them know the plan for their data ahead of time.
So if your program is looking to find the right data plan and provider, consider all of these questions – available coverage maps, form size and frequency, perks and billing schemes. These considerations can change over the life of your program – network coverage could shrink or the number of forms might increase – so always be evaluating your options. No decision in developing a mobile data collection program is easy, but hopefully, you can address your mobile data needs more quickly and get back to the real impactful work of developing and implementing your platform.
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