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WiFi Assist – Apple Knows Best? Not a bit of it!

As a prisoner of the Apple ecosystem (I really must break free, one day), I’m quite used to getting periodic updates to an operating system that do little but cause frustration. There have been some corkers over the years and I am quite struck by the breath-taking arrogance that assumes Apple knows best.

One recent so-called enhancement was perhaps the most staggering since the debacle in which one upgrade removed the perfectly functioning, tried and tested Google maps and, instead, adopted a (still) useless home-grown version as the default.

I’m talking about the WiFi assist option. I think the intention was reasonable – to ensure that users can switch back to cellular data coverage if a WiFi signal is inadequate – but the unfortunate fact is that it is rubbish.

I encountered the feature after having upgraded (Ha! More of a downgrade…) to the latest iOS version while on a customer visit in Norway. Until that point, I had been quite happily using WiFi access (which is ubiquitous) as a means to avoid any nasty surprises when connecting to the local 4G or other cellular networks.

However, I noticed that my phone seemed to have forgotten all of its WiFi settings and was defaulting to 4G access, even when I was in the offices or in my hotel room. I assumed there was something wrong with it but that this was a typical Apple bug that would be fixed in the next surprise update.

What I hadn’t bargained for was the fact that this was actually deliberate. A colleague advised me that Apple had introduced a new feature (the aforementioned WiFi Assist). It was this that was determining whether or not the WiFi signal strength was sufficient and, if not, it was switching me back to 4G and conventional cellular radio access.

The only problem being that even the signal indicator on the home screen was showing that WiFi strength was perfectly adequate – indeed, was the same as the previous days on which I had quite happily been using the same network. In essence, Apple was telling me that it new best and it was going to control my wireless connectivity, but not to my advantage – quite the contrary, as it was basically switching me back to the much more expensive cellular network, for which as a roaming visitor, I would be paying whatever extortionate rate my provider determined.

This is ridiculous. It’s nice that devices can seamlessly switch between one form of wireless access and another, but really, there are cases when that decision should be taken by us and not by a flawed mechanism that has the potential to create billing havoc for the unwary. Imagine forgetting to turn off cellular data, travelling to some popular holiday destination, using WiFi and then finding out that you have actually been switch over to 4G without being told that this was happening. An easy mistake. I had no idea until I questioned why I wasn’t connecting to my normal networks and the implications were explained to me.

What was even more annoying was that this little switch is located right at the bottom of the list of applications that use mobile data. In other words, you really have to look hard to find it. I wonder why Apple did this? Rant over – and it’s worth tempering this with some compliments on the fantastic support Apple provided when experiencing some migration problems with a new laptop. They didn’t fix all of the issues, but were terribly nice about it. The thing is that managing handover between cellular and WiFi connections is really very important indeed – but first, I’m not entirely sure it’s Apple’s role to do this and second, I’m immensely surprised that the Apple solution actually favoured more expensive 4G connections.

It’s not clear where this is going, but it seems to represent an effort to assert control over the handover and network selection process. Even though this has been, in my option, bodged (for now), it’s clear that it is an increasingly necessary function. Just don’t push me towards more costly cellular access!