Data caps, the iPhone 4 and the carrier half-message

Jun 19, 2010
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We do it in the street, in the office, in bed and even in the bathroom: whip out our phones and chew through some mobile data. Now, the carriers reckon, we're doing it too much. Data caps have been making headlines over the past few weeks, as networks announce their pricing for - ostensibly - the new iPhone 4 but - in reality - a world in which mobile Internet appetite is exceeding supply. Out goes the promise of "unlimited" data and in come not just new, tighter caps but the "average use" statistics to justify them. So why, amid echoing reassurance that what's on offer is comfortably more than we need, do I feel like I'm only hearing half of the story?

Of course, as has rightly been pointed out, "unlimited" data packages were seldom truly so; instead the "fair use" limits and the penalty for exceeding such were buried in the terms & conditions. How often they were actually applied was more the stuff of urban legend then fact: I don't know of anyone whose data service was actually cut off mid-month, and if the networks throttle you back, well, how certain can you be that it's not merely poor coverage or local overloading?

Still, the difference now is that the carriers are being far more upfront about their limits and what will happen should you go past them. AT&T, for instance, have attached a dollars-per-gigabyte price, leaving little room for confusion over what will happen to your monthly bill should you get mobile download happy.

I certainly don't begrudge them that, and there's plenty to be said for greater transparency in billing. My frustration is at the arguments we've seen so far for justifying, not only the caps, but the figures at which they've been set. Frequently rolled out - on both sides of the Atlantic - is 500MB, a number, we're informed, that ninety-something percent of subscribers don't exceed in a regular month. That remaining scant percent is, the carriers either imply or - in the case of O2 - publicly declare, Spoiling It For Everyone Else. We can't all be trusted to use our data sensibly, and so the networks must step in and slap away the greedy hands, like nanny with the candy jar.

I've heard many people agree that they use less than 500MB, that it's certainly a realistic figure, and that the complaints over stricter limits are in effect gluttony for its own sake. Many saying that are the sort of so-called power users that you would well expect to consume the most data. Personally, though, I can't escape the feeling that carriers are doing themselves - and us - a disservice by myopically looking at the past and telling us "this is enough". To use a lazy metaphor, it's a little like a parent looking at their one-year-old and saying "we've spent $x on food this past year for him, so let's budget the same again for the next," without acknowledging that appetites increase. Ninety-odd percent of mobile users may indeed use less than 500MB at the moment, but how have those figures changed over the past quarter, the past year? Although it's easy to assume that carriers don't give a thought to network provisioning when you're facing a scant bar or two and have a desperate call to make, in reality you can bet they're each looking closely at not just past trends of data consumption but the predicted curves for the next twelve months, two years and beyond.

Consider this: you're about to sign up to what's likely a two-year agreement for your next phone, more than likely - if you're reading sites like this one - a smartphone which offers you the full Internet as a mobile experience. The impending iPhone 4 is a good, timely example. AT&T, O2 and the others would like you to know that you've used less than half a gig of data each month up until now; the subtext is "don't worry, what we're giving you is plenty." Why, though, aren't we hearing the predictions for monthly use a year from now (still, remember, only halfway through that new agreement you've committed to)? O2 tell us they're spending millions a month on strengthening their network; they've obviously crunched the figures, else how would they know where to target that investment?

My feeling is that they're not telling us those predictions because, from their perspective, it makes for uncomfortable reading. The networks know that mobile data use is only going to climb higher, and yet they're asking us to make contract decisions based on the wrong side of the curve; a snapshot of history presented as a reassurance that we're not really losing out as tariffs change because, well, we never used it in the first place. I'm not arguing that true unlimited data should be the expectation; it's obvious that the free-for-all of wireless consumption would come up against a wall one day. I'm even open to the idea of tiered service: perhaps pay a surcharge for data priority if mobile use is so essential to you, rather than merely a way to catch up with some streamed TV while you wait for a bus.

No, what rankles is being fed one lone figure, having it dressed up as justification for sweeping changes that could well affect your bank balance over the next twenty-four months, while all the time being told that, if you expect more - more gigabytes or more information - then you're being unrealistic or naive. It's not naive to think that, as mobile devices, services and appetites mature, my data needs of tomorrow will outpace the needs I had yesterday, any more than it is to assume a two-year-old will eat more than they did twelve months before. Carriers need to give us all the information - and the data package flexibility - we need, rather than hoping to blindside us with pacifiers.


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