Unlimited Data: The End of an Era
Unlimited data may soon be a thing of the past, but recent trends in mobile data usage could make this an explosive situation for mobile subscribers. Should wireless carriers be more worried about expanding their networks than they seem to be about setting data caps?
The term “unlimited data" for mobile devices has been thrown around for a good number of years now, and on the surface it is a fairly simple concept. Basically, you pay a monthly fee and you no longer have to worry about how much data you use on your mobile device. As smartphones’ demand for bandwidth grows at an exponential rate, the concept of unlimited data is going away at the same time. Even Sprint, which continues to advertise as the only carrier left with unlimited data in the U.S., has recently dialed back the unlimited data plans for certain customers. While tolerable today, in a few years this is going to leave almost all mobile smartphone and tablet users in a bind and we could see a second coming of the overage issues of the late 90's and early 00's.
Sprint Changes Unlimited Data Plan
Sprint still remains the only U.S. carrier to offer unlimited data plans for smartphones, but those days may be numbered. Both AT&T and Verizon had to give up their unlimited offerings in favor of tiered services as a small group of users used up too much bandwidth. In a similar move, Sprint recently ended the unlimited data plans for its mobile broadband and hotspot devices. This change brought a rash of speculation that smartphone data plans wouldn’t be far behind.
Dan Hesse, Sprint’s CEO, continues to maintain that Sprint has no immediate plans to end their unlimited data offerings for smartphones, but what would you really expect him to say? Sprint’s unlimited data plans are its only competitive edge over other wireless providers, so it will certainly keep them as long as it can. Unfortunately, Sprint’s network is already stressed after the release of the iPhone 4S, and with data hogs left with Sprint as their only choice, the network situation is only going to worsen. If Sprint makes it through the first quarter of 2012 with its data plans intact, it’ll be a miracle.
Unlimited Data Shenanigans
As mentioned before, Sprint isn’t the only company to play games with user’s unlimited data plans. Neither AT&T nor Verizon gave much notice before ripping their plans from the shelves, but at least they allowed customers to get grandfathered in under the old plans, unlike Sprint.
Far more devious are the shenanigans of other companies, who continue to advertise that their plans have no data caps, while capping people’s data. T-Mobile is a repeat offender in this category. In the U.K., T-Mobile will prevent your mobile device from accessing videos or downloading large files once you have reached a certain data limit for the month, a data limit which is always less than the advertised size of your data plan. The company gets away with this by calling high-bandwidth downloads outside of “fair use," which means that they don’t have to support them. The company is equally slippery in the U.S., where it offers “unlimited" data, but then puts you on its 2G network once you go over certain limits. Ever try to download anything on a 2G network? There’s a reason you haven’t, because if you had you wouldn’t be reading this, you’d still be downloading it.
I’d like to think that these incidents are going to be confined to just a few carriers, but if one company starts to have success by pitching unlimited data while not actually having to provide it, expect more to follow suit.
Mobile Data Consumption to Explode
The issue with data consumption may only affect a small number of people today, but the current explosion in high-bandwidth mobile apps is going to make this everyone’s problem in the near future. In a recent Nokia Siemens Networks report, the company pins the daily average data use at around 15 MB per subscriber. They project that by 2020 the usage will increase to 1 GB per day. When you consider that 1 GB is half of the monthly data allowed under many plans, and even greater than the monthly data allowed by some plans, you can begin to understand the scope of the problem.
Many carriers will often suggest that you use your home broadband connection instead of the device’s data connection, and will even force the phones to default to a Wi-Fi connection if one is available. This is certainly not a solution to the problem. Home broadband carriers are experiencing their own issues with data capacity, and many have instituted data caps on their customers. Again, these data caps only affect the top-end users right now, but the average person’s usage is steadily increasing.
If mobile carriers continue to push people off onto limited Wi-Fi networks, expect a mess of complaints and lawsuits to further cloud an overarching solution.
The Future of Data Plans
Barring some technological breakthrough that allows significantly more data to flow over the same infrastructure, the future is going to be messy. Average data use is constantly on the rise, and smartphone ownership (which includes plenty of free bandwidth-hogging apps) is exploding. More and more people are going to be pushing against their new data limits, even though they were assured by the salespeople that they had plenty of capacity, and running into issues with massive mobile bills. Anyone in the mobile industry in the late 90's and early 00's will certainly remember the number of subscribers who had issues with massive overage charges, and this situation is set up to happen again.
Mobile companies are setting themselves up to rake in overage charges, developing a secondary income stream from unsuspecting customers. The same wireless carriers that are telling you to use your personal Wi-Fi connection also bombard you with advertising about watching videos or playing games on your device. The wireless companies want to have it both ways, selling people on all the wonderful things mobile devices can do, then restricting them once they’re under contract.
With only a few major carriers around, there may be no simple solution to this problem. Obviously, carriers need to work on expanding their data capacity, but it seems like each company has decided to simply limit data use instead. They’ve picked caps that only affect a small amount of people now, but what about a year from now? Or five? Mobile technology has already changed the world, but its good may soon be limited by a combination of short-sightedness and greed.
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