The recent news from AT&T about the end of unlimited wireless data came as no surprise, but still raised my hackles more than a bit. Sure, only Sprint still offers unlimited data, but on a more limited network (in terms of coverage and capacity, anyway, along with a still-shaky corporate image). OK, let’s be fair: the carriers are running one of the most difficult businesses there is, each caught between the constant pressures of advances in technologies, the need for upgrades that begin as soon as build-outs are complete, and fierce, fierce competition. It would be wrong to consider cellular service as commoditized today, but many buyers – consumer and enterprise alike – often use price as the only differentiator when deciding on a particular service. But, look, the carriers need to make more money – not just to make their shareholders happy, but even more importantly to have the capital required to continue to enhance their service profiles – it’s all about coverage, capacity, and cost.
So charging more for data services in and of itself doesn’t bother me. The carriers, like any business, are in it for the profit. Competition continues to serve its magical role in improving services and lowering costs. But magic has its limitations – what I noted above regarding the need for more capital is overriding. So, soft caps on data it is. I should be happy with this.
So why am I not? Simple. It is just plain wrong to charge for something the consumer has no control over. And, equally important, it is just plain wrong to set expectations beyond a supplier’s ability to perform.
Let’s consider the first point, lack of visibility and control. Like many users, I apply the browser on my handset primarily to access Web pages, just as I do on PCs and tablets. In fact, what I’m really after here is a desktop-like experience, to the greatest degree possible. I might be able to control how much Web access I do (but see my next point for more on this), but what I can’t control is how much data volume accessing a given Web site will generate. If I’m going to be billed by the byte, or have a limit on my access in terms of cost or throttled throughput, I should at least have some control over the variables involved. I don’t. No one does. Not even the carriers. Thus – capped data is broken, broken, broken.
And (here comes point #2) it’s especially broken because the carriers, and their proxies, the device manufacturers, are marketing their wares to me as little PCs that can do positively freakin’ anything – it’s a bird, it’s a plane, it’s a PC, it’s camera (movies and still), it’s a GPS, it’s a music/video player, it’s an e-reader, it’s essential, it’s your plastic pal who’s fun to be with! But it’s also crippled when one exceeds some arbitrary nice round number of bytes, again, over which the end-user has absolutely no control. Thus expectations set by the supplier(s) are out of sync with reality. It’s been said that the best way to create a satisfied customer is to set his or her expectations properly. Tell the truth. Don’t tell me how cool it’s going to be and then present me with an asterisk.
Is there a solution to this problem? Well, sure, and several. Wi-Fi offload has the potential to help a lot. Additional small-cell build-outs will add capacity. But my favorite solution remains priority-based, rather than volume-based, pricing. Suppose we define various level of service pricing (platinum, gold, silver, bronze, zinc, etc.) that specify how often a given user gets attention, i.e., to the head of the dispatch queue, rather than an upper bound on the number of bytes transferred per month. More responsive service can be indistinguishable, after all, from higher throughput, although everyone actually gets the same throughput when it’s his or her turn. No caps on data. More revenue from those who can afford and choose to pay. Affordable service for everyone regardless. And, most importantly, properly-set expectations leading to happy customers.
OK, some software needs to be written. It’s been said, anecdotally, that half the cost of any cellular installation is in billing software. Some things never change. And some things must.