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Imagining a future free of data caps

Christopher Breen | March 23, 2012
When recently pondering the nature of the Apple TV, I suggested that Apple has brought about nearly miraculous changes that we now take for granted. I experienced another such miracle last night.

This issue is getting more attention now thanks to the release of LTE-compatible iPads. To the surprise of just about no one who’s focused their attention on the matter for more than a second or two, streaming media (particularly video) over LTE is a wonderful experience, but it burns through a data plan in nothing flat. So, we’re provided with a wide pipe, but one that’s very shallow.

“Ah,” cackles our grumpy executive, “but think how quickly you can download your email!”

Gee. Thanks.

So, with a sky full of potential and the carriers blocking most of it with a large umbrella, is there anything that can be done?

The current situation is untenable. You can’t build fast networks and expect customers to perform slow-network tasks on them because doing otherwise breaks the bank. On the other hand, carriers can’t be expected to build these networks without some hope of profiting from them.

Those looking for a solution from Cupertino are kidding themselves. Apple isn’t going to build a fast and free wireless network that spans the globe (or the U.S., for that matter). So we work with what we have. And what we have are the carriers who want their pound of flesh.

I suggest that rather than nickel and dollaring those who exceed too-limited caps, the fee comes built in to the devices and apps most likely to take advantage of these networks. For example, if you want 3G/4G/whatever access in your car, build it in as an add-on option that makes your car a short range hotspot and give the carrier a cut. From that point forward, access is “free” for any devices you attach to that hotspot. Ditto for iOS and similar devices that take advantage of these networks.

And if you want a video or audio streaming app that can do so over a fast cellular network? You’ll pay more for it either in the total cost of the app or by subscribing to the service, but not be throttled or risk going over your cap.

A pay-upfront plan has a couple of obvious advantages. The first is that customers know exactly what they’ll pay when they acquire a device or app. If it’s worth it to them, they pay. If not, pass. If too many pass, then the carriers need to rethink their cut.

Secondly, the Way Things Are isn’t sustainable. As these networks become more widespread and more devices are capable of using them, carriers will be pressured by customers—and, perhaps, regulators—to broaden the caps. And do so again and again, with legal wrangling coming with each iteration. At some point, our governing bodies will come to realize that data service is a utility like electricity and water and needs to be treated as such. And when that day comes, caps are going to be impossible to defend.

Bow to the inevitable, get in front of the issue by offering pay-once plans, and you open the skies to this and future miracles.


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