Imagining a future free of data caps

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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.

I’d finished rehearsal with my band and contemplated the hour-plus drive home. I’d neglected to pack my iPhone with the podcast episodes I usually reserve for these drives. While grumbling about my lack of forethought, it suddenly dawned on me. Within my grasp were:

  • An iPhone with an unlimited data plan.
  • Subscriptions to Pandora and Rhapsody (and their accompanying apps on my phone).
  • Solid 3G reception from here to there.

What on earth was I worried about? I had access to nearly anything I wanted to listen to.

And with that I jacked the iPhone into the car’s stereo, launched Rhapsody, tapped the Rhapsody Radio entry, tapped Artist Stations, and in the resulting screen entered Shawn Colvin. Within a few seconds I was listening to Mary Chapin Carpenter’s “10,000 Miles.” And all the way home, related music poured from my car’s speakers.

I had a similar experience last summer—long road trip with the family, desire to listen to a San Francisco Giants baseball game, and an AM signal that fizzled out in the second inning. The solution was similar: I pulled over, jacked in the iPhone, fired up the MLB ’11 app, tuned into KNBR’s broadcast, and we were on our way. Again, thanks to solid 3G along the highway, we didn’t miss a pitch. Had the Giants gotten on base more than three times, the experience would have been perfect.

The miracle is, of course, media in the ether. As long as you have the connection—which, along major highways in my area, is completely common—and can absorb the data hit, you have the kind of audio access that would have been impossible just a few years ago.

Regrettably, miracles rarely go unpunished. And such is the case here. That sour-faced party pooper you see grumping in the corner bears a striking resemblance to the CEO of your local cellular data carrier.

“Hey, if you want to burn through your monthly allotment playing old Duran Duran tunes, be my guest. But don’t come whining to me when Googling available motel rooms in the next town costs an extra 15 bucks because it puts you over your data cap.”


“No, as a matter of fact, ‘unlimited’ doesn’t mean ‘without limits of any kind.’ We’ve redefined it to mean ‘now that this iPhone thing has turned out to be a hit and therefore don’t need to tempt you any longer, we’re going to make the ‘unlimited’ plan so unpleasant that most of you will switch plans, which then allows us to kill the unlimited plan because no one’s using it and if you don’t like it, find another carrier or, more useful still, pound sand.’”

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.

[Christopher Breen is a senior editor for Macworld.]

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