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  • Solace for Data Bingers?

    August 19th, 2016

    I remember when I bought my first iPhone in 2008, a year after its debut, and I signed up with AT&T. At the time, data usage was unlimited, and I suspect the bigwigs at the company formerly known as Cingular Wireless didn’t have a clue how much data iPhone users would crave.

    Now for those of you who used AT&T then, the network was none too good. Dropped calls didn’t happen that often, but often enough to be downright annoying. While the “unlimited” deal was grandfathered for some years, it got to a point where, if you exceeded a certain amount, they’d throttle the speed. Traditional cable-based ISPs may pull the same stunt if you exceed their bandwidth caps after too much binging on Netflix. That is, if they don’t simply shut you down until the next month.

    Over the years, there have been a number of changes in wireless data plans over the years. Things really got moving when T-Mobile pulled off its “Uncarrier” promotion. That separated your wireless plan from the purchase of your smartphone, a good or bad maneuver that resulted in actually knowing what you were paying for each product or service.

    Competition for your business is fierce at a time when growth is slowing. So plans frequently change, sometimes in ways that may be incomprehensible.

    So the latest data plan from AT&T continues its rollover scheme, where the data you don’t consume one month is saved and added to your allotment for the next month. This can add up over a few months if you’re reasonably parsimonious about using online resources with your smartphone. It also helps when you need extra data on occasion, so you don’t have to suddenly buy a more expensive plan.

    AT&T’s new scheme also calls for no overages, meaning if you exceed the amount of data you’ve ordered, service won’t be terminated, and you won’t get a bill for excessive use. Instead it’ll be throttled to what’s referred to as “2G” speeds, which is not a whole lot higher than old fashioned dialup. It may be all right for email and casual web browsing, but that’s as far as it goes.

    In any case, you can believe that the new plans were quickly countered with new plans from T-Mobile and Sprint, both of which are taking a questionable “unlimited” route. The T-Mobile One plan promises unlimited 4G LTE data, unlimited talk, and unlimited text for $40 per line, based on a family of four. If you opt for just one line, it’s $70 per month. Ah, the traps of the fine print!

    According to a Reuters report on the plan, unlimited video is strictly standard definition. If you prefer HD, which means that you’ll be consuming a whole lot more data, there’s a $25 per month surcharge. So theoretical unlimited and practical unlimited are far apart. Or maybe you wouldn’t care on a smartphone because standard definition doesn’t look so bad on a five-inch display.

    Sprint’s plan is $60 per month for a single line, and there are limits to “unlimited” when it comes to gaming, music and video, which are pushed at “optimized” rates, which probably means as little as they can get away with. For $100 per month, you can set up two lines, and it’s $30 extra for each additional line.

    I just wonder if the FTC should investigate such promotions, especially since the “unlimited” claims all have limitations and terms and conditions that reduce the actual amount of data you can consume even if you spent several hours a day on your smartphone watching stuff.

    Why can’t “unlimited” be what the name implies?

    Probably because the wireless carriers would be forced to upgrade their networks to accommodate all that extra traffic, and that would reduce profits if the rates aren’t changed. But something’s gotta give, and I would hope improved technologies, and the smart use of on-the-fly data compression, would allow these companies to use their bandwidth more efficiently.

    Now none of these new pricing schemes impacts me all that much. I suppose it would if I spent a lot of time on the road away from Wi-Fi and needed to stream lots of video. I would then be forced to order something more than the relatively low-cost package I use now.

    I’m more concerned, though, about how binge watching impacts users of traditional broadband networks. Hidden in the fine print for your ISP’s service plan is usually a bandwidth cap of some sort. On the one I use now, it’s 250GB for downloads only; uploads aren’t counted. But I’m moving to a new home that provides free broadband to all residents of the housing complex. I don’t know about data caps. It may not even be measurable for each user on a large shared network, but I will inquire once I test the service. I would hate to hit the wall when I need to upload a show to my server, or retrieve a macOS update from Apple.

    The real impact, though, is felt by those of you consuming 4K video from Netflix, Amazon Instant Video and other providers. First, you need a steady Internet speed of 15 megabits per second, which probably means you should haves  at least twice that figure. Or everyone in your home will be forced to do nothing online while watching your TV. It also means that bandwidth consumption will soar very quickly, and it won’t take long to slurp hundreds of gigabytes of data; think in terms of days rather than weeks.

    Sure, your ISP can simply charge more for extreme binge watchers. But wouldn’t it be nice when the time comes, as it inevitably must, where such considerations no longer count? You’d just go online and you won’t have to be concerned about those bandwidth meters.



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