Fat pipe vs small bucket: How carriers should address data-hungry LTE iPads
iOS 5.1 snuck in a 4G indicator on the AT&T iPhone 4S. When asked if they felt like their phone was running at mind-bending speed, one commenter smartly replied "Lightning fast. I can't wait to get throttled even sooner now." This encapsulates the conundrum of 4G data, and a problem currently faced by new LTE iPad owners: increased data speeds are only as useful as the data caps that go along with them. Drinking from the firehose is only fun if it's hooked up to more than a thimble of water.
The Wall Street Journal recently ran a piece detailing various anecdotes where users were quickly running out of data, and needed to pay extra to get their service back on track. Though it's good that the pitfall is being identified for those who might not know any better, for most of us it's obvious that higher speeds without appropriately bumped data caps will ultimately result in a bigger bill. If you buy a Ferrari, after all, you're going to need the gas to go with it.
This is the world Android owners have been living in for awhile now. The problem is only exacerbated on the iOS side as video is going to HD, even 1080p to take advantage of the new high resolution display. There are a few things you can do to alleviate the stress on your bucket of data, like relying on Wi-Fi as much as possible, and reducing the quality on streaming video, but that kind of defeats the purpose of having an iPad with LTE, doesn't it? It seems like the impetus is on service providers to get with the times and adapt their pricing structure for next-generation wireless speeds. But what to change?
As you might have seen from out AT&T versus Verizon comparison, iPad plans start at 250 MB for $15 and max out at 5 GB for $50, but there aren't clear steps for transitioning from one tier to another. Up here in Canada, TELUS and Bell offer Flex plans, which basically means you're paying a little more at each tier, but you'll automatically be knocked up or down the ladder depending on your monthly usage. While this might not seem particularly different from simply paying overages on top of your standard plan if you blow past your data cap, a billing system that goes down with your usage is entirely reasonable, especially for those with erratic usage habits.
One trend that might be worth transplanting from the landline internet world are speed tiers. Grandma probably doesn't need LTE data speeds, but little Billy probably wants the best of the best. Even if they were both transferring the same amount of data, what really matters to each of them isn't whatever is in their respective packets, but how quickly they get them. Ultimately, that should be what wireless service providers are charging for. If carriers are worried about congestion, this would be a fine way of mitigating and controlling bandwidth, without earning the ire of power users when they get throttled; offering separate 2G, 3G, and 4G data plans would essentially be pre-emptive throttling for people who opt-in in exchange for lower rates, and an opportunity for heavy data users to guarantee consistent performance.
If service providers are going to stick with data caps, it would be nice if we could use them after the month's up -we paid for those megabytes, after all. This is something prepaid voice service has done in the past, and seeing as new iPad owners aren't on a term contract, it would be a great fit. Some months you're going to spend on the move more than others, and it seems ridiculous that during those times, you've got to pay more even though the entire month before your iPad might have existed within reach of a Wi-Fi zone. Of course, it could be a huge stress on carriers if folks just stockpiled their data and went nuts on their LTE iPad in a short period of time. Those kinds of activity spikes are hard for carriers to deal with. Still, offering a spare unused GB from the last month or two could be all the wriggle room someone needs to go without paying overages or reconsidering their plans.
Of course, this whole issue would be cleared up if service providers just upped their data caps or lowered their prices, but I understand that they have shareholders to keep happy, and that involves making sure they aren't just giving away service. There's also the obvious issue of capacity; one would hope that as LTE networks mature, the situation will improve. These are just some ideas to get the conversation rolling, and I doubt any of them are a silver bullet to addressing the disparity between data speed demand and bandwidth supply, but the fact remains that it's becoming a problem that needs to be solved. I invite anyone from the retail or infrastructure side to comment on why some of the options would or wouldn't work. New LTE iPad owners, is there anything you would like to see on the service side, or is everything hunky-dory as is?
And while you're at it, jump into the new iPad forums and tell us how much 4G data you've used on your new iPad so far.
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