Get ready for iPhone data metering

I'll admit that I love to say I told you so, even if it's bad news for me. Remember how I told you that unlimited iPhone data plans couldn't last? Well, AT&T's head of consumer services, Ralph de la Vega, is now saying that iPhone unlimited data can't last. He says his company needs to give heavy data users incentives to "reduce or modify their usage" and he claimed that "some form of usage-based pricing for data is inevitable" (note that that's a quote from the linked article, not a direct quote from de la Vega).

As much as I love my unlimited data, I admit that it's wholly possible that I'm helping overstress AT&T's network. So if they're going to start metering data, let them start metering data! (After my contract expires, of course.) I'm reminded of Rupert Murdoch's recent speaking tour, when was telling anyone who would listen that readers were "stealing" News Corp.'s content -- you know, the content that they've been offering for free all this time. If you want to start charging, Rupert, then start charging. Similarly, AT&T can hardly complain that people are using unlimited bandwidth when they offer unlimited bandwidth as a paid service. If they want to change that, fine: stop griping about their customers and change it.

Except I fear that that isn't how it's going to go. Because, when it comes right down to it, unlimited bandwidth is a major part of the phone's appeal, even for those people who don't really use much. As an analogy: when I got my iPhone, I jettisoned my landline, which had a plan that featured unlimited long distance calling. Part of my hesitation to go wholly wireless was that I feared my wife and I would use up all our calling minutes. As it turned out, we've never even come close, so for me, the phone minutes are essentially unmetered. But removing that worry would have removed a barrier to entry.

In part of de la Vega's speech, he emphasizes that 3 percent of customers are using 40 percent of network capacity. This strikes me as a kind of divide-and-rule strategy: rather than making network charges straightforward, instead offer unlimited bandwidth (because that's attractive to customers) and then demonize the ones who actually take advantage of it. One is reminded of the Kafka-esque experiences that heavy users of Comcast's cable Internet service have encountered: sold unlimited bandwidth, they are later criticized as using "too much," even though no limit has been set in advance.

Fortunately, de la Vega says "We're improving all our systems to let consumers get real-time information on their data usage." But I would bet money that the word "unlimited" won't be coming off AT&T's data plan advertising any time soon, even if in fact some limits are about to be set.

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