Sunday, 7 December 2008

Mobile data: Be careful what you wish for

The consensus around the industry seems to be that mobile data is starting to take off. Text messaging is still the leading data function, accounting for about 65% of total data revenue, according to Informa (link). But Nielsen reports a steady rise in the number of mobile Internet subscribers (link), and a faster increase in revenue (implying that those who do use the mobile web are increasing their online activity). Young people are apparently important drivers in the increase, with 37% of US adults age 18 to 24 using their phones to access the web, according to the Mobile Marketing Association (link).

The cause is supposedly not just the iPhone and other smartphones; what I'm hearing from multiple companies is that web access and other data usage is rising even on feature phones.

This increased activity is creating an uncomfortable problem for some mobile operators: it's apparently overloading their networks. There have been predictions for years that this could happen -- a report from 2005 pointed out that the typical 3G network would be overloaded if 40% of subscribers used video just eight minutes a day (link). It predicted potential traffic overload by 2007. There have been charges that service problems on the AT&T network in the US have been caused by the iPhone (link).

In the UK, the BBC's popular iPlayer streaming video service is supposedly threatening the economics of even wired ISPs (link -- very interesting article), so it's easy to imagine what it could do to mobile networks if broadly deployed. Supposedly the mobile version of iPlayer for Nokia S60 is set up to stream only over WiFi, but the discussion here (link) points out that restriction is likely to be evaded by enterprising users.

It's very hard to confirm exactly what mobile data is doing to the networks because the operators don't like to discuss this sort of thing in public. But the number of data-capable phones is definitely growing faster than network capacity, so overload is just a matter of time. I've gotten several off-the-record comments from friends in the industry saying that the operators are worried about the problem and are quietly trying to throttle traffic, especially to online multimedia services that consume a lot of bandwidth.

The problem is complicated by the all-you-can-eat data plans that have been adopted by many operators. If you're charging people for the amount of data they consume, their data use becomes self-limiting. But limited plans are unpopular with users, who get practically unlimited data on their PC web connections. When you tell people that they can have the web on their mobiles, they expect to be able to use it like the web they already know.

So the operators are stuck with either throwing out people who use the "unlimited" network heavily, or covertly degrading the quality of their service so they'll stop using so much data. Both practices are very dangerous to their long-term prospects.

The problem is that the people who use a lot of data aren't just the freakish fanatics that the industry would like to imagine them as. They are Internet power users, a group that we labeled the Most Frequent Contributors (MFCs) when we recently researched Internet usage patterns at Rubicon (link). They don't just use a lot of video -- they are generally very involved in all sorts of online activities. Most importantly for the operators, they write the majority of the reviews and user comments posted online.

So, if you kick a power user off your network, or throttle their performance, they are extremely likely to write about you online. Extensively. Where their complaints will be read by most other Internet users. Check out the comments here and here if you want a sample.

Systematically punishing your noisiest customers is not the way to build a sustainable business.

What else can the operators do?

I wish there were some magical formulation that would make users happy and operators financially sound. But there isn't, because the problem is inherent to the way a wireless network operates. And as the installed base of smartphones grows, and video and other multimedia services increase in popularity, the problem is only going to get worse.

The most damaging approach is that one that operators seem to be leaning toward now, covertly throttling traffic. They can probably get away with that for a while, but eventually people online will compare notes, figure out that network performance is being systematically distorted -- and then the class-action lawyers (in the US) and government regulators (in Europe) will be unleashed.

Honesty is the best policy. Ultimately I think there's no alternative to moving to pricing plans that acknowledge the physical limits on the wireless Internet. That, and the operators need to resist the temptation of advertising their Internet as identical to the wired Internet. The MFCs are technically sophisticated, and capable of understanding the need for tiered pricing if it's explained to them clearly and honestly. What causes endless friction is the hypocrisy of calling something "unlimited" and then limiting it.


Belated thanks to Voip Survivor for featuring my post on app stores in the Carnival of the Mobilists (link).

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