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Saturday, December 11, 2010

The end of unlimited* mobile data has almost arrived

Mark Bridge writes:

Unlimited mobile data. Once upon a time, it seemed that everyone offered it. Not that mobile data was ever really unlimited – there tended to be a ‘fair usage’ clause tucked away in the terms and conditions – but the word ‘unlimited’ was used a lot. The fact that it was always accompanied by an asterisk didn’t seem to trouble trading standards departments. That single little star appeared to excuse any legal liability.

And then, horror of horrors, people actually started using their data allowances. Rather like Hoover and the flights offer of 1992, mobile networks were caught on the back foot by the enthusiasm of their smartphone-wielding customers. Those fair usage allowances started to become more specific – 500MB per month, 1GB per month, 3GB per month – but the ‘u-word’ was still being used.

However, it really has started dying out. Browsing through the UK’s major mobile networks today reveals that only T-Mobile is still shouting about ‘unlimited internet’ in its headlines. The others are all promoting fixed allowances. (The obvious exception is MVNO giffgaff, which genuinely does offer unlimited data for personal use on a mobile phone, subject to a few T’s and C’s).

Unfortunately, many mobile users don’t really know how much data they’re using. Now that the (albeit false) comfort of an ‘unlimited’ allowance has disappeared, they have some stark choices. They guess, they worry, they use their phone until it stops working or they end up installing a data-monitoring app. Yet surely no sensible mobile operator wants customers who are nervous about using their phones.

As we’ve said recently on our podcasts – and as others have pointed out – data caps are meaningless to most consumers. 1GB may allow 10 hours of web browsing or sending a thousand emails… but what about playing Mahjong online?  What about downloading Angry Birds?  Using your favourite iPad app?  There are too many choices to make sense.

I don’t have any answers. But I do have an inkling which way we’re heading. We’ve already seen Orange UK introduce the idea of ‘off-peak’ data with its new iPad deals. I reckon we’ll see much more traffic-shaping going on in 2011. Perhaps there’ll be rewards for using a femtocell. Perhaps there’ll be reduced costs for reduced speeds. Even a return to per-minute pricing. I’ll certainly give it some more thought before The Fonecast makes its predictions for next year on 22nd December!

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Author: The Fonecast
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