Data caps. Let’s talk about it.
Most (if not all) of us are familiar with data caps. You sign up for a cellphone plan and the carrier tells you have a choice of how much data you want to consume a month. So you sign up for perhaps 5GB a month if you’re a light user or perhaps 15-20GB if you’re a heavy user. If you go over your limit, you’re usually denied access or your speed is severely throttled back. But then you have to ask yourself…..why? Why does it matter if I use 5GB or 15 GB a month? What’s the difference between 20GB and 20.1GB of data?
There have been articles like this that argue that billing people with different usages at the same rate is inherently unfair. In January 2013, National Cable and Telecommunications Association (NCTA) president Michael Powell stated in a speech that cable’s interest in data caps was no longer (or never was) about network congestion but instead about pricing fairness. For example, if an unlimited data plan is, say, $100 a month, why should grandma who only uses the internet to check her email be billed the same as a 24 year old college student who plays online multiplayer games and streams Netflix all the time? Wouldn’t be fair to just charge grandma only for the amount of data she used? Here’s the thing, from a technical point of view, there’s no difference data wise between what grandma does and what the college student does. If the bandwidth used by the college student interferes with grandma’s email checking, that’s a network issue the carrier needs to deal with, not the consumer. Yet, carriers insist that in order to better manage bandwidth, a usage based pricing scheme is better. But that goes back to my earlier question: What’s the difference between 20GB and 20.1GB of data? Would that extra .1GB of data somehow cause network instability? No. No it wouldn’t. It’s just an arbitrary way to generate profits for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) and wireless carriers.
Look, I’m all for capitalism and businesses need to make profits in order to keep the business running. Wireless carriers and ISPs obviously have costs associated with maintaining and upgrading their networks and it’s important to ensure that customers are charged fairly. However, if the angst among carriers/ISPs is pricing fairness vs network infrastructure, then there is another way to ensure pricing fairness without arbitrary data limits. The answer is speed. We already do this with broadband connections. Right now, services such as Comcast Xfinity, Verizon FiOS, and Cox charge their customers based on how much speed they want. Speed is the great equalizer because different applications need different amounts of bandwidth depending on their use.
A quick primer on networking speeds: Network speed (or bandwidth) is measured in bits per second. Network speed is not literally how fast data can get from one place to another. Network speed is measuring how much data (or bits) can you send at one time. So a 5 Mbps connection is able to send up to 5 megabits every second. Likewise, a 50 Mbps connection is able to send up to 50 megabits every second. The 50Mbps connection will be faster than the 5Mbps because it can transfer more data at one time.
To use the earlier grandma/college student example, the grandma who checks her email and browses the web would need significantly less speed than the college student who plays online multiplayer and streams Netflix. In order to have a smooth gaming session, higher speeds are needed to ensure low latency (or delay) which is especially critical on twitch based games like first person shooters. Conversely, checking your email or browsing Facebook does not need the amount of bandwidth because web pages aren’t that huge. Here’s another example: let’s say both grandma and the college student have connections to the same ISP in the same neighborhood. That means they’d probably share the same overall data connection to the ISP’s network. Let’s say the total amount of bandwidth available in that neighborhood was 100Mbps (highly unlikely but just go with me here). The more bandwidth the college student uses, the less bandwidth will be available for grandma. Therefore, it’s only fair if the college student pays more for that extra bandwidth while grandma pays less for less bandwidth. No data caps, no worrying about “going over” every month. You use as much data as you want at the speed you need. The extra money that the ISP earns from customers needing more bandwidth can go towards expanding the 100 Mbps connection and thus expanding the amount of speed available for more customers in that neighborhood.
The example I listed involved a broadband ISP but the same logic can be used for wireless carriers as well. Instead of forcing people into needless data caps that don’t really affect network congestion, carriers such as Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint should separate customers by network speed. Perhaps carriers/ISPs should focus on improving their network rather than worry about how much data someone uses per month.