Wednesday, July 21, 2010

Death Of Unlimited Wireless Internet - Hope Not

Those of us who are fortunately enough to have relatively unlimited wireless Internet, and I say relative because our definition of unlimited is not the same as those of wireless providers, we need to remember these days when we tell our grandchildren about them. Because like ATT, Verizon Wireless (VW) is looking to rid themselves of us freeloaders and institute a similar pricing and limitation on data like Ma Bell.

How will this play out?

Verizon has not made an official announcement but the blogs are chatting it up. I am not sure it'll happen in weeks or even in the next month but I believe when VW's 4G network, LTE, gets turned on, that is when the current unlimited data plans will get thrown out.

What's not clear is how VW will approach this. Considering the initial outcry, there hasn't been a lot of wholesale defections from ATT. But that is likely because of the legions of iPhone users that are willing to put up with ATT. I, for one, am not and I'm sticking with T-Mobile for now even though my contract is almost over.

I'm waiting to see what VW will do and what T-Mobile is planning once there is a mobile device with HSPA+ support. We should know in a few short weeks as T-Mobile has promised some news in this matter.

There is precedence to go on. Sprint continues to offer unlimited WiMax access to users of its HTC EVO phone but has added an additional $10 monthly access fee. But I think it's safe to say that VW and T-Mobile, the only two main wireless providers in the US has upgraded networks but yet to announce anything with respect to data plans, has considered many options.

Do What Ma Bell Did. One option is to follow ATT, offer lower prices but ration data usage. This is certainly the option I see VW go with. It limits Internet use and really gets rid of any Web hogs that might come its way. And VW has a strong enough reputation in the area of coverage and customer service that it might be able to weather any discontent.

Furthermore, VW can also offer current users the option of grandfathering their current plans.

For T-Mobile, this is simply not an option. It is the 4th biggest wireless provider and has problems retaining never mind attracting new users. And for many users who paid full price for their iPhones and unlocked it to avoid ATT, T-Mobile is suppose to be one of the good guys. Rationing data access would make them no better than ATT. So it's not going to happen.

Good guys don't do that.

Do what Sprint Did. Because both VW and T-Mobile have new or updated networks coming online soon, LTE for VW and HSPA+ for T-Mobile, they may be able to convince the market that they need to charge for the faster speed that they're getting.

I can see VW and T-Mobile going this route. It's safe because they can point to Sprint and say "they started it". However, it is possible that T-Mobile, if they do believe it justifies a change in data plans, will take this route.

What won't happen...Maybe. What's not likely to happen is for VW to increase price because of faster LTE access and still limit data usage. There simply are too many other compelling options for customers to go with. But I would not put it past the greed of wireless providers to give this a go. VW has been pretty vocal about making us pay for access.

But believe me, I won't be biting if VW jacks up the price for wireless data and then tells me I need to worry about how much of it I can use.

One Other Option. There is one other option that I have not heard anyone consider and I can't understand why that is. For those of us who have DSL or cable Internet at home, we are given many choices. The plans we can go with depends on how fast of a downstream and upstream we want.

So why aren't the wireless providers talking about this options? I think it is entirely viable for wireless providers to give this option a look. For instance, I don't really think I need 21Mbps for download. I'm completely happy with regular old 3G speed. So charge me $25 as T-Mobile already do now and perhaps if one day I want that HSPA+ speed, I'll be happy to pay the $50 monthly fee.

I think this option should also be very attractive to VW customers. For the current price, customers can keep their CDMA speed but if they want all the goodness that an LTE network brings, they'll need to pay more.

And even within LTE access, VW can be tiered speed while still provide customers with "unlimited" internet data. $40 for 10Mbps and $50 for the maximum speed whatever that may be.

Conclusion. So while the unlimited data has gone the way of the dinosaurs, it has not happened at Sprint and it's not likely going to happen at T-Mobile.

VW will likely follow ATT's lead and change their data plans with pricing tweaks and do away with unlimited data.

For T-Mobile, it's a bit more tricky. By my reckoning, upgrading to HSPA+ was an inexpensive way of upgrading its 3G network and still compete with WiMax and LTE until it can build out its 4G network. Sprint and VW has had to build out their WiMax and LTE networks, respectively, from scratch so hiking prices is justifiable (in their minds).

T-Mobile's upgrade process involves software patches and given its 4th place status, T-Mobile might consider keeping things just the way they are to win over users while marketing its 21Mbps network.

So, I still hope out hope that folks at the remaining two wireless providers to think clearly and consider other options other than increase prices or ration data usage. But these are wireless providers that I have spent many a posts complaining about.

We'll know in weeks if not months how the market will change. We know that unlimited wireless Internet isn't dead, because of Sprint, VW and T-Mobile can guide which way the market goes.

Impact. The impact on mobile warriors is still being worked out. Should unfettered wireless Internet prevail or find a way to exist in the marketplace, I believe innovations in mobile computing will continue unhindered. However, if we are limited by wireless gatekeepers interested only in the collection of monthly checks from us, we can only hope that the innovative energy that developers for apps and wireless services can be channeled elsewhere and won't disappear entirely.

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