Hate data fees but love your HD slab? Here's a better way to pay for bytes

Charging per meg in a gig-per-vid world will bankrupt punters ... but there's a way out

A gigabyte is 1,073,741,824 bytes. Computer science tells us this is so. It's 10243 bytes. Except when it's not.

Apple, in common with virtually everyone else pushing systems, treats a gig as 1,000,000,000 bytes for users of Macs, iPhones and iPads; simpler for consumers, but the difference is almost seven per cent. When this relates to a disk holding, say, 3TB or 4TB the difference may not be significant.

But when you have a mobile data plan for your smartphone, tablet or laptop, counting your bytes matters because the stakes are higher: a 3TB hard disk will set you back about 3p per gigabyte, whereas a phone network will charge much, much more. And it may not always be clear if a phone network defines a gigabyte as 10243 or 10003 bytes - even after you've diligently checked the small print and spoke to sales advisors.

Then, even if you put arithmetic differences to one side, a fundamental problem remains - which, for mobile data plan subscribers, is the ability to see precisely how much data they have consumed within their monthly allowances.

Yes, there are tools available, some built into Android, iOS and other operating systems and others as downloadable apps - like that from Onavo - that try to measure your data usage. The trouble with nearly all of these is that they come with health warnings; that what they measure as usage may well differ from the view of the network carrier.

How can this be? Well, besides the intended data usage - such as transferring a file, updating an app or watching a TV show - there is a transmission overhead associated with non-trivial communications, and mobile comms are no different. These extra bytes all add up and may not be counted by the software on your device.

Today, the user, whether working for an enterprise or as a consumer, cannot always know exactly how much of their data allowance has been consumed. But the network carrier can tell, and often it is not in its self-interest to inform anyone.

One possible answer is that mobile data carriers provide a (preferably near real-time) counter that shows what has been and is being consumed at that moment. Such a network-provided readout, which should be accessible at any time and accurate to (say) one minute ago, would help enormously, especially if it could trigger appropriate alerts as one's allowance runs out. Yet there are no signs of this happening.

As it stands, insufficient information often produces one of two undesirable results:

  • The customer consumes too little, because they are afraid they might incur high and/or unpredictable charges
  • The customer over-consumes and then receives those huge bills that cause immense ill-will, elevating support costs for operators as they field calls from unhappy customers.

Ignorance does not always produce bliss...

Apart from more transparency, ditching volume-based billing altogether for some types of online activity might also be an option. One such idea emerged in late July at a visit to Amdocs in Ra’anana, Israel (25km north of Tel Aviv). With its background in providing business and operations support systems to telcos and ISPs, Amdocs is in a good position to explore alternative ways of charging people.

One of the use-cases it has been working through, for example, is what happens when you want to watch (say) a movie or TV programme when waiting at an airport or somewhere where the only connection is a mobile one, where neither a Wi-Fi nor direct LAN connection is available.

Most digital movies require 800MB to 1.2GB to store on disk. These generally are high quality. If, however, you have a 1GB/month data plan or a 3GB/month data plan, then watching one such movie consumes all or much of your plan's allowance. The question the Amdocs posed was whether there are other ways the video stream could be offered to the user by mobile carriers and/or movie distributors that would make sense for the customer, the network and Hollywood.

One possible answer suggested was that the user be offered a choice. He or she could utilise their existing data plan, not knowing how much would be consumed. A second option might be to offer a standard quality for the movie for, say, $5 that consumed none of the data plan. A third option might be to offer a high-def download of the movie for, say, $11.95 - again without consuming any of the data plan. In addition, these two "off-plan" options could provide the ability to resume and finish the movie if the watcher had to interrupt his or her viewing (perhaps being called to the aeroplane or whatever).

Prima facie, this sort of approach has obvious appeal to all three participants -- consumer, mobile data carrier and film studio. And it is this type of triple-win outcome that we could do with seeing more of from mobile operators and the technology companies that provide the service management and billing infrastructure.

If anyone else has similarly interesting ideas, let us know what they are. Whether the operators will take any notice – well, that is another question. ®

Charles Brett is principal analyst at Freeform Dynamics [Bio].

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