Mobile carriers keep the promised land on an ever-receding horizon

Nobody - not you, devlopers or carriers - can afford the next generation of mobile services

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Upon taking delivery of a new iPhone last month, my mobile carrier informed me that as a special gift, the data fairies had granted me an additional 25 GB of mobile data. The catch: I had to use all of it within 30 days.

That has turned out to be a good thing. If the offer had been spread out over the 24 months of my contract, I’d parsimoniously measure out each extra gigabyte per month, going just up to the limit, but never daring to venture into the dangerous pay-by-the-megabyte realm.

Conditioned by the horror stories of those extra data fees, few of us would ever knowingly violate our mobile data limits. The costs far outweigh any benefits. Caged by our fears, we tend to under-use our mobile data.

In an unexpected reversal, my carrier now seemed to be saying, “Use your data. Use a lot of data. Use it now.”

These last weeks have been a sort of nerdvana. Do I want to download a 100-megabyte song from iTunes Match? Yes! Watch that streaming high-definition television programme? Sure! Create a 4G WiFi hotspot so I can work anywhere? Please!

All of these represent the kinds of activities I’d normally pursue - though always with one eye on my bandwidth consumption, nervously awaiting a text message from my carrier telling me I’d used half, three-quarters, or ninety percent of my allotment.

Although feeling liberated by this extra bandwidth, I can still dimly sense the limitations that will reassert themselves when this boon expires. It's a taste of freedom, with no time to savour it.

This got me to wondering how we might use our mobile devices differently in a world where this kind of mobile bandwidth - at least 10x more than the majority contracts here in Australia offer today - becomes commonplace. Where the extraordinary becomes the everyday.

Designers create mobile apps based on a set of expectations around how people use bandwidth. We use those apps with these same expectations in mind. When we tap on the screen, we do so with a headful of assumptions of what’s possible. These assumptions keep us from making the most of mobility.

Every time we look into a smartphone screen, we can only see as far as our bandwidth lets us peer. We poke around in the shallows, ignorant of the wonders that might await us in the depths.

All of this is so much history repeating.

Web pages needed very little bandwidth in 1996 - a 28.8Kbps modem could load Yahoo! nicely. Within a few years, bandwidth-hogging apps like Napster and iTunes forced ISPs lift their game. Those apps redefined the connected experience, driving broadband uptake.

It feels as though mobile may be on the cusp of a similar transition - if we can think outside the bandwidth box.

In the seven years since purchasing a Nokia N95 - arguably the first smartphone - my mobile cap has grown from 1GB to 2.5GB. That’s substantial, but well behind the exponential growth in mobile data seen in every nation, year upon year. It feels as though forward progress into the depths of 10GB caps - a zone where you simply stop thinking about the consequences of mobile traffic - has been put on indefinite hold.

Perhaps an order of magnitude increase in mobile data traffic would melt some cellular towers. More likely, it’s a business decision calculated to extract the greatest revenue for the least cost.

When pricing the monthly cost of this kind of ‘blue sky’ mobile data, I got a range of quotes. Long story short, carriers will give you enough mobile downloads to change your habits, but at a price that at least doubles your monthly spend.

Ironically, mobile carriers have trapped themselves within their own bandwidth box. While fees remain high, the virtuous cycle of development and user deployment that drives the demand for bandwidth can’t get started. Seen as out of alignment with user behaviors shaped by bandwidth costs, killer mobile apps never make it through the development process. Having hamstrung themselves with expensive data, the mobile ecosystem profits the carrier, but provides no way to break out into a disruptive reimagining of the possibilities for mobile.

Living with almost unlimited mobile bandwidth, I’ve been reminded that the mobile revolution remains tantalizing over the horizon. We use our smartphones a lot - looking at them over 200 times a day - but I can’t get over the sense that we’re growing increasingly frustrated, peering through the bars of our cage at the promised land.

We want to dive in, go beyond, cruise the depths, and discover something new.

That’s what we’ve always wanted. But in order to reach those depths, we’ve got to find a way out of this cage. ®

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