Bloody Data Plans

Back at the dawn of computing we had dial-up service (with acoustic couplers for my fellow old geeks out there). Sure it was slow, but it was portable in a way that we’ve lost with current data plans. That is, as long as you knew your access number and login credentials, you could connect any device you wanted to the network. Companies even facilitated this portability by providing local access numbers or toll-free numbers so you could connect anything from anywhere you had a phone line.

When broadband came into our homes, by it’s nature it was anchored to a single location. Providers initially toyed with charging for each connected computer, similar to the way the phone company of my youth used to charge for each telephone in the house. But that quickly gave way to allowing home networking and allowing you to connect all your devices over a single broadband connection for a single price.

Cell TowerThen along came cell phones and wireless service.  Initially, as a second phone service, and often a second company, cell phones charged independently from your home phone.  Further, the need for each phone to have a publicly known number and for calls to be connected to the device reasonably meant that each phone was billed separately.  This would have been analogous to adding a second phone line to your house.

However, phones have now progressed to where even calling them phones is a bit of an anachronism.  They are small handheld computers or data devices.  Even voice services, thanks to Skype, Google Voice and other mobile VoIP services, flies over the data side now.  And data networks are inherently organized such that multiple devices can connect without additional service provider overhead, the same as they do in the broadband case.

Further, people are now more likely to have multiple devices to connect.  Sure, they have a smartphone, but increasingly they also have an iPad or Kindle, and maybe a wireless data card for their laptop or a MiFi.  Although one of the largest barriers to people grabbing on to all these tech options is that the wireless providers are still insisting that each device is a separate phone line and needs a separate wireless plan.  There’s no technical reason for this, but it helps them pad their bottom line.

Adding to the confusion is the roll-out of various 4G services.  This means wireless data at DSL speeds.  Given that many people have already tossed their landline phones as a cost saving measure, how long before people start to wonder why they pay for broadband at home when wireless service in the house is just as good?  But under current business models you’d be back to paying to connect every device in your house as a separate billable connection.

At some point, it seems that either competition, regulation, or a maybe a consumer revolt should come along and start consolidating all the data plans.  Voice, texting, television, broadband data, and wireless data are all just different content running over the same network.  It makes no sense to pay multiple connection fees to the same thing.  There needs to be a new pricing model.

Ideally, I want to pay a flat fee for access to the network.  That could be at the family, household, or even at the personal level.  But having paid that fee, I can use data anywhere on any device I choose.  I can talk, text, blog, or watch TV.  Data is data.  Then in addition, I’m fine with certain content providers charging for access to their content.  NBC might choose to offer their programming free and offset that with ad revenue, while the New York Times might charge $2/week to see their articles.  Meanwhile the Travel Channel will sell me a season pass to Man vs. Food.  Then it becomes my choice.

Right now, a great deal of the innovation happening in this country is happening in the wireless application space.  Cloud computing, tablets, netbooks, smartphones are all offering to make our lives more connected with more access to our stuff in more places.  But the advances are being dramatically gated by the lack of affordable data connectivity.  As I’ve said before, the Internet is every bit as vital a part of our national infrastructure as electricity.  We can’t afford to treat it more casually.  And the challenges we face are not simply technical, but are business model challenges as well.

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