In what universe does a business penalize its best customers?
Well, perhaps all-you-can-eat restaurants too often patronized as practice facilities by Joey Chestnut, Takeru Kobayashi and other competitive eaters.
Oh, and cell phone carriers.
Starting October 1, AT&T will reduce the data connection speed – Web surfing, texting, email, video/audio/app downloading, photo sending – of its smart phone subscribers who enter the top 5 percent of the carrier's heaviest users.
These heavy, unlimited plan, users – iPhone users alone account for 2.9 percent of ALL U.S. Web traffic, and smart phones in total account for 8.2 percent – can continue to upload, download, sideload, whatever, it'll just be a slower process until the start of the billing period.
AT&T stresses "you have to use an extraordinary amount of data in a single billing period" to reach that 5 percent of heaviest users. AT&T says it will notify you if you're about to cross that 5 percent threshold.
Should you watch your data usage? Honestly, you probably won't have to. AT&T says "these customers on average use 12 times more data than the average of all other smart phone data customers." In other words, if you don't live on your smart phone, you're probably cool.
All you can't eat
If 95 percent of AT&T smart phone users won't be affected, why the sensationalist headline filled with implications of corporate malfeasance?
To get your attention, of course, to a far more serious long-term problem.
Like the aforementioned all-you-can-eat restaurant with too many gastromically inclined patrons, cell phone carriers are running out of wireless supply – or, in tech parlance, spectrum. This is why Verizon has eliminated new unlimited data plans, and why T-Mobile has adopted a similar slow-down mechanism for heavy users as AT&T.
Spectrum are the sets of radio frequencies used by cell phones to wirelessly transmit and receive your voice and data. Wireless phone spectrum, however, is limited, and has been since the days of car telephones. The creation of the cell network in the late 1960s was an ingenious way of "recycling" spectrum – instead of one limited set of frequencies serving an entire city (much like a radio station broadcasts over hundreds of miles), each small cell reuses that same set frequencies as the cell next to it.
So, instead of a set of city-wide frequencies accommodating a few hundred people, each cell can accommodate a few hundred people, but now multiplied by hundreds or even thousands of cells. (The types of frequencies used in a cell also increase the number of users.)
But smart phones have been victims of their own success. The more a phone is capable of performing all manner of smart wireless data gymnastics, the more we tend to use it and the more people get one.
How much data are we using? According to telecommunications analyst Chetan Sharma, back in 2007 when the iPhone first became available we averaged 20 MB of data per month each. By the end of last year, each of us was up to around 370 MB per month. Sharma thinks we'll each average almost 3 GB month by 2014.
Like oil, fresh water, clean air and fertile farm land, we're running out of spectrum.
Short- and long-term spectrum solutions
From a practical standpoint, if you want to minimize your spectrum footprint, use Wi-Fi when you're home or when available when you're out and about.
AT&T and other carriers have been supplementing their cell networks with Wi-Fi – in New York City, for instance, AT&T supplies free Wi-Fi to its customers in Times Square to help alleviate heavy cellular traffic in the area, just one such hotzone in a growing network. Other carriers are initiating the same Wi-Fi zones to off-load some of their wireless data traffic.
But the wireless industry has been begging the government to initiate additional wireless spectrum auctions – removing swatches of purportedly under-used TV spectrum from broadcasters and selling it to wireless carriers.
These wireless spectrum auctions are one of the few revenue generating/deficit reduction ideas all the bickering political factions in Washington agree on. Revenue estimates from such auctions range between $6.5 and $40 billion over a period of time. The only question is whether to make these auctions a part of an omnibus deficit reduction/debt ceiling deal or do it separately. This question may be answered by the time you read this.
In the meantime, if you're a heavy AT&T data user – likely on an iPhone – you're going to have to watch your data intake this fall.