Evolving The Mobile Data Billing Model

AT&T 3G USB DongleEarlier this week AT&T has its quarterly earnings call. Normally I would not give it any notice at all. It’d just be another bunch of noise in my Google Reader in-box. This week they did something that simply jumped out at me; they called for an evolution of the current billing model for mobile data plans. Oddly enough…I agree…sort of.

Of course, their perspective on this is not quite the same as my own. AT&T want to be rid of the $60/mo for all-you-can-eat billing model and charge based upon actual usage, perhaps in some sort of tiered fashion.

Literally everyone knows that the current billing model is badly broken. Their flat rate “unlimited” plans are not really unlimited at all. My Sprint 3G service was pretty plain about it being capped at 5 GB/month. Beyond that I’d guess that it gets costly. Moreover they claim performance levels that almost no-one ever achieves in practice.

In truth, I am very surprised that the FTC has not stepped in to enforce some truth in advertising…where truth is telling the paying public exactly what they’re paying for. Unlimited plans ought not to be allowed unless they are well and truly unlimited. IMHO the carriers have walked a fine line, balancing service & performance claims with disclaimers. They’ve been just honest enough to keep themselves from regulatory intervention.

My personal concern is a little different. I think that it’s becoming increasingly unreasonable to tie the service to a physical device. Why should I be constrained to using the Mifi that they provided? What if I buy my own 3G or 4G dongle? Could I use that instead? I ought to be able to use the pocket spot or USB dongle as best fits my needs of the moment.

What if my wife wants access as well? Just as I can have a family plan for sharing voice minutes we should share a common plan for data. I should not need to pay another $60/mo for her to have a 3G dongle, too. What if we end up with a couple of netbooks with built-in 3G access? Why should I pay another $60.mo for each of those, which would be light, occasional use items?

We should be able to add devices to our plan as desired, then add to our data allocation as necessary. We’re happy to pay the price, but we want the flexibility.

At this very moment I’m tempted by the OverDrive 3G/4G pocketspot or a dual-mode USB dongle. However, I’m not in a position to get upgraded hardware at a discount because my plan is relatively new. So I’m going to have to buy another device if I decide to go that route. Why should I be force to take my old Mifi out of service just because I’ve bought another device?

To my knowledge no-one offers such a plan as yet. They want their monthly pound of flesh on a per user basis, where “user” is one device….then cap your usage to ensure that you don’t tax their network too much. It’s very one-sided.

The billing model should evolve, but consumer needs will be part of that evolution. If you want tiered billing then be prepared to compete on both price and performance, and let me add devices as I see fit.

Maybe the plan that Apple has proposed for the 3G iPad might become the new model for mobile data. It might not be perfect, but it could a step in the right direction.

Ultimately, data plans need to be more like voice plans, with options that accommodate families, multiple devices, and variable data usage scenarios.