Smartphones & Usage-Based Pricing: Are Price Controls Coming?

by on July 12, 2011 · 1 comment

Two data points in the news over the past 24 hours to consider:

  • A new report on “Smartphone Adoption & Usage” by the Pew Internet Project finds that “one third of American adults – 35% – own smartphones” and that of that group “some 87% of smartphone owners access the Internet or email on their handheld” and “25% of smartphone owners say that they mostly go online using their phone, rather than with a computer.”
  • According to the Wall Street Journal, the “Average iPhone Owner Will Download 83 Apps This Year.” That’s up from an average of 51 apps downloaded in 2010. (At first I was astonished when I read that, but then realized that I’ve probably downloaded an equal number of apps myself, albeit on an Android-based device.)

As I explain in my latest Forbes column, facts like these help us understand “How iPhones And Androids Ushered In A Smartphone Pricing Revolution.” That is, major wireless carriers are in the process of migrating from flat-rate, “all-you-can-eat” wireless data plans to usage-based plans. The reason is simple economics: data demand is exploding faster than data supply can keep up.

“It’s been four years since the introduction of the iPhone and rival devices that run Google’s Android software,” notes Cecilia Kang of The Washington Post. “In that time, the devices have turned much of America into an always-on, Internet-on-the-go society.” Indeed, but it’s not just the iPhone and Android smartphones. It’s all those tablets that have just come online over the past year, too. We are witnessing a tectonic shift in how humans consume media and information, and we are witnessing this revolution unfold over a very short time frame.

Unsurprisingly, therefore, “unlimited” wireless data plans are probably on the way out since, as I observe in my Forbes piece:

That model created unsustainable network traffic burdens and it’s surprising unlimited plans have lasted this long. With smartphone users increasingly using their mobile devices to access the Internet and consume more cloud-based services and mobile video than ever, the “all you can eat” data buffet eventually had to end.

But critics are far too quick to suggest this is some of nefarious, anti-consumer conspiracy. In reality, I argue:

Tiered and metered pricing schemes are a sensible way to price demand for bandwidth-intensive users and applications and, in the process, alleviate network congestion, encourage new investment, and ensure that average costs for consumers are more reasonable over time.

Using usage data provided by Nielsen, I document the dramatic traffic growth that carriers are struggling to deal with but also show how most average consumers will do better under the new tiered plans. That’s because, even with a significant uptick in wireless data demand, the vast majority of users will not exceed the lowest tier of service (2 GB) that carriers are pricing at $20-$30. That’s less than most of them pay today. Thus:

It’s only the most rapacious mobile data consumers who’ll pay the higher tier prices. Doesn’t it make more sense that the most intensive network users pay more instead of raising average costs for all consumers? Why should minimal data users subsidize the big eaters?

Instead of repeating it all here, I’d just encourage you to bounce over to Forbes to read my entire essay.

The interesting policy question raised by all this is whether critics and policymakers will give network operators the freedom to innovate and employ creative business models so market experimentation can determine which pricing schemes will best calibrate supply and demand while also ensuring optimal network investment. You may recall that usage-based pricing has already become a flashpoint in the Net neutrality wars, and just last Friday I wrote about Netflix’s shameless attempt to get the feds to regulate usage-based pricing on the wireline front.

So, stay tuned. This fight could really heat up. Perhaps it’s time to dust off the old books and papers about how to fight off government price controls!


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