My LTE Chowder
Streaming data eats through data plan. News at 11.
The WSJ ran a story on how users are surprised that an LTE iPad can eat through their data plan quickly. Dalrymple poked fun at it, and Gruber chimed in, and the Mac community had a good laugh. I laughed too.
But, I’m going to go out on a limb here and say that I think the Mac community is dead wrong here. I know that Gruber and Dalrymple aren’t often wrong and I’ll probably have to eat my hat, but I’m going to bet that I’ll stay hungry.
Stupid n00bs need to learn
Laughing at LTE neophytes feels very familiar. I laughed when people clicked on spam emails because they were ignorant of spam. Then spam got tricky enough to trick me. I laughed when only n00bs got viruses because they were ignorant of how to stay away from them. Then viruses got good and I got infected. Laughing at ignorance is funny right up until things get complicated and you become the ignorant one. Then it’s not so funny anymore.
Mobile wireless data services have, at least in recent years, provided an abundance of data. You buy a service capped at some large limit, 5GB per month here in the states, and that’s plenty for the vast majority of users. Even as a geek I’ve only come close to the 5GB limit a couple times. I’ve never gone over it. The reason is that 3G data is slow. Watching streaming services like Netflix and Hulu on 3G is painful at best. This isn’t to say that people don’t ever use up their 5GB. Some heavy users surely do. And many folks probably hit it once in a blue moon. But for the vast majority of users it’s always plenty.
Now with LTE, we suddenly have a big fat pipe to to empty our data plan quickly. And a beautiful iPad to view the data on, just in case we needed the extra motivation. Suddenly, that 5GB of pre-purchased data isn’t quite as limitless as it seemed last month. Worse, each extra 1GB of data is going to cost you about $10.
What’s the big deal
Is this wrong? No. RF bandwidth is costly and scarce. Carriers have to pay for that bandwidth and the equipment to use it. The carriers must charge us for using it or lose money. As much as I like to gripe about the carriers, I don’t want them to go out of business or stop innovating.
The big deal is that for the past 5 years wireless data has been marketed as practically unlimited. The LTE iPad changes that. LTE’s speed means that you can blow through your monthly allotment in an afternoon of YouTube videos or a road trip streaming kids videos to the back seat. It’s not just that you can use up your data plan, it’s that it’s become easy.
For the past few years we’ve been driving a Smart car to run our few errands. The 5 gallons of gas we pre-paid for was plenty to get things done. Heck there was gas left in the tank on most months! Now, iPad 3 owners have traded in their Smart car for a Hummer. They can finally tow their boat while transporting most of the baseball team. It has so many more uses! But that 5 gallons of gas sure does go fast. And it doesn’t help that gas is $10 gallon and you can only buy it from one gas station. All of a sudden that Hummer isn’t so useful.
Just so it’s clear, here’s my claim, all prepped and ready for chowder: I think a whole bunch of novice users are going to blow through their limits in the next two months. I think it’s going to be so many that either Apple or the carriers will have to respond in some public way shortly thereafter. I think this will take about two months to brew, another for people to get the bill and freak out, and bit more for the response. If it doesn’t happen by July, I’m wrong. I don’t think this will adversely affect iPad sales in any measurable way. I think the result of this will depend greatly on the response — but I’m not making any bets about what that might be.