Mobile Sands

February 2, 2010

Billing for Mobile Connected Devices

Filed under: 3G, LTE — Tags: , , , , — AJ @ 4:40 am

Imagine if every home appliance you own required its own electricity subscription, and the price of a light bulb included lifetime electricity usage!

Well, that is how mobile broadband connectivity is being priced today for “connected devices” ranging from tablet computers to electronic book readers. Apple iPad owners need to pay an additional $14.99/month to access AT&T’s 3G network even if they have unlimited data plan with AT&T. And Sprint 3G subscribers need to pay for the data charge bundled with their eBook purchases from Amazon, just like everybody else.

When Edison first started selling electricity to consumers in 1882, he priced it by the light bulb. At that time, the primary application of electricity was illumination. Edison promoted electric lamps as “the sun’s only rival” and often subsidized them. Tied to each light bulb was an unlimited usage plan.  Sounds familiar? It took another ten years before Chicago Edison Company (led by Samuel Insull) started charging for electricity consumed. Insull grew Chicago Edison into one of the largest utilities in America, and the pricing model he pioneered opened the doors led to a proliferation of electricity-consuming appliances, driving decades of rapid growth for the electricity business.

To get similar growth in the mobile broadband business, carriers need to offer plans that cover all devices owned by a single person (or family), and then, charge for bandwidth consumed. An AT&T subscriber who buys an iPad should be able to add it to her existing 3G plan and do the same when she buys a new PlasticLogic e-Reader or Isabella’s VIZIT photo frame. Not only will this make connected devices more affordable and palatable to consumers, it will increase make consumers more loyal to the wireless operators they chose.

Metered pricing is essential for such “converged” pricing to work. Today’s “unlimited” usage plans are often tied to particular devices and are  based on the premise that the device and how it is typically used will limit actual usage to a manageable amount. A typical user of an email device like Blackberry uses just 30-40 MB of data per month. iPhone users use thrice as much data but still, it is not a lot. All this changes when you have dozens of devices connected to the wireless network, soaking up bandwidth all the time.

Carriers are definitely thinking about metered billing, especially as they look at introducing connected devices.   Verizon’s CTO Dick Lynch talked about this topic in an interview with Washington Post last month, and said that metered billing is essential for both, reducing network congestion and to enable “open devices”. The move towards the pricing model that made utilities successful is on.

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2 Comments »

  1. Amit,
    I agree with your assessment. Lack of broadband competition, both for fixed and wireless, is impeding the economy. Great op-ed piece by Yochai Benkler of the Berkman Center for Internet and Society at Harvard in today’s NY Times that addresses this subject: http://www.nytimes.com/2010/03/21/opinion/21Benkler.html

    Comment by Levi — March 22, 2010 @ 7:40 am

  2. However, the broadband carriers also may not want to become pure “utility” companies that provide metered broadband, without any ownership of content being provided to the consumer.

    The content is the differentiating factor – unlike electricity, it is not seen as a stream of electrons or bits and bytes, but as a product in itself. The hardware device that provides the content to the user is relatively passive, unlike the electric devices which were the consumers of electricity. However, the consumer for the broadband bits & bytes is the end-user.

    How does one resolve this anomaly and still provide content with a metered, standardized approach – that needs to be worked out between the broadband carriers and content providers.

    Comment by Shailja Dhruva — August 19, 2010 @ 5:52 pm


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