J003-Content-Where-has-bandwidth-gone_SQA few years back, a new sushi restaurant opened up in our area that offered all you could eat for $15. For sushi lovers like my son, that would have been a deal at twice the price. He and others frequented the place daily, it became wildly popular – and within a few months, it switched to an a la carte menu that raised the cost of his typical meal to $50 or more.  But it was nice while it lasted – and so was the era of unlimited mobile bandwidth in which we lived for a while.

Once upon a time, life was good in the garden of LTE and bandwidth flowed free. On our family plan, myself, my husband and my son all frolicked in cyberland with unlimited data plans. Then one day, a dark cloud appeared on the horizon. As it got nearer, we recognized its face: Bandwidth Caps. Oh, but the mighty Wireless Carrier didn’t want to pull the plug all at once on its loyal subjects, so the decree was handed down. Those of us who liked our plans could keep them – but there would be a price to pay. A sky-high one, the next time we wanted a new phone.

A subsidized phone would automatically kick us into a new, limited-data plan. And so, next time the eligibility date rolled around, came the Dilemma: to pay $700 for the latest and greatest new phone (more than many people pay for their desktop or laptop PCs) and keep that precious “grandfathered-in” unlimited data plan, or to get the same phone for $249 and operate under the shadow of a 2 GB per month limit on the data I could use on my mobile device.  Keep reading to find out what I did, and why I’m still not sure whether or not it was the right decision.

There is no denying that we live in amazing times. Those of us who are old enough can recall the days when there was no Internet, and for many years it existed only for those in government and academia. When I first got online in the 1980s – for $25 an hour on a 1200 baud modem – I could never have envisioned the level of connectivity we have today.

Our first “unlimited” Internet plan in the mid-90s seemed too good to be true. For $39 per month, we could stay connected all day long. No more $600 bills from CompuServe or AOL.  Of course, we were limited to 28.8 kbps, but we thought we were rocking.  Today, we have an 85Mbps FiOS connection, and 300Mbps plans are available, also unlimited. You don’t even want to know how much data traffic we use every month.

But the really cool thing is that getting online is no longer limited to when you’re at home or in a hotel or airport that has a wi-fi network. With the advent of 3G technologies (3rd generation mobile) in the early 2000s and then 4G in 2010 (has it really been only five years?), we can literally take high speed Internet connectivity with us almost everywhere (at least as long as we stay in or near the city). Following the lead of the home and business Internet providers, wireless carriers priced their mobile data plans as unlimited packages – at first. Then … something happened.

Somewhere around 2012, the two largest wireless carriers, AT&T and Verizon, realized that they could make a lot more money off customers if they got rid of the “all you can eat” data buffet, and started gradually killing their unlimited plans by tying new phone subsidies to the requirement to “upgrade” (is that Orwell’s Newspeak rearing its ugly head?) to one of their capped shared data plans.  For most folks, the lure of the latest and greatest devices was too great and their unsubsidized prices were too high to make it practical to do anything but capitulate and lay down the mantle of unlimited access.

Besides, the carriers assured us that we wouldn’t miss it. After all, they said, the vast majority of smart phone owners were using far less than the “generous” 2 GB of data that they proposed to give you for the same price as your old unlimited allocation. Of course, as soon as they had you signed up on the “pay for what you use” plan, they started pushing their wonderful new services such as streaming video – you know, the ones that eat up bandwidth as if there were no tomorrow.

Meanwhile, the other two major phone carriers took a different tactic. T-Mobile and Sprint continued to offer unlimited plans, but of course there’s a catch. Or a few catches. T-Mobile allows you to use as much data as you wanted, but throttles the speed after you used a certain amount.  There’s a cap – sort of – of 21 GB per month. There are no overage charges if you exceed it, but you slow down. Way down. And service is some areas is unreliable. Sprint has heavily advertised its “unlimited everything” plan, but poor network coverage made it a frustrating choice for users who live or travel outside its specific areas. Now the company is expanding its network but the CEO has indicated that they might be getting rid of the unlimited plan in the future.

Verizon has been my carrier of choice for almost a decade and a half. When they changed their pricing structure, everyone on my family plan – my husband, my son and I – had been subscribing to unlimited data plans for years and we were all grandfathered in.  Then along came the next version of the Galaxy Note (I think it was the 2, might have been the 3) and oh, I wanted it. But at $700?  The cheapskate in me really didn’t want to pay that, especially when they were offering it for $249 with the 2-year contract, and with a new limited data plan.

I agonized. I went back and looked at my bandwidth usage over the previous year. Since I work at home, don’t really get out much, and usually have access to a wi-fi network when I’m traveling, my usage really wasn’t more than a gig or so per month. When they said I could get the subsidized phone and switch my plan without affecting my guys’ unlimited grandfathered status, I bit the bullet and did it.  Since then, I’ve gotten a new phone cheap when I became eligible and I’ve passed the old ones down to my husband. My son has been either taking my husband’s old one or buying one on eBay.

It works for us because I mostly do email, web, Facebook and such on my phone. My husband and son stream video and music, play online games, use Skype and other high bandwidth applications. They need the unlimited data much more than I do. What wouldn’t work for us is a cap on our home Internet connection. Luckily with FiOS, we haven’t had to deal with that. Some folks aren’t so lucky.  Comcast has been back and forth with bandwidth caps – now you have them, now you don’t.  AT&T caps data usage on their U-verse service. Cox has caps but raised them significantly last May. Time Warner tried last year to persuade customers to voluntarily go for capped plans but the offer was met with a resounding “no.”

At least the caps on home connections are orders of magnitude higher than on mobile data, with most allowing at least 200 GB per month and some going as high as 1 TB. And out on the high seas, cruise ship Internet packages are bucking the trend and getting better and cheaper, with reasonably priced unlimited data now available in place of the very expensive per-minute plans we suffered with only a few years ago. Still, as video quality gets higher and files get bigger, it gets easier and easier to blow through several hundred GB of data.

With “to the cloud” becoming the mantra, the need for more bandwidth is only going to increase in the future.  If mobile carriers refuse to recognize this and stick with their low data caps, they may alienate customers in the same way the landline telcos did not so long ago. It’s hard to imagine people giving up their smart phone subscriptions but in 1990, who would have thought the day would come when a large proportion of the population ditched their PSTN telephone lines?

It could happen. I’m already hearing from people who are experimenting with giving up cellular plans, and using their phones exclusively on wi-fi networks, making voice calls with Skype or other VoIP apps. With long-range wireless getting more common and some cities and private companies offering public wi-fi coverage at low prices, mobile carriers should stop and think. If they squeeze their customers too tightly, they may find those customers finding alternatives to their service and dumping them altogether.