All you can eat buffet*

Wed 11 Nov 2009

Guest blog post by Terence Eden

*One plate only, limit of half a sausage per person, no refills, persons weighing over 75Kg will have to pay a supplement, does not include ice-cream.

Doesn’t really seem fair, does it? The Internet industry loves to abuse the word “Unlimited” – the mobile industry is particularly bad.

Despite complaints from the public, the Advertising Standards Authority recently ruled that http://www.asa.org.uk/asa/adjudications/Public/TF_ADJ_45595.htm(“unlimited means limited”).

We noted that that information showed only a very small proportion of customers on the unlimited data package had exceeded the fair usage data limit of 250 MB per month. We considered that the vast majority of customers were unaffected by the data limit, and we therefore concluded that the fair usage policy did not contradict the claim “includes unlimited data”.

Orange have recently faced the wrath of dictionary lovers everywhere by offering http://www.bbc.co.uk/blogs/technology/2009/11/oranges_unlimited_iphone.html(strict limits on their “unlimited” service). Not only is it confusing, Orange are turning off potential customers.

Unlimited Has Two Meanings

To most of us, there are two ways we look at the word “Unlimited”

1. Without physical limit. Something will never end.

2. Without practical limit. Most people will never get to the end

How high does a practical limit have to before it can be considered a physical limit? If your download speed is 8Mbps, and you have 2,592,000 seconds in a month, you could download around 2.5TB. So, is a limit that large justified as “unlimited”?

I’m a heavy data user. I’m never off Twitter, I regularly upload images to Flickr, I stream video to Qik – I’m a data fanatic. Yet, most months, I struggle to get close to the 500MB “unlimited” barrier that my price plan offers. Short of watching YouTube all day, I’m not sure how I could get to that limit.

Arms Race

Advertising is lying, let’s make that clear. It’s about stretching the truth as far as you legally can.
“UNLIMITED WEEKEND CALLS!” screams one advert. What can their rival do? “2880 MINUTES OF WEEKEND CALLS” it means the same thing, but looks considerably worse.

What if they offer “1000 MINUTES OF WEEKEND CALLS”? That’s over 16 hours of talk time. Are you ever likely to get even close to that? No, probably not. But your brain will say “Hmmmm…. but I might. Better to go with unlimited just to be on the safe side.”

Humans dislike limits. We don’t want people telling us to stop. Even if we’ll never reach the limit, we don’t want to worry about it. A buffet restaurant could say “No more than 6 trips to the buffet” – a limit that is probably excessive for most people – yet its next door rival will say “Unlimited trips” and get all the business.

How Much Is A Megabyte?

Try to visualise a Megabyte. What does it look like to you? How many Megabytes have you used today?

I’m a geek and I couldn’t tell you how many MB I’ve used today. I could make a rough guess – but I’d probably be wrong. For most people, counting MB is an impossible task. They haven’t the faintest idea of how big an image is, whether it’s larger than the email they sent or smaller than the last web page they viewed.

So, what can an Internet provider do?

• Charge per MB and hope that people understand how much they’ll be paying every month?
• Charge per minute. People understand minutes. Let’s call it €1 for 1 hour’s surfing.
• Charge per session. Every time you connect to the net – no matter for how long or short – we’ll call it €0.50
• Charge per content. Pages on the BBC are free, pages on CNN will cost you €0.01 per page.

All of these charging schemes are in use throughout the world. All of them cause confusion. All of them cause bill-shock. All of them annoy customers and prevent the uptake of mobile internet services.

The Practical Approach

So, we have customer confusion and an escalation of advertising terms. What can a mobile Internet company do? The answer is “Take the practical limit”.
Here’s a graph I made up – if anyone can point me to some hard data from ISPs, I’d be grateful.

Spoof mobile data usage graph

Nonsense, but you get the idea.

Here, 99% of customers use 500MB or less. In fact, the vast majority use 200MB or less. So, what should the practical limit be set at? Less than 1% will ever hit the limit, so they’re the only ones who’ll be pissed off about unlimited technically being limited.

And, that’s what most ISPs do. Set the limit well above the needs of the majority of their customers. There’s still a limit, but hardly anyone gets near it.

What Can Be Done

Network resources are finite. You can’t offer infinite consumption of finite resources.
Customers don’t understand Megabytes, sessions, PDP contexts – nor should the have to.
Here are some solutions to the problem – but I’d be interested in hearing how other people think it could be solved.

• The ASA should clamp down on the use of the word “Unlimited” – make providers explicitly spell out what they are providing.

• Mobile Internet providers should send users a daily / weekly notice telling them how much they’ve used and how much it has cost them or how much of their bundle they’ve got left. e.g. “Today you used 20MB of data. You have 480MB left until 01/01/2009”

• Limits should alter month-by-month as more people use more data services. The limit this month might be enough to satisfy 99% of customers, but if next month it’s only 95% then the limit needs to change.

Disclaimer

I work for a mobile telecoms company which uses the word “unlimited”. The views in this blog do not represent those of my employers. I’ve not based any of the figures in this post on confidential information.

Terence Eden is a regular blogger on all things mobile and more, here.
Follow Terence on twitter: @edent

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