The spread of unlimited data plans is a marketing bonanza for wireless companies. After all, it is giving customers something of great value and, in the long run, the companies providing it figure to benefit as well.
It isn't easy, though. The folks in the back room – aka network engineers and other technical people – may have a different take. They no doubt see the business and competitive rationales for the moves. It doesn’t mean that these moves won't complicate their jobs, however.
The context is that these networks are voracious. Openwave Mobility offers insight into just how much demand is increasing: The firm provides a graphic highlighting the mix of standard definition and high definition (SD and HD) mobile traffic. The pendulum is swinging radically toward more data-intensive SD. The graphic shows the percentage over the six Novembers from 2013 to what is projected for next year: 5.66 percent; 7.37 percent; 10.13 percent; 22.72 percent; 38.21 percent and 52.24 percent.
It is important to note that the graphic tracks the percentage of SD and HD. Of course, the entire pie is also getting far bigger. Thus, the percentage of more intensive HD content will be about 10 times greater in November 2018 than November 2013 – and the total amount of data being transmitted will be far greater as well.
Ookla, in its Speedtest report for the first half of 2017, pointed to inconsistency in carrier reactions:
During the past 12 months, improvements in technology and usage of available network spectrum led to a 19% increase in average mobile download speeds in the United States. All four major carriers have boosted download speeds, but not all carriers are improving equally and not all areas of the country are seeing the same benefits. In addition, not all are responding equally to the performance demands of unlimited plans.
Verizon claims to be holding up under the stress. CFO Matt Ellis claimed during the UBS Global Media and Communications Conference that the carrier's networks are handling the increased demand caused by the new model, according to Fierce Wireless. The story pointed out that third-party services had pointed to a slowdown in Verizon performance since February, when it launched its unlimited plans.
An interesting element is that network dynamics are changing. Ellis said that the increases are during off hours in which people previously didn't access video in an effort to save minutes. With that gating factor gone, use at off-hours increases. Ellis also pointed to several ways in which Verizon can keep pace if data usage continues to grow.
It's a virtual certainty that stress on networks will continue to build, just as Openwave Mobility predicts. On November 17, Sprint began offering Hulu on its unlimited plan. The Verge, in its story on the move, pointed out that T-Mobile offers Netflix and AT&T offers HBO on their unlimited services. These offers point to a simple reality for the people who run the networks: Demand will continue to rise as other services are added and as each becomes increasing data-intensive due to the addition of Ultra HD and other bandwidth hogs.
Mobile plans are a great thing for subscribers and carriers. To the extent that they are successful, network operators must ensure that enough capacity is available to keep the data flowing. So far, it appears that they are succeeding. The biggest tests, however, are yet to come.
Carl Weinschenk covers telecom for IT Business Edge. He writes about wireless technology, disaster recovery/business continuity, cellular services, the Internet of Things, machine-to-machine communications and other emerging technologies and platforms. He also covers net neutrality and related regulatory issues. Weinschenk has written about the phone companies, cable operators and related companies for decades and is senior editor of Broadband Technology Report. He can be reached at email@example.com and via twitter at @DailyMusicBrk.