WASHINGTON, February 20, 2013 – Policy-makers and consumers alike are struggling to grapple with a rising-tide of data usage from wireless devices, according to the chief of the Federal Communications Commission’s wireless bureau and panelists speaking at the Broadband Breakfast Club on Tuesday at Clyde's of Gallery Place. Panelists noted the challenges that data caps have on younger and inexperienced internet users.
The FCC has been grappling with rising smartphone penetration rates, with the number of mobile subscribers rising every quarter since 2009; subscription rates have gone from 21 percent in the fourth quarter of 2009 to 55 percent in the second quarter of 2012. Over that same time period, recent acquirers of smartphones went from 30 percent to 67 percent. In other words, two thirds of recently-acquired devices are smartphones.
And to Ruth Milkman, Chief of the FCC’s Wireless Telecommunications Bureau, this demonstrates an increase for demand which in turn necessitates access to more radio-frequencies for broadband transmissions.
Throughout her keynote address, Milkman discussed the FCC's desire to keep up with the demand driven by today’s tech culture. She believes that demand can only be facilitated by an increase in spectrum availability. More than four years ago, the FCC had predicted a dramatic 1200 percent increase in mobile data traffic between 2009 and 2012. The actual number was even higher: 1275 percent.
In addition to the amount of wireless broadband capacity, the number of mobile providers is also important to the FCC, said Milkman, whether that be to “small town in rural West Virginia or to public works in Washington.” More than 50 percent of non-rural U.S road miles are covered by 5 or more broadband providers, while the same is true of only 4 percent of rural roads.
During the panel portion of the event, entitled “Data Caps, the Spectrum Crunch and the Wireless Home,” panelists discussed the limitations, from the consumer’s point of view, of tiered data plans. Nick Feamster, associate professor in the College of Computing at Georgia Tech, discussed his own personal tests on data cap usage. Feaster noted differences in the capacity of a home router and a mobile router, and argued that some people may know how much data it takes to process emails on their phone, would be in the dark about data consumed in watching Netflix on a computer.
Applications and data interfaces need to become more user-friendly, so that customers are fully aware of what they are doing with their devices. Without it, consumers don’t know when they hit a data cap.
Young people are often unaware of how much data they process, said panelist Roger Entner, founder of Recon Analytics. “The highest users of data are young adults who use their smartphones as if they were desk-top computers,” he said, although he noted that carriers are improving the capacity of their networks. Entner agreed with Feamster that most users do not know how much data they transmit. In fact, said Feamster, individuals often download a free application on their phone, unaware that it will use more data, and could end up costing them more than pay applications.
Patrick Lucey, a policy researcher at the Open Technology Institute of the New America Foundation, used his own enjoyment of personal gaming as foil for something that consumes data – but is very unclear of how much data is transmitted. Lucey also discussed a recent development by video game companies to eliminate hard copies of gaming discs. This, in turn, leads to exclusive downloading of software from gaming companies.
Added Serena Viswanathan, staff attorney at the Federal Trade Commission: broadband carriers need to be more up-front about what the user is getting out of an application and plan, and what sort of limitations may be in place. Questions about data consumption are no longer exclusively the province of tech-savvy users, she said. For example, both of her parents use Apple’s iPad, but neither are adept to how data is processed or transmitted.
Editor's Note: To see video excerpts from the February Broadband Breakfast Club, please visit http://broadbandbreakfast.com/2013/02/video-excerpts-from-februarys-broadband-breakfast-club-on-data-caps/.