Thursday, December 13, 2007

When "unlimited" isn't

Among the most famous legal spectacles of the 1990s were the two most powerful Bills in the world, testifying under oath about things like what the word "is" is.

Today The Register posts a story (lifted from the Globe and Mail) about a Calgary twentysomething who found that his $10/month "unlimited" plan actually cost $85,000. Upon appeal, Bell Mobility made a "goodwill gesture" and reduced it to $3,243. (Heck, that's only $3,176 in real dollars).

Set aside for a minute the legalistic response of the telco, and the various plans and price discrimination strategies that Bell Mobility is likely using to maximize ARPU for data plans. Saying something is "unlimited" when it isn't — with or without a footnote — is misleading on its face, if not false advertising. I suspect BM will be getting a call from Industry Canada or the Attorney General's office.

This points out the problem with using mobile data as a full substitute for wireline connections: the bandwidth is too expensive, even though Bell Mobility is using the most efficient cellular data approach available today.

Back in the 1990s, the "Negroponte shift" was proposed by the MIT Media Lab co-founder (and little brother of the famous diplomat), in which TV would go over cable and voice would go over the airwaves. But what about Internet bandwidth — delivered by cable TV or phone companies — which is several orders of magnitude required to deliver voice? Yes, we'd like connectivity everywhere, but clearly the consumer trend is towards fiber optic speeds (multi-gigabit). While mobile voice capacity was solved a decade ago, it's hard to see how airwaves can provide gigabit bandwidth to millions of consumers in an urban area any time in the next twenty years.

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