How AT&T May Limit Your Mobile Data

Mobile operators are overwhelmed by data usage on their networks, but rightly fear that implementing restrictions could lead to widespread public dissent, or even worse, force users to suddenly stop using the oh-so-profitable mobile data services. Instead of beating bandwidth hogs with a stick, perhaps they can offer a carrot to get them to take it easy on the network.

I spent this week at the TM Forum conference being held in Orlando, Fla. The conference attracts mostly suit-wearing members of the service provider and back-end software community.  The two main themes I found interesting at the event were the emphasis on telecommunications firms making their way into the cloud and the myriad ways that service providers could use to get folks to limit their mobile broadband consumption, an issue that AT&T’s Ralph de la Vega highlighted yesterday.

We may hate the fact that we have 5GB limits on our data plans (although those are for laptop plans rather than for smartphones) in the U.S., but there are physics constraints in terms of the spectrum available and the backhaul networks that demand the use of some kind of limits (and network investment). But carriers have more tools now than ever to train users to think of mobile broadband as a scarce resource rather than a fat pipe for everything.

So instead of forbidding video across the network or applying caps, carriers like AT&T could implement tiers of data usage that offer fast service for VoIP, video and web surfing for up to a certain number of gigabytes. The high-end plan could offer 5GB per month, and after that point users could pay more to keep their traffic flowing along quickly or they could surf at best-effort rates.

People are ready for this, said Akil Chumoko, a product marketing manager with Volubill, which makes equipment that enables carriers to offer these types of packages. He said a European carrier will implement its system to offer the tiered plan described above soon. Other carrots are different forms of congestion pricing, where folks can pay less for their mobile broadband access at certain times of the day, or get more if they download content when the network is empty. For example, buy one song, get one free between the hours of 10 p.m. and 6 a.m.

However, two key elements in implementing these plans are back-end systems that can make all of this dynamic pricing possible, and a way to inform the customer clearly about the limitations and opportunities. Companies such as Volubill, HP (s hpq) and others are trying to build software that allows carriers to implement these types of plans, and representatives at these companies say carriers are slowly beginning to figure out how to use them.

For example, Nigel Upton, a general manager at HP, offered up the example of a user who wants to watch a live sporting event on his mobile. That subscriber doesn’t have a video component to his mobile plan, but when he tries to get to the game, instead of an error message, the subscriber gets taken to a page offering him the chance to buy a day pass for video.

However, depending on how net neutrality regulation shakes out, many of these carrots might be a bit of a fantasy since it’s unclear that mobile providers could prioritize certain types of traffic. And frankly, if the government believes that mobile broadband is a substitute for wired broadband, then many of these things won’t work because rural customers would get a bastardized version of service compared with those who have wired broadband.

However, under the assumption that mobile broadband is limited by spectrum constraints and reasonable network investment, I’ve no problems with carriers finding ways to get people to use it wisely, even if it means the end of streaming music to my hotel room over my Verizon Mi-Fi when I travel.