Cellular Data Needs To Be Like A Smart Grid: If we’re to believe cellular carriers, at least the ones in America, there is a shortage of cellular bandwidth. With more and more people adopting smartphones, there is less space available per user. To combat this issue most carriers have implemented limits, whether through strict data caps or through speed throttling. This artificially limits how much bandwidth a user can consume, or at least charges him more when he consumes more. On the surface, this might seem fair, but it omits at least one important aspect of the issue.
Our current systems are built on top of legacy networks. That is, rather than rebuilding networks from scratch carriers have built new technologies on top of old ones. Even the current 4G LTE system isn’t truly 4G, because it’s built upon the old technology. This old technology does more than cause issues in labeling generations. It can cause inefficiency in data transfers.
We’d have much more bandwidth available if carriers had an incentive to go back to dig up old lines and replace them with new ones. That would allow for the latest technology at the root, which would make for more efficient data transfers. Unfortunately, there is simply no incentive to do this. It would take a massive investment, and there’s no easily discernible return. They’d post losses, which would look bad for shareholders. And so we’re stuck with older, less efficient networks.
Still, there are ways that carriers can compensate for this issue. One of them is to employ a smart grid system. Electric companies use them with great effectiveness. Essentially, they allow the company to monitor which areas are currently in the greatest need of power. They can then redistribute power from areas that don’t need it as much to those that do. This is based on data that the company receives, and while there are some latency issues, modern smart grids can normally process information pretty quickly. This allows them to keep everyone with the proper level of energy.
It’s easy to see how cellular carriers could use similar technology to their advantages. Yes, there are some users that consume more data. Many of these users are consumers who eat bandwidth by watching streaming movies. But others are creators. They use the bandwidth to make things, and those things benefit other people. It’s unfair to strip them of bandwidth just because some other people consume rather than create. Employing a smart grid would help carriers recognize the type of traffic used, and then redistribute accordingly. Creators could then get a good allocation of bandwidth, while users who are just checking their email would get less.
The implementation of a smart grid for data efficiency would likely change the way we’re billed for data. Currently, it’s based on a tier of usage. AT&T users, for instance, pay $15 per month for 200MB, or $25 per month for 2GB. They can use any level of data up to that amount, and get charged extra for going over. Carriers do like this because often bandwidth goes unused. That unused bandwidth is money in their pockets.
In a metered system, people would only pay for what they consume, much in the way people already do for electricity. High-tier users might not appreciate that, and it might provide disincentives for creators. But there are ways around that. It would still provide the fairest system for consumption. Lower-end users who just check their email less, while those who stream video would pay a lot more. It’s all a balancing act, and this seems to get it down. The issue, of course, is using that smart grid to allocate data as needed. There’s no sense in pumping speed and bandwidth to a user who just checks email.
It all comes back to incentives. Just as carriers have no incentive to rebuild legacy networks, they also have no incentive to bill people for use. As many carriers have noted when implementing tiers, the average user consumes very little data per month. AT&T said that about 85 percent of its users used under 200MB per month. Many of them probably consume under 100MB. By charging them only for what they use, chances are they’d pay even less than that $15 monthly charge. That would hurt AT&T’s bottom line.
Until carriers are incentivized to change what they’re currently doing, we’ll see no positive changes. The only changes we’ll likely see in the future: higher costs and lower caps. That’s just how the current system works. It’s unfortunate, but without fundamental change, we likely aren’t seeing anything different from cell carriers in the next few years.
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