How much is a mobile data gigabyte?

By Charles Brett

A gigabyte is 1,073,741,824 bytes. Computer science tells us this is so. But when it comes to IT vendors and telecom service providers this simple truth is so often cast aside.

In the parallel universe that is Cupertino, for example, Apple is notable for treating a gig as 1,000,000,000 bytes for users of Macs, iPhones and iPads; simpler for consumers, it suggests, but the difference is almost 7%. When this relates to a disk holding (say) 3-4TB the difference may not be significant. But when you have a mobile data plan for your smartphone, tablet or laptop, counting your bytes does matter — because you are paying for them. Sometimes if you are roaming or exceeding your plan this could be at rates as much as £10000 or $15000 per GB.

But even if you put arithmetic differences to one side, a fundamental problem remains — which for mobile data plan subscribers is to be able to see how much data they are consuming within their plans. Yes there are tools available, some built into mobile device operating systems and others as downloadable apps — like that from Onavo — which seem to measure your data usage. The trouble with nearly all of these is that they come with health warnings — that what they measure as usage may differ from the view of the network carrier.

How can this be? Well, besides the intended data usage (like email or downloading a file or watching a TV show) there is always overhead associated with any communications and mobile comms are no different. Indeed syncing, another form of overhead, can consume many unexpected data bytes.

But what is the size of the data being consumed? And how will you know how it differs between various types of activity — for example email, video, voice, etc. Today the user (whether working for an enterprise or as a consumer) cannot know. Only the network carrier can tell, and often it is not in its self-interest to inform anyone.

To make matters worse, many apps on smart devices (tablets, smartphones and PCs) perform work in the background, such as checking for emails, updating Twitter feeds, updating applications and even operating systems ’over-the-air’, etc. In doing so, these also consume data. But how much are they consuming? Again the user does not know.

One possible answer is that mobile data carriers provide a (preferably near real time) counter that shows what has been and is being consumed. Such a network-provided counter that is accessible at any time and is accurate to (say) 1 minute ago would be help enormously, especially if it could also trigger appropriate alerts. Yet there are no signs of this happening, which is, perhaps, not that surprising when neither Android nor iOS (not possessing full multi-tasking) would make delivering such a counter easy.

As it stands, insufficient information often produces one of two undesirable results:

  • The customer consumes too little, because they are afraid they might incur high and/or unpredictable charges
  • The customer over-consumes and then receive those huge bills that cause immense ill-will an elevate support costs for operators as they field calls from unhappy customers.

Ignorance does not always produce bliss…

Apart from more transparency, ditching volume-based billing altogether for some types of activity might also be an option. One such idea emerged in late July at a visit to the Amdocs Customer Experience Center in Ra’anana (25Km north of Tel Aviv). With its background in telco BSS and OSS systems, and its more recent focus (among other things) on multi-channel self-service solutions, Amdocs is in a good position to explore practical alternatives.

One of the use-cases it has been working through, for example, is what happens when you want to watch (say) a movie or TV program when waiting at an airport or somewhere where the only connection is a mobile one, where neither a Wi-Fi nor direct LAN connection is available.

Most digital movies require 0.8-1.2GB to store on disk. These generally are high quality. If, however, you have a 1GB/month data plan or a 3GB/month data plan, then watching one such movie consumes all or much or of your plan’s allowance. The question the Amdocs Customer Experience Center posed was whether there are alternative solutions which (in this case) carriers and/or movie-providers might offer that would make sense for the customer, the mobile data carrier and the movie provider.

One possible answer suggested was that the user be offered a choice. He or she could utilise their existing data plan, not knowing how much would be consumed. A second option might be to offer a standard quality for the movie for, say, $5 — which consumed none of the data plan. A third option might be to offer HD for the movie for, say, $11.95 — again without consuming any of the data plan. In addition, these two ’off-plan’ options might provide the ability to resume and finish the movie if the watcher had to interrupt his or her viewing (perhaps being called to the plane or whatever).

Prima facie, this sort of approach has obvious appeal to all three participants — consumer, mobile data carrier and movie provider. And it is this type of triple-win outcome that we could do with seeing more of from mobile operators and the technology companies that provide their service management and billing infrastructure.

If anyone else has similarly interesting ideas, let us know what they are. Whether the operators will take any notice – well that is another question.


Content Contributors: Charles Brett

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