Thursday, January 26, 2012

Wi-Fi Offload Causing Price Hikes?

Wireless service providers have been encouraging users to switch their mobile connections to Wi-Fi networks, when they can, as a way of managing their mobile data plans, and to improve user experience.

As it turns out, users have been heeding that advice to such a degree that AT&T now is raising mobile broadband prices and data caps, to encourage users to rely more on their mobile connections.

The ironic results show the unpredictable effects of operator policies intended to preserve user experience. Wi-Fi alleviates congestion on mobile networks. But Wi-Fi also is a substitute form of access, and AT&T now seems to be signaling that it wants to recapture more of the revenue-generating value of mobile access.

"AT&T said at a recent conference that they are seeing customers walk up to the edge of their tier and then use a lot of Wi-Fi to stay below the tier," Jefferies & Company Inc. equity analyst Thomas Seitz says.

Something similar can be noted elsewhere. Utility or water consumers often are encouraged to "use only what you need," in part to forestall the need to build expensive new generation facilities, dams and so forth.

But as consumers in Denver have found, because they reduced their use of water so much, Denver Water has had to raise rates, to cover fixed costs as revenue (water consumption is the revenue model) has decreased, precisely because conscientious consumers are behaving in a conservation mode.

Something quite similar might be happening in the mobile space. Mobile service providers globally have a vested interest in higher usage of broadband features, since that creates new revenue streams. But the desire to alleviate congestion by offloading traffic to Wi-Fi, also siphons off some usage that might otherwise be monetized by users who buy more-expensive access plans.

Offloading mobile broadband access to Wi-Fi might "help" consumers manage their consumption, as it helps operators alleviate congestion. But such measures can backfire, AT&T seems to be saying. 

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