As veterans of the computing industry will willingly attest, it is quite difficult to differentiate on the basis of “feeds and speeds.” Advantage, when it can be gained, is rarely long lasting, since all contestants have access to the same fundamental technology.
On the other hand, where different platforms contest, advantage can be more significant. The best example is internet access supplied by hybrid fiber coax or DSL, or HFC and fiber to the home. In the former case, cable simply is “better.” In the latter case, “quality” is not the case, so much as the business case.
From time to time, one mobile supplier or another can claim advantage, either in terms of geographic coverage, or spectrum assets (capacity), or even air interface. All those differences can lead to quantitative advantages for some time.
“Unlimited usage,” though, is proving to be a case where “speeds and feeds” do not seem to offer sustainable advantage.
To be sure, in 2012, when T-Mobile US made unlimited a key pillar of its Un-carrier strategy, the move triggered a massive surge of market share for T-Mobile US. Sprint also had an unlimited usage plan.
Then Verizon and AT&T were forced to react. The problem is that any claim of “unique value” becomes harder to demonstrate when all the suppliers offer the feature. Marketing advantage was fleeting.
Not surprisingly, “unlimited usage” encourages customers to use more data, which is the corollary of this method of boosting value.
And that means the effort to boost value this way is problematic. As usage grows, carriers eventually have to add more capacity. That means higher capital investment. So unlimited use ceases to be a meaningful differentiator, but results in higher capex requirements and higher operating costs.
Also, not paradoxically, the effort to provide “value” in the form of “unlimited usage” ultimately is muted, but in turn increases costs. Also, end user experience arguably falls, providing less value.
According to OpenSignal, over the last six months, overall 4G speeds for Verizon and AT&T have dropped.
The impact of unlimited was particularly evident for Verizon, which saw its average LTE download connection fall 12 percent, from 16.9 Mbps to 14.9 Mbps.
AT&T's decline was less pronounced, at 12.9 Mbps, down from 13.9 Mbps. OpenSignal says it has recorded steady decreases in average 4G speed each month for both operators since they unveiled their unlimited plans in February.
The most likely and obvious explanation for slower speeds is higher congestion caused by more customers using more data.
Competing on speeds and feeds remains problematic.