The iPhone's Bandwidth Problem

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I am quite addicted to my iPhone. During non-working, non-sleeping hours, rarely an hour goes by when I don't use it. When idle, non-productive time strikes, like a short train ride, I'm practically glued to it. A New York Times article today makes me feel better: I am not alone. It explains that there's a significant problem with the love affair that people like me have with their iPhones -- we're using up too much bandwidth. That's one of the reasons why AT&T's network seems so bad. I can see two potential solutions to this, one that iPhone users will love, and one they will hate.

First, here's the New York Times explaining the problem:

It's a data guzzler. Owners use them like minicomputers, which they are, and use them a lot. Not only do iPhone owners download applications, stream music and videos and browse the Web at higher rates than the average smartphone user, but the average iPhone owner can also use 10 times the network capacity used by the average smartphone user.

As mentioned, I'm guilty as charged. A recent Wall Street Journal article also reported that iPhone users download web data at a rate of two to four times that of other smartphone users. The consequence? According to the Times:

The result is dropped calls, spotty service, delayed text and voice messages and glacial download speeds as AT&T's cellular network strains to meet the demand. Another result is outraged customers.

And you have a sort of frustrating situation where iPhone users are annoyed that their service is shoddy, but it's kind of their own fault. One answer would be to use the devices less, which goes precisely against the problem: users want to play with their phones more but can't because of service issues. It's a sort of Catch-22.

It might seem easy to just sit back and blame AT&T. And I don't think it's completely innocent. As I mentioned in a post earlier this week, it has made strides to improve its network, but as far as networks go, it has traditionally been inferior to those of some other carriers. But you could also easily argue that Verizon, for example, would have similar problems, because the amount of data that iPhone users consume might strain any network. It's hard to know for sure if that's true, but in theory it seems possible.

I see two potential solutions to this problem. The first would be Apple opening up the iPhone to other carriers. If that bandwidth strain was placed on the shoulders of, say, Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T, then it would be a lot easier for multiple networks to handle than just that of AT&T. Most iPhone users, including myself, will probably like this idea.

The other solution, however, few will like: charge based on usage rates, instead of just a flat monthly fee. I know even whispering such a suggestion will probably cause iPhone users everywhere to throw rotten vegetables at me if they see me on the street, but it's really a logical solution. It's probably also inevitable. Bandwidth usage has a cost. The more you use, the more it costs an internet provider. The fact that data hogs are charged the same as casual users is completely unfair. It's also bad business. iPhone users should be charged more for data, since they use so much more of it.

Charging based on usage would provide AT&T (or any other provider who eventually supports the iPhone) with more revenue to invest in infrastructure improvements to strengthen its network. It would also discourage people from needlessly hogging data. For example, do you really need to be listening to a streaming radio station when you have most of the same songs in your 10 gigabytes of mp3s on the phone? Better infrastructure and less data hogging would definitely help to solve the problem.

Ultimately, I suspect both of these suggestions will eventually be realized. The former will be welcomed with open arms; the latter will be met with a stinging backlash. But each will do its part to solve the bandwidth problem.

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Daniel Indiviglio was an associate editor at The Atlantic from 2009 through 2011. He is now the Washington, D.C.-based columnist for Reuters Breakingviews. He is also a 2011 Robert Novak Journalism Fellow through the Phillips Foundation. More

Indiviglio has also written for Forbes. Prior to becoming a journalist, he spent several years working as an investment banker and a consultant.
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