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Mr Operator: Mobile data ‘congestion charging’ is coming soon

I’m delighted to bring you an all new perspective from Mr Operator — a real favourite with the readers here at Mobile Industry Review over the years.

Mr Operator is a very senior mobile industry executive working for an international mobile operator. His identity — like that of the Top Gear Stig — is a closely guarded secret.

Some say he bites the heads off live chickens and never, ever sends text messages. All we know is, … he hates WiMAX with a passion (the Mobile Industry Review shop’s ‘WiMAX My Ass’ T-Shirt is a real favourite of his).

You can review Mr Operator’s back archive of biting insight here.

Meanwhile, over to his latest contribution.

– – – – –

Interesting read over the last week or so – just as Vodafone 360 goes as sour as an acid-tinged lemon, the mobile data harbingers of doom flock to announcements that Vodafone is to trial network prioritisation for premium customers.

I and many others have been portenting ourselves into holes in the ground for years over the coming mobile data apocalypse…but there’s a big missing piece here. The MNO’s themselves.

Everyone is assuming that they are sitting back, hands held up in horror at the coming avalanche.

The guys that I know in CTO depts aren’t. They have plans. Ideas. Their vendors have products. Their marketing wallahs (the smart ones) have dark files in dusty folders in the bottom of drawers, just waiting to see the light…

…the real story is going to be how, after 5 years of battling each other into the ground over the definition of ‘unlimited‘, we rewind the marketing clock to read: ‘Capped‘.

Capped by volume, speed, location, time or content. All these factors and more have a part to play in using the existing hardware and spectrum as efficiently as possible. They don’t want to offer a crap experience, they don’t want to drop calls and they don’t want to seem stingier than everyone else with the allowance. But they know they have to do something.

This is the 3-wire tightrope that CTO’s, CMO’s and CFO’s must walk over the next 5 years. The corner they painted themselves into was the result of 5 years having spent billions on spectrum they couldn’t sell to users because the handsets and apps were rubbish. Then within 18 months, along came devices, products and content people wanted to use and — stone me — they *did* use it. In spades. Cue hockeystick graphs and long nights at the network planning tools.

But the answer is staring us in the face (well, if you are a Londoner anyway) – it’s called congestion charging.

You want to download a 5MB email on the bus at 8am in the CBD (“Central Business District”)? That’s gonna ‘cost’ you as much as the 500MB iPlayer program you have queued on your laptop late at night back in the ‘burbs.

There’s no way out of this one.

Spectrum is finite, Shannon’s law still holds regardless of what the WiMax people say, and now that the Great Unwashed can get themselves an iPhone, the game’s up. The party’s over early adopters, sorry.

You ain’t the cool kids anymore.

We will soon see devices get smarter – for example, queuing data requests from multiple apps on the device then sending them all in one session instead of bit-by-bit, therefore using the allocated HSPA channel much more efficiently. This will also be much kinder on battery life.

But truly unlimited? Do anything, anywhere, anytime? Not until true 4G is around, networks AND mainstream devices.

Until then, sideloading or more likely — downloading after hours — outside CBD areas will become the most cost-effective way to use your credits up.

Expect to see those with the most advanced billing systems move first – but it’s tricky, as the first mover to the necessary new world of data charging will have to sweeten the pill. Otherwise they risk bleeding customers to the dinosaurs still offering (or trying to offer) ‘unlimited’. Vicious circle, that one. e.g. 3 make me think about what/where/when, the alternative is O2 and their wet-string-bag of a network, Voda somewhere in the middle. Other networks are available, you get the idea.

So long Unlimited, it was nice knowing ya.

See you back in 2015.

– – – – –

Thank you Mr Operator — I hope we’ll hear from you soon. If you’d like to ask Mr Operator a question, drop me a note and I’ll put it to him.

You can also keep updated with his columns via @MrOperator on Twitter.


  1. Charing for congestion is fine, as long as operators are open about when those congested moments are, what (voice, data, or mix) is causing it, and what are they doing to minimize the impact to the QoS when it does happen. Early adopters and mainstream folks are alike in knowledge helping them to see why behaviors need to change, but just making them change without yielding that information is a setup for worse.

  2. Nope.

    You'll just find that everyone slides back to shitty simple phones, and the gentle transition to smart phones will stall and rewind. It's only with phones like the iPhone with 'unlimited' data that's finally getting folk interested in the smart phones and doing anything exciting with them.

    Those with 'normal' are starting to look at smart phones but only looking at the moment, still burnt after using data a couple of times to update their Facebook page and finding it added £20 a month to their tariff, so promptly stopped using it. And if it costs more / is super slow – what's the point?

  3. How is this idea of billing different to Sky? I pay £25 for a Sky package that gives me a certain bundle of stuff, including unlimited movies (on certain channels, of a certain age/type) but then there are premium movies/sports events that I press the pay button for, because I wan to watch them now instead of for free in 3 months. Consumers can grasp that concept OK, how's congestion charging done right any different?

  4. And my brother with Sky Sports (and satellite is still in the minority of TV viewing compared to terrestrial) refuses to pay for the 'extras' as he's already paid for it and thinks they're a bunch of thieves trying to sell him something that should already be included. I'm not saying that people can't grasp it, just that it's not exactly going to endear them to many people.

    I'd love to see who'd bring this in first, all it takes is one operator to not participate in this and they'll be able to hoover up shed loads of new users as the exodus from the others.

    They just need to stick their hand in their pockets and stump up for infrastructure, it's not like they're exactly short of a couple of quid – although perhaps they are, as they clearly can't afford a dictionary to find out what the definition of “unlimited” actually is.

  5. I'm on an unlimited data plan, using an iPhone with O2. It's nice to know I won't be billed any extra for excess data, but seriously, do I need it? I'd be happy knowing that I can get decent speeds within a capped amount, rather than an uncapped amount of shitty “3G if you're extremely lucky”.

    And I have to agree with Stephen Holmes – normobs will hear “limited data” and be scared out of using it, rather than risk an excess charge. Data is still seen as a horribly expensive luxury.

    Also: Nice of Mr. Operator to reply to my recent post 😉


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