Operators: “Please stop using our network!” (“And, er, thanks for your money!”)

If you’ve got a few minutes, go and have a read of this post from Peter Svensson of the Associated Press on It highlights the consumer shock and outrage at having their operators completely change the game on them. We’ve heard this all before, of course. The consumer buys an “unlimited” data plan only to find out that, half way through their contract, the operator — er — didn’t quite mean it was unlimited.

In some cases, operators have sought to re-word the meaning of unlimited. AT&T has — according to the post — decided to start limiting the unlimited usage of it’s top 5% of problem customers (that is, folk who have the temerity to actually use their phone’s data connection). AT&T has apparently throttled offending connections to the point that once folk have used up their “unlimited” 2.3 gigs of data, their connection becomes virtually unusable. Or really, REALLY slow.

Did you see what they did there? Aye. It’s still an unlimited connection. Just, the speed is rubbish. So you can’t sue! You are still getting unlimited access. It’s your own fault if you can’t be bothered to wait 2 minutes for a page to load. How is this possible?

Well, nobody ever signed up for a specific speed, did they? Most customers were simply sold an “unlimited data” connection because the operator didn’t have a flying fracking clue what is was doing in the first place — despite the fact they’re selling a resource that is, by its very nature, limited.

It’s the equivalent to me selling you unlimited access to my swimming pool. You assume that this buys you access to the whole pool. You might be a little bit annoyed if I rope off a swimming lane and assign that to you. But you’d probably put up with it. If I let you use the whole pool for the first twenty minutes of your swim and then restricted you to 3 square metres of water space, you’d probably go nuts. I’d happily point out that you still have unlimited access to the pool. You can use that 3 square metres ANY time you want.

Yeah. Ridiculous.

What would be even more crazy is if I started encouraging you to use my pool for twenty minutes then get out and go to the gym opposite. You’d be responsible for paying for the joining fee and the monthly maintenance.

Does that illustration sound a little bit off-the-wall? Well, it’s more or less what AT&T is doing…

Here’s one example from the AP piece. A consumer was sent this message:

ATT Free Msg: Your data use this month places you in the top 5% of users. Use Wi-Fi to help avoid reduced speeds. Visit or call 8663447584.

I’m really surprised to see this kind of ‘warning-marketing’. How rubbish does your infrastructure need to be when you start telling your customers to STOP using your facilities and to start using an alternative?

I really do have to breath deeply when I see this kind of behaviour in the mobile industry.

By Ewan

Ewan is Founder and Editor of Mobile Industry Review. He writes about a wide variety of industry issues and is usually active on Twitter most days. You can read more about him or reach him with these details.

9 replies on “Operators: “Please stop using our network!” (“And, er, thanks for your money!”)”

Once more, dear friends, once more…consign agreement with Ewan to a Rutland tree…

Ahem. All I can do is hark waaaay back to the early days of Three’s X-Series. When ‘unlimited’ was a new word, dirty to most operators. The 3 take on ‘unlimited’ was this: I’ll invite you around the village hall for a beerfest – £15 on the door, then drink all you like! Or to my restaurant for dinner – smorgasbord, eat all you like for £15. Great! most people turn up and enjoy. Then some twat starts  trolleying the kegs out the door to the boot of his car. When confronted, he replies “but you said drink all you want!” Or in my restaurant, people start arriving with catering trays and ladeling kilos of scampi and onion rings into them.

You get the idea.

*most* people know what’s sensible, reasonable and normal. *most* people will never come close to the mostly-unwritten ‘limit’, as they either don’t have fast enough coverage, or battery life, or time to consume that much data on a mobile device.

Some people clearly take the mickey, however, and ruin it for the rest of us. Your complaints about Network X being slow at peak time? Blame the beardy, slightly smelly P2P filesharer on the bus next to you. Or the woman downloading 1.2GB of HD Strictly Come Prancing on iPlayer in that cafe over there.

That some (read: many) MNO’s haven’t managed to communicate this ethos effectively is a marketing failure, for sure. However do I cry about my operator coming to the truth and reconciliation table late in the day to save us from ourselves?

No. Fine. Restrict the abusers. You aren’t cutting them off, human rights such as email/IM/browsing etc will still work perfectly well. You are just curtailing the opportunity to abuse the shared resource by engaging in extremely high-bandwidth activities like P2P, streaming, OS downloads, HDD backups etc etc.

Other opinions are available, but will inevitably transgress common sense 😉

The problem – as ever with networks – is one of real time billing.

1) People don’t intuitively know what a megabyte is.  How much does this page weigh in at?

2) Describing a MB is *really hard.  That’s why you see “1 YouTube video, or 500 BBC news pages, or 2000 emails” in the explanations.  Totally inadequate.

3) Defining limits is a ratchet. Voda offers 250MB, so Orange offers 300, so T-Mobile jumps to 500, so… The consumer will just pick the largest one because of points 1 & 2.

4) This is where real-time billing comes in. Imagine if every day, you got a text telling you how much you had used – or you could check at any point. People would soon understand exactly how much they were using. “I’ve used 10MB all month, but watching that iPlayer stream has bumped my to 250MB”.  That gives them a good idea of their usage.

But, of course, very few networks that I’ve found will be able to tell you your usage in real time – so you’re left in the unfortunate position of going over your limit before you realise it.

You’re right, but this discussion keeps bringing me back to the question of why operators need to sell by volume. I understand that is how data is billed up-stream and that it’s appropriate in some other cases, but consumer providers are used to re-packaging products in ways consumers can understand… why not MNOs?

I’ve previously suggested speed could be an alternate metric (because it is used by a few operators), but there must be other – better – ways?

 Like what?  Bandwidth is a very limited resource and demand, it seems, far outstrips supply.  A free for all just means that some may use their “unlimited” supply far beyond the point of utility they derive from it and in the process they reduce the quality of the service experienced by others who would get more utility from its use and who are thus willing to pay more for it.

I agree. Billing by speed is one example that’s already in-use. Billing by traffic-type might be another I suppose.

I’m definitely not suggesting the only answer is a ‘free for all’ – just that billing in units no-one understands or can predict isn’t very consumer-friendly.

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