Saturday, 25 May 2013

Phone networks should drop minutes and texts, and just sell data.

Not long ago I was called by a sales rep of my mobile network provider (Three Ireland). Being a support centre worker myself, and being blissfully relaxed in weekend sun at the time, I decided to go easy on this chap and actual take his call and hear his pitch. To my genuine surprise, there was nothing valuable he had available for me.

The problem was that he had good plans designed to fit two users: those who want minutes, and those that want messages. He asked me which I was, and seemed disappointed to hear that I was neither. It dawned on me here that what I actually wanted wasn't a data focused plan; ideally I want a data only plan.

It's basically how I use my phone anyway. Most phone calls that I make are to Three, in order to check my balance and top up (I never got the hang of the text service). Who phones people these days, unless it's an absolute emergency? If I actually want to have a conversation with someone, rather than a text based chat, I'll video call them on Hangouts or ring them on FaceTime, and I'll do this through the comfort of WiFi. I'd love to have a mobile that I'd be happy to use as a phone, but the idea that my network provider is counting the minutes I use just seems nuts to me. Even when they are free, doesn't it seem weird? Imagine if you had a 1000 minute limit for FaceTime, or a 1000 message limit on Facebook Messenger. Even without charge, it doesn't seem like a good deal. SMS is a rip off, even in big bundles, and it's why WhatsApp, Facebook Messenger, iMessage and recently Hangouts enjoy so much of our texting. Although not as poor as SMS, voice calling is also a poor service by carriers, and it's on the way out. Data only please.

The problem for carriers is that they were never going to win in the long run with these services. Internet giants and social network sites are much better placed to build the communication services themselves, where the network companies have to be the ones providing the network. Makes sense.

This is why I think we are very close to a time when we move over to data only plans. My prediction is that in less than 2 years we will see the first plan of this sort offered. Within 5 years I would expect it to be standard. The only thing making me nervous about these bets is the general public unwillingness to challenge their provider, and the provider's bitter unwillingness to compete aggressively on this front.

With a data only plan, the carrier only has to ensure a 3G or up connection for your device, and you're basically free to go with video, voice and text, with no issues. Of course, this is a little unimaginable for the time being, but on the 5 year timeline, its not completely unrealistic. Then what you want is your mobile OS to store contacts based on their service profiles. I, for example, would be in your contacts as a Google+ account. When you call me, through data only, my phone rings, and I see an incoming Hangout from you. Doesn't that make much more sense than using up your "minutes" when you call me? All we need for this to work is for carriers to provide strong data services.

Alright, over to you carriers. How competitive can you be with a data only plan?