Mobile Data - The Only Thing Left

I used to work for a mobile phone sales company that no longer exists. I worked for The Link from 2002 until 2006 as firstly “admin” and then a full sales person. I was the guy who convinced you to spend £30 a month for 12 months instead of spend £25 a month for 12 months and £30 on the phone (that little bit of magic cost you, the customer, £30 more long term). Selling these things at the time was easy – honestly, between 2002 and 2006 anything that had first had a colour screen, then Bluetooth, then could take photos, then play MP3s, and by the time I left, maybe do video calling, would sell. People would spend mountains of cash to buy the latest Nokia, or Sony Ericsson, or the latest Motorola phone.

I remember the moment the Walkmen branding landed on phones. The first phones to have an actual headphone port on it rather than the nonsense hands-free port. The first phones to come with a camera (I spent £100 on a phone that took postage stamp sized photos, the Sharp GX10, still a classic). That first time the Motorola V3 RAZR came in and we only had one – people actually came in just to see the phone and to check it was real! Those days dripped in university nostalgia, will always be fun and enjoyable memories to go back to. Here's all my phones, listed.

However, in 2014, things have changed a lot. Not so much when it comes to phones – people still spend over the odds for the latest handset (it’s not Nokia anymore, but Samsung or Apple). What has changed a lot is what the networks can see you.

In the times when I worked for The Link, I would sell you a phone first, and then a contract. People would spend around £30 a month on a contract (which is still the average cost these days) it would appear from the contracts and the phones available. For that you’d get probably around 100 minutes and maybe 100 texts. There were off-peak contracts, there were add ons for texts and more minutes. But literally no data. Phones just didn’t need data then – GPRS was brand new essentially, and the mobile web was utterly useless.

The thing that they could sell you then was texts. Everyone texted. People used to only text each other. You had a contract and you’d add texts on. 1000 texts, 2000 texts, that was what was their grasp on the customer. The best contracts gave you loads of them, but the places they made their money was in the balance between minutes and texts, and the networks knew it. Vodafone’s old tarrifs used to give you no texts, which people used to actually use as a reason to avoid them – it will come as no surprise that I still have parts of my brain filled with tariffs and phones.

Today, in 2014, when was the last time you sent a text? In my group of friends, texting is dead, as we now use Whatsapp. Other people use Twitter, Snapchat, Viber, Facebook, even old fashioned emails. And these all use the only thing that mobile phone networks have left – data.

The use of mobile internet is increasing at a rate that I can only imagine doesn’t fit neatly onto a graph. Networks are bursting at their seams to manage all the data going back and forth. My contract, with O2, is two years old, and it gave me unlimited minutes to anyone and unlimited texts, but a strict 1Gb data limit, because no one calls, no one texts, but everyone uses their data. And each month, I run out and they ask me to buy another Gb for a tenner – around a quarter of the total cost of my contract.

This is because mobile phones are no longer phones, but computers that need to be online to work. I went without my internet connected phone over Christmas (using an old D600, one of my favourite phones) and it was insane, not for not having Twitter o Facebook, but Whatsapp, the only way I get in touch with almost all my pals now. This is why they can give you all the calls you want, but not all the data.

Or can they? Well, here’s the thing – O2 hangs onto their data limits with a vice-like grip because it’s the last thing they have. If I had unlimited data I wouldn’t need to buy anything else each month, and some networks do offer that – they’re the disruptors, the virtual networks like GiffGaff, or Three, a network built on the “new” 3G technology. With 4G coming in now too, data limits are going to have to go up, and throttling will come in.

Companies have just spent billions of pounds on the 4G spectrum but that might be misplaced. On BBC Radio 4 this week a talking head said that the first company to launch a city wide free wifi network would disrupt everything. My phone, in that case, would be come free entirely, because I can call people and text them via Wifi even better than the current data networks. That isn’t that far off, either. Even more interesting is that the companies that run your broadband are scared too because once your phone can do internet without needing either their faster broadband (personal wifi) or someone sets up a wifi network across the whole city you won’t need them for anything – phone, internet, or even broadcast TV.

If data is the last thing they have to sell you, then you can bet that they are going to protect it with all their might and power. But, in the end, it is inevitable that as infatrucutre costs reduce and the networks expand and get faster, things are going to change. I’ve seen it happen to phone companies, I’ve seen it happen to shops selling phones, I’ve seen it happen to first calls, then texts, then data – and I can only see it going one way in the future.