Unlimited Data and Our Shackled Digital Lives

When
I sat down this evening to write my column, I had presumed that I would write a
review of my new smartphone, the Samsung Galaxy Note 3. How could I not? My praise for
this new phone of mine would undoubtedly exceed the greatest paean any
marketing executive could ever hope to write, and I wouldn’t even be getting
paid for it! My disdain for dispersing
free advertising, however, was not what made me change course. As I began to list the things I loved about
the Note 3—the larger screen, the greater access to content, the more powerful
processor that allowed me to watch all the flash videos and download all
the (few) games I want—I began to see that there was a common thread to my experience
with this phone that, were it not available to me, would have radically altered
how I interact with the device.

You
see, I have an unlimited data plan with Verizon. Which is to say, I am persona non grata in
the eyes of Big Red. I am the customer whom
the two largest cell carriers in the United States want to stamp out like a bus
beneath Godzilla’s foot. Why? Because I use
that unlimited data to its full potential. For $30 a month (plus additional fees for talk and text) I have access to
high-speed internet wherever I want, whenever I want, and on whatever device I
want. Stop for a second and consider
just how powerful a statement that is: anytime, anywhere, with anything.

While
it would be false advertising to say that the experience is perfect or
consistent (I’m looking at you, Crumpler, North Carolina), the ability to
access high-speed internet anywhere you go expands the way you relate to
the world. Gone are fretting little
things like forgetting to print out directions, not knowing how to spell ‘onomatopoeia,’ and any fear that you’ll miss any TV show that you can
stream. Gone also are bigger fears, like
missing a deadline or a submission, having to plan where you stay around the
nearest Wi-Fi access point, and not being able to get in touch with loved ones
or co-workers during a crisis. Especially when you add in the ability to connect a laptop, a game
console, or any other internet-enabled device to your phone’s 4G data link via
a process called tethering, unlimited data not only makes life easier to
live, it makes life significantly more productive and connected.

However,
for all its benefits, the two largest carriers in the US are currently doing
everything they can to make sure that none of us have access to this
worldview-expanding service. The
original strategy was to charge for data by the gigabyte for individual
devices, but the model has progressed to charging users one flat fee for a pool
of data shared across all devices. Five gigabytes for you, your iPad, your son’s phone, your daughter’s laptop, your spouse’s Kindle, and the list goes on. If
I had purchased my Galaxy Note 3 under the terms of a tiered or shared data
plan, I can almost guarantee that my focus would necessarily have shifted to
one of constant worry about what I could and couldn’t afford to do given an
action’s approximate data drain. A
Netflix movie, I might remind you, is on the order of two gigabytes. In other words, a Netflix movie can drain,
in one sitting, all available data for an entry-level plan.

The
carriers’ excuse for the tiered data policy is a simple one: money. The common virtue of all capitalist
enterprises is alive and well as far as access to data plans are concerned, and
the business model reflects the phone industry’s obstinate refusal of
change. Thirty years ago, the same model
applied to long-distance calling, which is now a staple of all phone communication. Twenty years ago, the same limited model applied
to all calls placed on a cell phone, which, again, is now unthinkable given how much we as a population love to yammer on the go. When you consider the tiered data approach critically, moreover, it
makes no long-term sense either: As both standard and enterprise consumers
continue to move to cloud-based storage and streaming, decentralized access to
content, it will become harder and harder in the coming years to do anything without connecting to the
internet in one way or another. If
consumers don’t have access to enough bandwidth to take advantage of the cloud,
everyone from major corporations to indie startups will suffer, as will the
service providers who will lose business as a result.

Thus,
my long-winded point is that if you have unlimited data right now, fight to keep
it. If not, don’t go with a carrier that
would force you on a tiered data plan. Despite the fact that T-Mobile and Sprint both have significantly worse
networks than Verizon or AT&T, it will still be worth it to exercise your
right to access whatever you want, whenever you want, on whatever device you
want. The future will thank you.

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