Editor's Corner—5G is operators’ chance to correct their ‘unlimited’ mistake

Mike Dano

5G has been heralded as many things: a massive boost in wireless speeds, a dramatic increase in network capacity, and an opportunity for operators to create new business models around the IoT and enterprise. But one thing that 5G definitely can do is allow operators to correct their “unlimited” marketing mistake.

As everyone in wireless knows, “unlimited” doesn't really mean unlimited. In wireless, unlimited actually means a certain amount of monthly data usage (usually between 20 and 50 GB) before speeds are slowed. And for some reason that figure is more like 10 GB per month if you're using your phone as a hotspot. Oh, and depending on your “unlimited” plan, you might only be able to watch low-quality videos.

As anyone with a passing grasp of English can tell you, this is not unlimited. The definition of unlimited is “not limited or restricted in terms of number, quantity or extent.” Nowhere in that definition is a hint of an arbitrary usage cap, speed throttling, video degradation or other caveats to users’ consumption.

I'm not saying anything new here. Operators have been under fire for their misleading unlimited claims for years now. First it was AT&T’s unlimited marketing messages, and most recently it was Verizon’s mistaken move to throttle the data speeds of firefighters who were battling a California wildfire. Verizon said that it should have removed that throttle, and that it mistakenly did not, but the issue nonetheless again highlights the “unlimited” problem.

(Verizon's solution to this? Two months of uncapped “unlimited,” after which customers will return to capped “unlimited.”)

It is of course a problem created by the operators themselves. Today's current batch of “unlimited” plans were created as an upgrade to the tiered, metered data offerings common just a few years ago. In those plans, users were penalized if they went over a specific amount of data usage. Thus, unlimited plans were obviously better because they replaced punitive overage fees with a bit more data and a throttle.

Still though, today's “unlimited” is not unlimited. Today's unlimited is just another way of counting users’ gigabytes.

Indeed, even this skewed view of “unlimited” is getting more complicated. Operators’ latest batch of unlimited plans introduce a “good-better-best” approach to unlimited pricing that raises the inane question: “Which unlimited plan is best for you?”

5G could fix this. The technology has been positioned as a 100-1000x improvement to wireless network speeds and capacity. It is considerably more spectrally efficient and can handle dramatically more traffic than 3G or 4G. And if it is deployed in millimeter-wave spectrum, it could even enable wireless speeds up to 1 Gbps.

5G is apparently so important that it has been discussed as a national priority.

If that is all true, 5G should give operators the chance to retire their false concept of “unlimited.”

To be clear, I'm not necessarily arguing that operators should suddenly begin offering truly unlimited services with the launch of 5G. Even in the wired industry, operators typically do not offer completely unlimited services. Comcast, for example, caps its monthly data usage at around 1 TB per month.

Further, wireless networks are a shared resource. They are designed with the assumption that usage will fluctuate, and that only some of the users in a particular cell will need a high-speed data connection at any given time. This is true in 5G and 4G and 3G and 2G.

But what 5G does provide is, potentially, more flexibility.

Imagine, for example, a “gold,” “silver” and “bronze” approach to monthly plans. The gold plan gets the best the network has to provide, at all times and under any circumstances. A silver plan, meanwhile, would cost less but would also take a backseat to gold users in the event the network was congested. Bronze plans would operate the same way, but perhaps with slower speeds.

Or, in an alternative, operators could provide plans based on different speeds (as they currently do in most wired pricing scenarios). The fastest speeds would cost the most and the slowest speeds would cost the least. Network congestion could be handled through whatever mechanism the operator decides on, either through a completely equal system or one favoring premium customers.

Operators could even offer hourly or daily high-speed access to the network, giving users who are at work a break on their bill and then charging extra for high-speed access to those headed out to the bar.

None of these pricing ideas is new. The point here is that, with all of the hype and noise around 5G, operators will need to do something new as they introduce this latest generation of wireless. The same old approach to unlimited won't work in a 5G world. Users, rightly, will expect more than just a slightly bigger data bucket before throttling starts. -- Mike | @mikeddano

Editor's Corners are opinion columns written by a member of the Fierce editorial team. They are edited for balance and accuracy.

Article updated Aug. 29 to clarify throttling practices.