Wireless Carriers and Fair Use

There are still a few industries that do whatever they can to give consumers the short end of the stick, and we allow it because we feel the convenience and enrichment of our lives as a result of their commodities is worth the price. None seem more hell-bent on shafting the consumer, though, than wireless carriers (or, more specifically in this case, AT&T).

The iPhone made a significant impact on what we think of as a smartphone, and with it AT&T became a powerhouse once more during the time of their exclusive contract with Apple to provide the iPhone. This positioned them in a pretty solid place as a result of small conveniences, such as the ability to send and receive data and voice at the same time (a feature that, at least for iPhone users, is still only available through AT&T).

Fast forward to today, though, and the iPhone is available through all of the major carriers (well, except T-Mobile), and so it is much easier to compare the fee structure and services provided by AT&T as opposed to the others. This opens up some interesting points for discussion, as well as creating a new point of discussion that I want to explore at the end of this post.

Fair Use

AT&T is rumored (via Mac Rumors) to be looking at charging users to utilize features of the iPhone that are inherent to the device (something we have already seen with the additional charges for MMS messaging without a specific plan, as well as tethering, which still frustrates me). This takes an older question and makes it even more of a concern for consumers: should a company be allowed to restrict what a person can use a device they purchase, in good faith, for? If so, where should the line be drawn and who has the power to enforce that line?

I think the new Verizon Share Everything (via Verizon) plans are the way a carrier should approach service for the new generation of devices (assuming they do not change the current details of the plans, which basically gives you unlimited access to their network for sending and receiving messages and calls and requires you to purchase data "blocks" to be used in any manner you choose). As of right now, this means that an iPhone user could utilize every function of their device, as it was manufactured and released, for what amounts to an "access fee" to Verizon's network. There are not any additional fees for using the capabilities of the phone with these new plans (i.e., no fees to use the tethering/hotspot feature, and presumably no fees to utilize the FaceTime over 3G feature coming with iOS 6). Yes, you have to allocate a specific amount of data to use, and although I do believe a user should be able to pay a flat fee and gain unlimited access to data (like Sprint currently allows, which makes them a very solid contender in today's market as long as you live in an area where the coverage is solid), I can understand the principle of trying to maintain network uptime and availability by requiring users to determine whether they should use the cellular network or another network by way of charging for blocks of data. I don't have to agree with the principle to accept that there is a somewhat logical, and relatively accurate, line of reasoning behind the decision.

What about the experience?

This is the question that, to me, is even more important with a company like Apple behind the product. Apple has long been known for changing things as a result of how they want the end user's experience to be crafted, and in the realm of the smartphone this has been relatively true as well (for instance, the inability to change the look and feel of the interface, the inability to remove stock applications, etc.). However, what happens when the end user's experience is negatively impacted by the service provider? Should Apple leverage its strength to require wireless carriers to be more consumer friendly?

I think the answer should be yes, especially when a company is trying to squeeze profits from consumers just because they want to use a feature of a device. The drawback, of course, is that this could also swing the other direction just as easily, and be used to the detriment of consumers.

All I can say for certainty, at least for me, is that if AT&T chooses to charge fees for FaceTime usage over their network, I'll finally be talking with my wallet and making the move to a carrier that at least seems to have the interests of the consumer in mind. Hopefully enough people will make the same statement to make an impact.