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Mobile data: gluttony and the 5G future

I’ve been away. And I’ve learned something: I am a mobile data glutton.

Having been to many places recently where I could use my normal mobile data allowance (thanks to Three’s ‘Feel at Home’ offer) I didn’t think to check whether Germany was under the same deal. It isn’t. So I had to go and get myself a local sim card.

The best package I could find on the high street was five gig of mobile data at around 20mbps on 4G for EU35. I thought that would be loads for a two week stay.

How wrong I was.

Limiting my consumption to a few minutes each day and the minimum amount of work (I was, after all, on holiday), I burned two gigabytes of mobile data in three days.

Crikey.

How much must I use ordinarily? I’ve never thought to check precisely. I knew it was enough to justify an unlimited package. But I thought that was what you might call a justification on behavioural grounds. I thought that I couldkeep to a limit by changing my behaviour but I didn’t want to. I’d rather pay a little extra and not have to think about it.

Now I realise that, even with drastic limits to my consumption, there is little chance I could keep to any sort of available limit.

This got me thinking. Am I normal? Walking around, seeing so many people with phones tethered to their pocket power packs, I figure I am at most only slightly ahead of the curve. You can’t play Pokemon Go without data.

This explains why my all-you-can-eat data tariff got rather more expensive recently. The networks are having to deal with a generation for whom a connection is an expectation. And that connection brings all their media. Not just web pages and mails but IM, music, video, games. Just as our phones are tethered to our pockets, we are tethered to the world by our mobile data connection. With our entire digital lives flowing through this connection, our data consumption is growing rapidly — roughly 40% worldwide between 2014 and 2015 according to this analysis.

The operator response to this is to tweak tariffs to try to balance consumption against costs. It’s not free for them to carry our data — far from it. Hence the ongoing Net Neutrality debate. Operators both fixed and mobile want rewarding for carrying the most difficult traffic for them: video streams primarily.

Those on the other side of the debate argue that they should pay for a service and be allowed to use it how they like. It’s more complex than that, but commercially that’s the fundamentals.

What’s the alternative? We could pay more for our data, and according to the GSMA, some of us are. All-you-can-eat plans like mine are becoming more expensive, or not quite so limitless.

But this feels like only a partial solution. Can operators keep pumping investment into larger and larger pipes to carry our traffic to and from base stations? Both financially and architecturally this could be a big challenge.

Hence the inclusion of peer-to-peer and multiple network components in the standards for 5G. Imagine every phone is a base station, with traffic flowing from device to device until it winds its way to its destination. A shared network of mobile data gluttony.

There are still problems to address: security, latency. And of course, power.

Expect to see more and more people with their phones tethered to their pockets if batteries don’t improve in the meantime.

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Tom Cheesewright