"The most expensive part about owning a smartphone and being connected to the internet isn’t the smartphone; it’s the data.” - Mark Zuckerberg
The Mobile Internet is amazing.
Today you can order a black car, a massage, even a ManServant™ right from this tiny device that sits so easily in your pocket, that it feels like smartphones are what pockets were designed for.
But of course, that assumes you have at the very least a smartphone with mobile data. Which is not the case for a large part of the world.
If you believe in the promise of the Mobile Internet and want to help it grow, either as an app developer, investor, or just conscientious consumer, then you need to understand two issues that constitute some of the Internet’s biggest threats today: Zero-Rating and the Mobile Data Problem.
"Zero-rating", where companies make deals with carriers to subsidize data costs for certain apps, is one way to expand mobile Internet access.
An example is in Zambia, where Facebook (via Internet.org and Airtel) is distributing an “Internet starter kit”-like app with free data to a selected group of sites, including: Facebook / Facebook Messenger (duh), Google Search, Wikipedia, and other locally-targeted sites (e.g., Zambia uReport for AIDS/HIV health info).
While possibly well-intentioned, Facebook’s app - and other similar Zero-rated deals - puts in jeopardy the fundamental openness that’s made the Internet so amazing so far.
Essentially, Zero-rating is against the principles of net-neutrality. Several folks have already posted well-articulate reasons why Zero-rating is so dangerous:
"Zero-rated mobile traffic is blunt anti-competitive price discrimination designed to favor telcos’ own or their partners’ apps while placing competing apps at a disadvantage. A zero-rated app is an offer consumers can’t refuse. If consumers choose a third-party app like Dropbox or Netflix, they will either need to use it only over Wi-Fi use or pay telcos hundreds of dollars to use data over 4G networks on their smartphones or tablets.” (via Antonios Drossos, Gigaom)
"But what all of this zero rating activity is setting up is a mobile internet that looks a lot more like cable TV than our wide open Internet. Soon a startup will have to negotiate a zero rating plan before launching because mobile app customers will be trained to only use apps that are zero rated on their network.” (via Fred Wilson)
“Perhaps more people feel they can afford smartphones, even if they can only afford access to the few apps that fall on the pre-approved list. But that’s an impoverished vision compared to the democratizing ideal the internet at its best represents.” (via Marcus Wohlsen, WIRED)
"An internet for poor people that in any way provides less access than the full-throated internet those of us reading this enjoy? That’s troubling. It’s another digital divide." (via Mat Honan, WIRED)
Still, Zero-rating will probably work. It’ll get apps in the hands of consumers who normally couldn’t afford them.
Because, as some behavioral economists have shown, free products are extraordinarily, irrationally attractive.
But Zero-rating works at a giant cost. Is there a better solution? And what problem, really, are we trying to solve?
THE MOBILE DATA PROBLEM
Let’s look at a few charts.
The first is via Ericsson from late last year, showing the literal exponential growth of mobile data, turning these “phones” into anything but telephones.
The next two are via Ericsson and Cisco (from earlier this year) that show the general consensus that the industry expects another 10x mobile data growth in the next 4-5 years.
It should be clear by now that mobile data usage has been growing tremendously and will continue to grow.
Now let’s look at a final chart. This one is from Alcatel-Lucent (2011) that shows a similar growth story but in mobile data per subscriber, overlaid against mobile carrier unit economics.
This shows the crux of what’s going on. As mobile data usage has grown, per-unit data revenue and per-unit costs have both decreased. But revenue is decreasing faster than costs, leading to shrinking mobile carrier margins.
And as the reach of the Mobile Internet continues down the economic pyramid, consumers’ ability to pay for data also decreases, further worsening carrier economics.
(While some improvements may cheapen per-unit costs in the short-term — e.g., the move to LTE — these appear to be linear shifts that are unlikely to withstand the exponential growth in demand.)
These worsening economics are passed down to consumers in the form of bandwidth data caps (becoming much more common here in the US), expensive pricing, and less investment in infrastructure.
In fact, as we continue to see cheaper handsets, faster processors, richer screens, larger amounts of storage, and more efficient batteries, one weak link emerges as the limiting factor in our smartphone experience: access to bandwidth.
Which means that, as our worldwide appetite for mobile data continues to expand, satisfying that hunger is going to get harder and more expensive.
This is the Mobile Data Problem.
That’s what Mark Zuckerberg alludes to in the quote above.
And it’s one of the biggest problems facing the Mobile Internet today.
MAKING THE MOBILE INTERNET UBIQUITOUS
Let’s find a better solution to the Mobile Data Problem than Zero-rating apps.
Luckily, companies are already exploring a few options:
- Reduce data usage via better compression, e.g., Google, Onavo (now part of Facebook), and Opera Max
- Expand access through cheaper access points, e.g., via hot air balloons (Google) or drones (Facebook)
- Increase offline availability with smarter caching (e.g., Offline radio stations on Google Play Music)
And I’m sure there are other options that we’ve yet to explore.
Still, no one solution will solve by the problem by itself. Each is likely to be better suited for some types of content than others — e.g., hot air balloons for low-bandwidth communication.
But this is the overall problem we need to address, if we want the Mobile Internet to continue to expand and reach more people and fulfill more of its potential and just continue to be amazing in general.