Fight data caps with Super Wi-Fi

Data caps are the clearest sign that America is in decline.

We either come up with a strategy for removing data caps, or surrender the future.

Part of this comes from personal experience with my mobile phone.

The short story is this: I had to upgrade my broken Droid and sign a new contract with my carrier, Verizon. That contract changed what had been an unlimited 3G data cap to 2 GB cap and with it LTE.

At 2 GB my bill remains at about the same, $126 a month. That includes unlimited voice and now unlimited text, an inconsequential benefit.  

To raise the 2 GB cap to 4 GB is an extra $10; to 6 GB is yet another $10, all the way up to a 50 GB shared data plan of $375 a month. At any tier, it is no bargain.   

Please note: I could have kept my previous unlimited plan if I paid full price for the Samsung Galaxy, at about $600.  But Verizon, according to various reports, is throttling unlimited data customers who go above 2 GB, so one frustration may have been replaced with another. 

The very notion of having to check my data usage is loathsome. It feels so 1990s.

The industry isn’t going to retreat on data caps. But data caps are completely at odds with what we want to achieve as a society. Metered access to wireless networks is not in step with the broader social needs.

Just take online education, as one important example. More students are turning to alternative education options, such as the massively open online courses (MOOC).  A lot of their course work will be via video, and they’ll want the flexibility and freedom to do this work from any place.

The FCC is considering a move to use available spectrum to build Wi-Fi systems that can cover an entire metropolitan area. It argues that these “super Wi-Fi” networks could free up billions of dollars in new economic activity, according to a report in the Washington Post.

The FCC’s idea is disruptive, but so were roads. 

The American Automobile Assn., which was formed in 1902, spent its early years arguing for government spending on roads. Approving bonds for road building, when the majority of the population still did not own cars, was difficult.

The argument for paving roads was made this way:  It took one gallon of gasoline to transport one ton 14 miles on an earth road; 21 miles on a gravel road, and 31 miles to transport a ton on a concrete pavement, Those were the numbers used by engineers in 1922 to justify the cost of paving 7,000 miles of roadway in Minnesota, reported one state newspaper, The Princeton Union.The state estimated that the savings on gasoline alone would cover the cost in 10 years.

Where was the larger social benefit in road paving? People saved time. Paved roads were less expensive to maintain than dirt or gravel roads. Lower transportation costs of goods improved efficiency. New industries were stimulated. Cars, by the way, would also suffer less wear and tear, as well as the people in them.

But roads were a threat to railroads. The 1950s-era launch of a national highway system enabled the trucking industry, and the railroad industry did what it could to throw impediments in its way.  (See: Moving the Goods, by Richard Weingroff of the Federal Highway Administration.)

Are building national wireless networks any different from highway building? If these networks are to become a source of economic growth do we want them totally dependent on what amounts to overpriced toll roads? The argument that new and freely accessible roads could deliver enormous economic benefit, stimulate new industries and jobs, is the same one used for expanding high-speed wireless access as a pubilc good.

Alternatives to telecom wireless systems, especially government inspired super WiFi, will face massive industry opposition, and it’s going to take compelling economic argument and public awareness to take it on.

Without alternatives we are left with data caps and pricing structures designed to nudge costs ever higher. If we’re going to live in a world of data caps, we might as well drive on dirt roads.  

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