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Apple Gets Ready for Carrier Limits on Wireless Data [UPDATE]

Anyone watching the moaning and groaning of wireless carries know that AT&T (T) and Verizon (VZ) are considering limiting user data plans. And now it seems that Apple (AAPL), manufacturer of the device, the iPhone, often blamed for enormous increases of consumer data consumption, has been developing technology to either help the user or help the carrier, depending on your orientation.

Patent application 20100017506, titled Systems and Methods for Monitoring Data and Bandwidth Usage, was filed in September 2008, becoming public yesterday. Here's the patent abstract:

Access to a communications network may be provided via a data provider that may charge for access. In some cases, the access fee may be related to the amount of network resources consumed (e.g., amount of data downloaded or bandwidth used). In some cases, a user may have access to a particular amount of data provider resources and be required to pay an additional fee for using resources in excess of the particular amount. To assist the user in managing his data resource consumption, a resource utilization component may provide different alerts and notices informing the user of current consumption, expected future consumption, and recommendations for reducing data provider resources consumed (e.g., stopping particular processes or data provider requests, such as downloading media). If several electronic devices in a network are connected to the same data provider resources, a network component may manage the data provider resource use among the several electronic devices (e.g., allow only particular users or devices access).
The emphasis is on helping the user, but clearly Apple is laying the groundwork for handsets to operate under limited data plans. It mentions that "some data providers have found that a mere 5% of users (e.g., power users) may be responsible for 50% of consumed resources," and that "data providers may increasingly alter the mechanism for charging users from a fixed or connection time based fees to usage-based fees."
In such instances, data providers would charge users for the amount of data transferred in a given time window similar to mechanisms employed by electric or natural gas utility companies. There may thus be a need to monitor data usage and provide users, data providers, or both with the means to effectively manage such pricing mechanisms.
Not that Apple would have heard about such plans from its current and potential future partners -- AT&T and Verizon, specifically.

Some of the potential actions such a monitoring facility could take might include "providing notifications, scheduling, application control, and switching or load balancing between different data provider resources (where more than one is available)." The mechanisms could include centralized or distributed implementation, or "arbitrate among several different devices accessing the same data provider resources."

An interesting implication of this application, should it actually result in a granted patent, is that it could, in the U.S., force other handset manufacturers to get a license from Apple if they, too, wanted to implement monitoring in the face of increased carrier restrictions.

[UPDATE: A friend who used to be in management at a carrier pointed out to me that the carriers don't need help to monitor or throttle use, which I understood. But the discussion got me thinking of one additional point. Apple could be using such technology as part of a corporate play, given an enterprise more direct control over business users than they would have with other handsets, which might be considered a strong selling feature. So add that into the potential reasons for the move.]

Image via stock.xchng user jazza, site standard license.

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