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AT&T's Data Numbers: The Figures They Don't Show

As reported in All Things Digital, a Bernstein Research analyst estimates that "the average Apple iPhone user consumes five to seven times the monthly bandwidth of the average wireless voice subscriber and at least twice the amount of the typical smartphone phone user." The conclusion is that AT&T, and other carriers as well, will have to switch to usage-based pricing to stay in business, as smartphones continue their absorption of the mobile market. But I have no sympathy, because there are some key numbers missing, and I suspect that the cries you hear from the telecommunications industry would sounds like "Wolf! Wolf!"

Here are the numbers as Berstein analyst Toni Sacconaghi lays them out:

These are numbers triangulated from a number of sources, and that's fine. But these numbers don't include some that are perhaps the most critical in examining what AT&T is doing. Here are some of the figures I'd be interested in seeing and questions that could use answers:

  • How does the 250 MB of data compare to the voice traffic of the average handset user? In other words, how much less bandwidth, if any, does the person who primarily talks on the phone all the time rather than using a handset as a data device actually use?
  • When AT&T set the unlimited data plan rate, what amount of data did it think that consumers would actually use a month?
  • What amount of monthly data capacity did AT&T plan for the unlimited data plan?
  • What is the rate at which it is losing excess bandwidth capacity?
  • At what rate did AT&T calculate that it would have to add infrastructure to handle growing data traffic?
  • At what rate did AT&T actually add that infrastructure?
To put it differently, there is only a problem if the networks won't be able to handle the volumes of data being added on. But you notice that AT&T has been happy to keep accepting new users that want iPhones. So maybe the danger from data overload isn't really that big. Knowing how much data users are pushing is only one part of the analysis. The other has to do with capacity and its growth over time. That's what the analysts can't tell from the outside, which is convenient for any of the carriers. Could it be that regulated industries might just want an excuse to raise prices? Oh, how cynical one can get.
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