Slate’s tech columnist recently suggested that AT&T Wireless (and presumably other wireless network service providers) move from an unlimited data plan to a tiered plan that rewards lower end users and punishes the heaviest users. Although the heavy users would end up paying more, the goal is actually not to extract the most money from customers, but to encourage them to reduce their usage, even at the cost of of lower per-user profit. United States wireless networks, like much of our infrastructure in most of the country, is under-developed and over-utilized, and groaning under the pressure. By providing financial incentives to users to monitor and restrain their use, the idea goes, network utilization would go down in the short term enough to keep the network stable, and there would be time for upgrades.
How would my plan work? I propose charging $10 a month for each 100 MB you upload or download on your phone, with a maximum of $40 per month. In other words, people who use 400 MB or more per month will pay $40 for their plan, or $10 more than they pay now. Everybody else will pay their current rate—or less, as little as $10 a month.
This is of course basically how the Japanese company Softbank bills for Internet utilization on their phones, including the iPhone. (I believe PCS companies like eMobile actually introduced unlimited usage plans first.) While their billing system works at a more granular level, the individual packet, the overall effect is similar. If you barely connect to the network that month, your basic network charges may come to around $10, with metered usage up to a cap of around ￥4000, or around US$40. Of course, since Japan has historically not offered unlimited data plans, the introduction of this billing system was in some ways received in the opposite way that it would be in the US. That is, Japanese wireless companies historically charged purely metered rates, while US providers have mostly offered unlimited plans. While the introduction of a tiered pricing system was considered a customer-friendly innovation in Japan, as it finally made it possible to use your wireless phone as much as you wanted without worrying about the bill, I wonder how Americans, so used to buffet-style pricing, would react.