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The end of unlimited 3G data

Over the past three years that I have been with the Cisco Mobility Solutions team I have witnessed multiple market transitions that are shaping the communications, collaboration and access landscape.

Today, we are experiencing yet another market transition, one that we have been anticipating for quite a while.  AT&T announced the end of unlimited Internet on smartphone devices, such as the Apple iPhone.  To non-US mobile users this may not be a big deal as many international service providers already either cap usage or charge on a per MB or GB for data usage. For those of us in the US however, this is major news that will most certainly have implications in:

  1. User experience and usage patterns
  2. Guest access network (aka Wi-Fi hotspots) proliferation
  3. Enterprise wireless network demand -- driven from the continued consumerization of IT

Regardless of the plan you subscribe, you will quickly become very conscious about your data usage every time you are using 3G.  You will be anticipating your text message from AT&T alerting you when you hit 65%, 90% or 100% of your prepaid data plan. And you will most likely stop using your device for data once you reach your cap, to avoid additional fees.

As a result you will seek to connect to a Wi-Fi hotspot whenever possible.  There are many of those out there that are free or rather inexpensive to join.  What we will see however will be a more concerted effort by companies/organizations that deal in the public domain – think retail stores, or public sector organizations, schools and hospitals, that attract many visitors daily – to fill in the gap that will be created by providing a guest access network.

Those organizations, depending on their business model may have an incentive to allow guests access their WLAN network.  In the case of a retailer for example, one could easily see value add services delivered in a walled-garden that can drive brand awareness and customer loyalty.  In other cases, it will be a lot more opportunistic, and actually a source of revenue for some.  In either case, I believe that as companies evaluate their WLAN choices, a scalable and secure guest access network that is easy to manage will become one of the top priorities.

Finally, the requirements of the enterprise wireless LAN network itself will change.  As professionals continue to bring their own mobile devices into the workplace and expect to continue to use them in a similar fashion, those users will require connectivity throughout the enterprise through Wi-Fi to avoid data plan overage charges. 

Customers that think of their WLAN as a strategic asset have long been deploying pervasive networks.  Still, they remain the minority, but have been asking us about things such as Distributed Antenna Systems (DAS) to provide both Wi-Fi and 3G coverage in a building.  They are also very interested in technologies that allow them to transfer 3G call into the Wi-Fi network and back in order to save on plan minutes. And even though we still have ways to go before mobile voice communications in the enterprise migrates to voice over Wi-Fi we are seeing good traction. 

What is more important however is the data-offload strategy that many of our customers quickly realized as being critical for their enterprise WLAN.  The main driver up to today, was the often poor 3G signal inside a large building.  With today’s announcement I think network administrators will have a lot more pressure to provide a pervasive networks that can satisfy the increasing bandwidth demand from all these different devices.

Cisco Borderless Networks provide secure, seamless and reliable access to information anywhere, at anytime, to anyone at any device.  Well, today, this message just a got a bit more important for many of us.   

So is it the end of unlimited 3G data or is it the start of reliable, secure and pervasive Wi-Fi hotspots everywhere? 

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13 Comments.


  1. It is clear that AT&T’s recent move away from all you can eat will continue to create ripples in the market for some time. Some obvious winners are WiFi equipment makers like Cisco. Sprint with their unlimited WiMax offering may face an uptick as well. I suspect that most of the other carriers will be sorely tempted to move to some sort of tiered plans. VZW’s impending LTE 4G offering, for example, seems a likely candidate.

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  2. This is great information, but in my country 3G still does not work. We will have to wait for another 1-2 years.Thanks for the good post.

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  3. I cant see many people will buy iPhone or the iPad now. They both need loads of data to work best. Somebody will come along into the unlimited 3G data market just to get more business than AT&T.

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  4. dharamog

    Car Loans – thanks for the comment. Any time you add a bandwidth hungry device in a shared spectrum environment, you end up deteriorating service for all. That has been probably the number one complaint of AT&T users. And since carriers use the same network for both data and voice, the impact is largely felt on the more latency sensitive app, such as voice. If you were a carrier today and you knew that in the app store there are a handful of apps that can be used for live streaming video (the ones I use on my 3GS iPhone are: Ustream broadcaster, AirCam, and live video) and you also suspect that people are going to start integrating this live streaming video technology with their social networks to share events with family and friends worldwide, would you create an unlimited plan that would essentially incentivize use of this bandwidth hogging activity? I think you would end up with a very expensive infrastructure that would reach capacity rather soon. It is for that matter that carriers have been considering data off-load strategies for a while now. It’s why AT&T has 20,000 Wi-Fi hotspots on their network.

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  5. Ignoring AT&T’s… quality issues here, I think this just reflects the typical fluctuations of product offerings. Unlimited data plans were probably just ‘too soon’ for AT&T, just as unlimited dialup Internet access used to have the same problems.Most of the traffic to my sites is still ‘traditional’ – at least in that it’s coming from a laptop or desktop machine rather than a cell phone. Six months ago my main site had about 3,500 visits per day, now I have about 4,500. Mobile traffic has gone from about two hundred visits per day to about four hundred per day (mobile data is naturally a lot noisier). At this rate it’s going to take several years for mobile to catch up, though I’ve no doubt it will.

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  6. Interesting feature the offer of unlimited 3G data transfers, here in my country there´s only very limited options by now, hope it changes in near future.

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  7. Ignoring AT&T’s… quality issues would be the nice thing to do. 3G services has been recently launched in India..hope it would go better here..and many people won’t mind the speed for some bucks.

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  8. Hi Dimitris,It appears Cisco Technology Partner – Agito Networks, is addressing these iPhone issues:Enterprise VoIP for iPhone SmartphonesEnterprises who currently have Apple iPhone devices deployed, can now extend PBX deskphone capabilities to the phones while retaining the native phone dialer experience and eliminating the learning curve for end users to adopt the solution. Agito extends enterprise VoIP over WiFi and 3G Cellular networks while also extending enterprise voice over cellular to enable single number reach from anywhere.””http://www.agitonetworks.com/products/agitoforiphone.phpSincerely,Brad Reese”

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  9. 3G is too slow a medium to be realistically expecting to use it to shift a load of bandwidth anyway. It’s great for checking things on the go, but doing that shouldn’t make too much of a dent on your phone plan even if it’s now capped.It should however precipitate the proliferation of wifi hotspots though.

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  10. Very Nice Information

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  11. hhmmm, I’m not sure there has ever been actual unlimited data usage available, as it comes down to fair usage policy applies””, so being offered 2GB a month is hardly unlimited!!”

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  12. If capping online activity is going to keep the network running smoothly then I’m all for it. But what happens in face of your competitors? Don’t you think some people will be upset about losing a feature? I don’t see what you could possibly need to do online that is so important that you would need unlimited access anyway.

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  13. Well clear”” provides 4G i think. The world still has some problems with communication. Apple’s chief prooved it last time.”

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