Mun: It looks like ‘unlimited’ data is here to stay

AT&T unlimited data (AT&T)
AT&T is one of a number of carriers offering unlimited data plans.

As we entered the new year, I am enthralled by many innovations that have come before, and excited about what’s to come in the mobile industry. I remember being giddy in the late ‘90s, sending a text to a colleague while traveling down a highway on a Blackberry two-way pager on kilobit DataTAC network. I loved seeing a full NY Times webpage on an iPhone via the 2.5G network in 2007.

The ready access to information and freedom to communicate on-the-go is a universally appealing value proposition. Of course, these innovations are possible through hard work of many engineers and marketeers who have paved the way. Also important is making these innovations accessible to as many people as possible to drive scale, which is essential in driving down cost to further increase demand. Last year, we contemplated the return of unlimited data plans and whether they will be a temporary or permanent fixture in the U.S. mobile landscape to continue fueling mobile adoption and usage.

Based on recent holiday promotions by major tier 1 operators, and specifically T-Mobile’s “all-in” ONE plan, it looks like the “unlimited” data plans are here to stay. While the operators will look to other means of monetization such as new device attach, digital advertising, churn reduction savings, etc., it will be hard to raise the “per GB” pricing once it has been brought down. As of January 2017, the weighted average of mobile retail per GB pricing in the U.S. stands at about $5.25—that’s over 40% decline in just six months!

When the “unlimited” data plans of T-Mobile and Sprint are separated out (a dotted line in the graph below), things become a bit more clear. For T-Mobile and Sprint, factoring in artificial data caps at 23 and 28 GB/month at which point access is throttled to lower speeds, the mobile retail pricing plummets to $1.55 per GB. Of course, not every subscriber on T-Mobile and Sprint networks will fully consume the allotted “unlimited” data plans, but the specter of unlimited plans will likely draw more subscribers to those plans and further put competitive pressures to other players.

Mobile Experts

As mobile operators look to Gigabit LTE networks with LTE-Advanced features like carrier aggregation, higher 256-QAM modulation, and massive MIMO, and complemented with a big swath of higher-frequency millimeter wave spectrum use in 5G, I expect the cost-per-bit to continue its deflationary trend, and may even accelerate from a recent norm. Consequently, as the unit cost continues to decline, I expect traditional and new forms of content such as AR and VR to find increasing use over mobile networks as the networks become even more capable with ultralow latency and very high reliability features. These “fully mature” 5G services will be some years out, but I see plenty of innovative technologies in the pipeline to drive the cost decline. Some of these near to midterm innovations include LTE-U, maturing 3.5 GHz ecosystem for CBRS and 5G use, massive MIMO, and millimeter wave fixed and mobile. All of these concepts help to drive down cost per bit as the “mobile” network converge with indoor unlicensed wireless systems.

The continuing decline in price per bit shows that the competition is alive and well, and consumers are benefitting from continuing innovations in the industry. As the industry marches forward, I look forward to new devices, new services and new industries that the mobile industry will serve in the coming decades. The next few years will be exciting in wireless—but has it ever been dull?

Kyung Mun is a Senior Analyst at Mobile Experts LLC. Mobile Experts is a network of market and technology experts that provides market analysis on the mobile infrastructure and mobile handset markets. Over the course of his 20+ years in wireless and cable industries in a dynamic range of roles from engineering to product management and technology strategy, he has contributed to the advancement of mobile communication, while working at leading companies in the mobile value chain including Motorola, Texas Instruments, Alcatel-Lucent, and a few startups in between. He holds undergraduate and graduate degrees in electrical engineering from the University of Texas at Austin and Georgia Tech, and studied finance and strategy at Southern Methodist University.