Will 4G let me go totally wireless?

Mike Dano

I have long wondered whether my family could cut the cord completely and conduct all our digital activities--talking, working, Internet surfing, movie watching--via a wireless network. It's a model that some companies--Leap Wireless (NASDAQ:LEAP) and Clearwire (NASDAQ:CLWR), specifically--are actively selling, and the speeds provided by next-generation networks like LTE, WiMAX and HSPA+ make going totally wireless a viable option.

But exactly how much data does my family use per month? What is our monthly data footprint? We currently use Comcast (or NBC or Xfinity or whatever it's called this month) for wired Internet and telephony connections, which I rely on for both work and personal use. Comcast recently deployed in our area a "usage meter," which finally gives us a glimpse into our actual data footprint.

comcast data use

The above chart clearly shows that we probably can't go totally wireless and expect to engage in the same sorts of online activities we do now. Most wireless carriers cap monthly data use at 5 GB (Comcast caps usage at 250 GB per month). Those wireless carriers that don't have a hard cap--T-Mobile USA, Clearwire and Leap--caution that they can throttle the speeds of users who surpass a certain amount of data per month (usually around 5-10 GB per month).

Further, this chart doesn't reflect my family's total data footprint: I use 1-2 GB of cellular wireless data per month (I often listen to Internet radio on my smartphone when I exercise, and I occasionally make use of my smartphone's tethering functions), and my wife does too. And, though I work at home, I try to get out of the house at least a few times a week thanks to the free WiFi at my local coffee shop and rec center. So my actual data footprint is probably a bit bigger than the above chart, though not by much.

The next obvious question is: What are we doing that burns through so much data? Comcast assures us that "a typical customer who uses the service to send and receive email, surf the Internet and watch streaming video may consume 2-4 GB of data in a month ... while another customer who uploads or downloads 1,000 pictures in a month may use 10 GB."

Comcast also points out that, to reach 250 GB in a month, a customer would have to do any of the following:

  • Send 50 million plain text e-mails (at 5KB/e-mail)
  • Download 62,500 songs (at 4 MB/song)
  • Download 125 standard-definition movies (at 2 GB/movie)
  • Upload 25,000 high-resolution digital photos (at 10 MB/photo)

Luckily, according to Comcast, "the vast majority--more than 99 percent--of our customers are not excessive users." Sound familiar? It's almost the same figure AT&T Mobility provided when it eliminated its unlimited smartphone data plan.

Unfortunately, neither Comcast nor AT&T (NYSE:T) tells its subscribers which services consume data--only that they're using data. So I can't tell whether streaming Internet radio or tethering accounts for the bulk of my wireless data footprint. However, Comcast does note that "our experience shows that some customers identified as excessive users were not aware of the activity that caused the excessive use," and cautioned that viruses, spyware, roommates and unsecured wireless routers are common data-consumption culprits.

I'm pretty sure though that the data drain in my home is our new Netflix-capable Blu-ray player. Netflix's streaming service is pretty awesome, and a great way to free your TV from the tyranny of trash that's on most cable channels. Netflix doesn't provide details on how much data its streaming service consumes, but anecdotal evidence indicates it's probably a couple of gigabytes per movie. Thanks to my wife's obsession with "Say yes to the dress" and my son's equally data-intensive passion for "Dinosaur Island," I'm betting Netflix is what's pulling all those gigabytes into our house.

Still, I think this exercise does highlight the need for a new battery of services that operators should provide to subscribers so they can manage their personal data footprint. Just like calling records show who users are talking to, data records should show what services consume the most data --Mike