Goodbye, unlimited mobile data plans. Hello, throttling. What does this mean for site owners?

Data consumption on cell networks is a huge problem that will only get exponentially worse. We’re barely seeing the beginning. In this post, I’m going to outline the problem, as well as the solution landscape as I see it.

Let’s start with some mind-boggling numbers:

  • According to a Cisco report, the number of mobile-only users is set to explode. In 2010, there were 14 million mobile-only users. That number is projected to grow to 788 million mobile-only users by 2015.
  • More from Cisco: last year’s mobile data traffic clocked in at 597 petabytes a month — eight times the size of the entire global Internet in 2000.
  • What are all those petabytes comprised of? A lot more than viewing “mobile-optimized” sites. People are using the full web (particularly social sites), downloading games and apps, streaming music, watching videos, using GPS, and playing online games.
  • In 2011, 31 million mobile consumers viewed mobile video. Mobile video traffic exceeded 50% of mobile bandwidth.
  • In 2011, 33% of Facebook’s traffic came from mobile, as did 55% of Twitter’s traffic and 60% of Pandora’s.

Think your 2 GB plan has you covered? Maybe — for now. But as we all get used to the idea of on-demand, on-the-fly content delivery, our expectations are growing. According to Nielsen, mobile data usage more than doubled in every single age group between 2010 and 2011. As a for-instance, the average 25-34 year old used 264 MB of data in Q3 2010. One year later, that number leaped to 578 MB.

And have you ever wondered what 1 MB gets you? In most cases, not very much:

Solutions

There are solutions. But there are no perfect one-shot solutions.

Solution 1: Consumers will educate themselves about their data usage.

Pro: There’s an app for that. Apps like Traffic Monitor and 3G Watchdog (both for Android) show data usage for every app on your device. I was talking to customer recently who told me that he uses one of these apps to monitor how much data individual sites are using, and he simply stops visiting the data hogs.

Con: However, I don’t believe most users will work to this extent to monitor their data usage. It’s not how we’re wired to consume media. Generations of consuming newspapers, books, radio, television, and the desktop internet have trained us to believe that we are entitled to an unlimited (and practically free) supply of information and entertainment.

Solution 2: Consumers will restrict their usage to wi-fi instead of their 2G/3G/4G network.

Pro: Mobile devices are like Jekyll and Hyde. On wi-fi they can use tons of bandwidth and it doesn’t matter. On 2G/3G/4G they can’t. Using a wi-fi hot spot doesn’t count toward your monthly data allotment from your service provider, because you’re basically making your data consumption someone else’s problem.

Con: The average mobile user doesn’t stare at their screen to figure out what mode they are in. And most wi-fi hot spots are unsecured, in order to make them accessible to users. Of course, there are lots of workarounds you can use to to secure your device and information, but to be frank, most users aren’t savvy enough to implement them.

Solution 3: Carriers will continue to impose data caps and throttle users who are identified as being high-bandwidth users.

Pro: From the perspective of the carriers, the numbers cited at the top of this post make a compelling argument for throttling. Sprint (the only national carrier that promises unthrottled, unlimited bandwidth) is going to be challenged to keep up its commitment.

Con: If you’ve even been throttled, you know how intensely, painfully slow it is. Pages that used to load in just a couple of seconds take a couple of minutes. It’s brutal. What’s more, it’s not a great long-term strategy for carriers. Right now, in most cases only the top 5% data users are being throttled. But as mentioned above, we’re all using more and more data. At some point, the average person’s usage is going to equal that of a power user. What’s the solution then? Throttling more and more users? At some point, something has to either give… or break.

Solution 4: Site owners will funnel users toward leaner mobile-optimized sites.

Pro: Modern websites are designed for big screens. They send images that are too high quality for mobile phones, and these big images bloat pages. Serving leaner, stripped-down pages to mobile users is a relatively easy way to deal with this problem.

Con: As I’ve said many times, this solution is deeply flawed. For one thing, mobile-optimized sites look terrible on a tablet, which is technically a mobile device. For another, users don’t want a stripped-down online experience. In fact, 1 out of 3 users will choose to visit the full site when presented with a mobile version.

Solution 5: Site owners will explore new technologies to solve the mobile bandwidth problem.

Pro: There’s no silver bullet to solving the mobile bandwidth problem. The real solution will actually be a combination of new solutions — including, yes, advanced front-end optimization solutions like Strangeloop’s, as well as mobile-specific content delivery networks and infrastructure investments.

Con: Site owners are going to have to shake off their laissez-faire attitude about their users’ bandwidth issues. Historically, end-user bandwidth limitations have never been something that site owners concerned themselves with. As far as they were concerned, if your at-home connection was too slow, it was your own problem. It was up to you to buy a better modem or find a better ISP. The mobile bandwidth dilemma, however, is everyone’s problem. Throttled users react to page slowdowns the same way any other web user does: they view fewer pages, they buy less, and they’re less happy with your site. Site owners will need to recognize this and, for the first time, take proactive steps to mitigate end-user bandwidth limits.

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