John Paczkowski

Recent Posts by John Paczkowski

Usage-Based Data Pricing: The Solution to AT&T’s iPhone Problems?

attAccording to Bernstein Research analyst Toni Sacconaghi, the average Apple iPhone user consumes five to seven times the monthly bandwidth of the average wireless voice subscriber and at least twice the amount of the typical smartphone phone user (see adjacent summary; click to enlarge).

With usage levels like these and the network degradation and customer satisfaction issues that go along with them, is it reasonable to think that iPhone carriers like AT&T (T) will swap their all-you-can-eat data plans for usage-based pricing? Sacconaghi thinks so.

“iPhone users consume web, email and video data on the mobile network at levels that many believe are adversely affecting other subscribers on those mobile networks. Network congestion in turn is triggering higher capital spending requirements for carriers. Unchecked, the iPhone’s very high usage levels could severely undermine the economic returns of offering the iPhone,” Sacconaghi explains.

“We believe carriers will increasingly have to manage the usage side of the equation as well,” the Bernstein analyst asserts. “Carriers that have not already done so are increasingly likely to adopt usage-based pricing schemes that more fairly match price to usage but which will also inevitably discourage the most profligate kinds of applications.”

Sacconaghi adds: “Today’s combination of a subsidized iPhone with an all-you-can eat data plan can be likened to a carnival where there is a relatively high price of entry, but where all the rides are free. The adoption of usage-based pricing plans is akin to also charging for the Ferris wheel. When the rides are no longer ‘free,’ the value of the entry ticket could decline.”

That’s unfortunate. But in this case, the carnival’s wireless data traffic has increased 50-fold since the introduction of the Ferris wheel and there has not been a commensurate increase in revenue. In other words, AT&T is not getting paid for the level of data traffic it supports. Says Sacconaghi: “Over the…3-year period over which AT&T’s data bandwidth consumption has grown by 50-fold, its data revenues have grown by only 250 percent, resulting in a severe drop in revenue generation per megabyte of data.”

As more adopt unlimited data plans, they become unsustainable from a carrier profitability perspective. So what’s to be done?

Spend even more capital improving your network.

And raise the price of data by adopting usage-based pricing.

That might seem disadvantageous to Apple (AAPL), but as Sacconaghi notes, Apple could use the switch to usage-based pricing to its advantage. It could, for example, introduce a “non-data plan” iPhone that expands the device’s addressable market.

“A non-data plan iPhone might be something like an ‘iPhone Touch,’ a lower cost-of-ownership device (requires voice plan only; utilizes wifi for Internet connectivity) with which to attack the more traditional handset market…while exploiting Apple’s twin unique competitive differentiators: (1) A vibrant App Store with 100,000+ Apps and (2) a large and global iPod community that remains fiercely loyal to the iPod,” the analyst writes. “Such a product would have a price (to customers) that would be similar to a stand-alone iPod Touch today, and have a cost of ownership equal to standard voice-only phones.”

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I think the NSA has a job to do and we need the NSA. But as (physicist) Robert Oppenheimer said, “When you see something that is technically sweet, you go ahead and do it and argue about what to do about it only after you’ve had your technical success. That is the way it was with the atomic bomb.”

— Phil Zimmerman, PGP inventor and Silent Circle co-founder, in an interview with Om Malik