Say Goodbye to Unlimited Wireless Data Plans

You know how you pay a fixed monthly fee for your phone, and can check email and Twitter, surf the web and the Yelp app anytime you like without counting minutes or megabytes? Yeah, well that's all gonna end.

Yesterday, Verizon CTO Tony Melone said that the days of all-you-can-eat data plans are ending, echoing something AT&T's boss said a week ago, that metered (or variable) pricing was ahead.

The bigwigs talk of fairness—why should the weekly email checker pay the same as the out-and-about Pandora and video streaming junkie?

They talk of transparency: "It's one thing to say all you can eat is gone," Melone told the Wall Street Journal. "It's another to have consumers worrying, 'Can I stream this radio?'"

This isn't going to be abrupt, and it won't affect all people equally. But one thing's for sure, if you use your phone's data plan a lot, you're going to start paying more than $35 per month for it. And even if the "unlimited" plan remains, it's certainly going to cost more, and be one of a multitude of levels or options.

Once upon a time, the home ISP business went through these similar phases: The dial-up age when we kept track of specific hours given away free on shiny, shitty AOL discs gave way to the strange time of the single device with unlimited data. ISPs meant that to be for a fixed machine but Wi-Fi routers and wired routers soon split that up to many many machines in the home and perhaps even in the apartment building. This happened to the chagrin of broadband providers. And now, in this moment, most of us pay a fixed rate for unlimited data, capped by speed rather than maximum downloads. But as all of you pirates know full well, there are maximum-download caps out there too, and more and more people are becoming eligible for that taxation. Who dares to guess how low that threshold will go?

You may say, "Phew, I'm definitely not a target." You may think you'll never use wireless like you use your home broadband connection, that your phone is just a phone—one that, sure, streams songs and stuff, but big deal, right?

But think about the MiFis of the world, the little portable hotspot which turns broadband meant for cellphones to Wi-Fi for almost anything. Better still, think of Sprint's Overdrive WiMax-to-Wi-Fi router, the next generation high speed network equivalent of the MiFi? And what about the next-generation of WiMax and LTE phones, which will hopefully be able to be used as Wi-Fi hotspots? Not following? Here: If your phone can give connectivity to your computer—and whatever else you have within 30 feet—you're gonna have to pay for that. And God help us all if the Hulu iPhone app ever shows up, because we'll use a ton of broadband, they'll charge us a ton for that broadband or they'll go out of business not doing it.

My fear is that metered pricing will feel like a gotcha, like when you go over talk-time minutes. The problem with those minutes is that you have to provide a "best guess" of how much you're going to talk, and if you go over, they nuke your wallet. Sprint tried a plan that just charged different reasonable amounts of money depending on how much or how little you used your minutes. Both of these are flawed. The best guess is often based on nothing, and the variable pricing is too confusing: you never know what you're going to be paying month to month.

As these carriers roll out their metered plans, hopefully they will combine these two types of billing. We need helpful constant monitoring. (At the moment, the best way to keep track of an iPhone's downloads requires AT&T's optional app.) We have to be aware of our usage, comfortably not naggingly, and when we go over, we need to be treated like fans of the service, not like criminals stealing cookies from the wireless-broadband cookie jar.

All You Can Eat neon by Jeremy Brooks/Flickr, used under CC license