It’s hard to deny that our phone usage has been seeing an ongoing shift away from voice, and even SMS, to using data services. Why take the time to call someone, and use up your allocated voice minutes, when a quick e-mail will suffice? Why send a text message when a Facebook message works in a pinch, and will reach people who don’t even have their phones on them? Despite this progression, you’re pretty much out-of-luck if you’d like to buy an on-contract smartphone and just use the device like a smaller, more convenient tablet; you’re stuck with voice service, at least, whether you like it or not. AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson was recently musing over the issue and predicts that at least some carriers will start offering data-only service for their phones within the next two years.
That’s not a commitment from AT&T to offer such service, but Stephenson calls its eventual arrival “inevitable”, and presumably once one of the big carriers starts making this sort of arrangement available to its customers, others will feel pressured to follow suit.
It’s not hard to postulate why AT&T wouldn’t want to rush head-first into such an offering, as voice calls use comparatively little bandwidth – SMS far less still – and are therefore quite profitable. Especially when subscribers are trained to order a plan with more minutes than they’ll use “just in case”, voice plans can make up a chunk of your monthly bill that’s disproportionate to the load your voice calls place on your carrier’s network.
While Stephenson’s prediction initially sounds like good news, thinking about the economic realities of how such service might arrive gives us pause. Will we see data rates hiked to compensate for profits lost to voice and SMS? Taking a step back, what does the hesitance of carriers to offer us the choice of plans we’d like to see say about our adversarial relationship with them in the first place? Surely there must be some way to provide wireless service without one side or the other feeling like it’s getting the short end of the stick.