Would you share data to have the favor returned later?

Taylor Martin
 from  Concord, NC
| January 31, 2013

Tiered and shared data are two unnecessary evils forced upon us, the consumers, by the two biggest wireless providers here in the States. AT&T and Verizon may work tirelessly to keep people believing that there is a desperate need for placing hard caps on the data packages you pay for each month.

The perceived reason for trading unlimited for plans with hard limits was to stave the rapid onslaught of smartphone adopters and, likewise, data users. Rather than give hundreds of thousands of new data customers free reign, tiered data was aimed to keep them within certain constraints.

AT&T's 3G network in New York City shortly following the iPhone 3GS was a tell-tale sign of what sort of damage too many data users on an already cluttered network can do. AT&T was forced to temporarily stop selling new iPhones to prevent further degeneration of the quality of its network.

In all honesty, those bits are not as scarce as one might initially think. New York City is a beast of its own and in most real world scenarios, there are rarely too many people trying to access the same tower simultaneously to effectively clog the network.

Multiple studies have proven that while people continue to consume more and more data over time, a minority ever come near their cap in a single billing period. Back in August 2011, a study performed by Validas revealed that tiered data was doing little to slow increases in data consumption. Between July 2010 and June 2011, directly following AT&T's announcement of tiered data, the average data consumption from AT&T subscribers grew 116 percent (or 282.5MB).

A more recent joint study performed by Fierce Wireless and NPD Connected Intelligence found even more interesting results. In the six-month period starting April 2012 and ending September 2012, T-Mobile and AT&T users used more data on average each month, whereas Sprint and Verizon customers, on average, used less data. T-Mobile, AT&T, Verizon and Sprint users, respectively, used an average of 1.09GB, 0.89GB, 0.57GB and 0.68GB each month.

Notice these levels on AT&T and Verizon, the only two nationwide providers who no longer offer unlimited data (except to those with grandfathered packages), are well below half what I assume are their two most popular data packages: 3GB for AT&T and 2GB for Verizon. AT&T does offer a smaller, 300MB plan for $20. But I can't imagine it's terribly popular among smartphone owners considering it's the worst deal of all AT&T's data packages and a very small amount of data. (Paying $20 for 300MB is the equivalent of paying roughly $67 per gigabyte, whereas $30 for 3GB is along the lines of an unspoken standard of $10 per gigabyte.) I would hope anyone who understands basic math would opt for the 3GB plan.

Nevertheless, the point still stands. Tiered data and shared data do very little to affect data consumption and play only to the benefit of the carriers. Yet if you plan to continue using Verizon or AT&T, tiered or shared data will eventually be part of your future, if it isn't already your present. And those comparative few who do face the occasional overage are putting almost pure profits in the pockets of the carriers.

If the Massachusetts Institute of Technology has its way, however, overages could become even less common by way of sharing data with friends … or even total strangers. Air Mobs is the theoretical answer to data caps.

The premise is fairly simple. If a friend or passerby needs a quick data fix and is nearing their cap or has no connectivity, users can use Air Mobs to share their data. Technically, to this point, Air Mobs is no different than activating the hotspot feature on your phone and sharing the password with someone nearby. The difference (at least from what I gather from the vague description on the MIT site) is that Air Mobs constantly runs in the background, periodically monitoring battery life and the strength of the connection, and offers an Internet connection to anyone who also has the app installed. The host can set a limit for how much of their data package they are willing to share and earns credits for sharing said data.

Those credits can later be redeemed when the user has nearly reached their data cap or when they have poor connectivity and no nearby Wi-Fi network is nearby.

The concept is nothing short of genius, but it has a few holes. The two elephants in the room is adversity from carriers and hotspot abilities.

Carriers earn marginal revenue on overages, which is potentially making headway on the losses surrounding the diminishing importance of SMS and voice calls. Any service that threatens those revenues is not going to sit well with carriers and will likely find itself on a fast track to oblivion.

As for hotspotting and tethering, not every data package allows this feature free of charge. AT&T's Mobile Share and individual data plans include the Mobile Hotspot feature for data packages 5GB and larger. Verizon's Share Everything includes Mobile Hotspot, but not every tiered individual plan does. This means some customers would likely have to fork over more cash to even take advantage of the service, which defeats the purpose.

Not to mention, Air Mobs is entirely contingent upon multiple parties using the service. Like with many mobile ideas that work in theory, Air Mobs requires widespread adoption to be of any use to wireless subscribers.

If the creators of Air Mobs – Andy Lippman, Henry Holtzman and Eyal Toledano – can overcome these very obvious hurdles, the benefit to users could be great. For offering up your own data, you could essentially get an extended network area sans charge. In other words, say you're a Verizon customer and your data connection is spotty. You could rely on Air Mobs to locate (totally behind the scenes) to find an AT&T subscriber with a stronger signal in the area to provide you with data. In turn, that users earns credit for when they are subject to poor network conditions.

I, for one, would be more than happy to offer up some of my own bits for the favor to be later returned when I'm about to exceed my data cap or have poor coverage. I already pay for a 5GB plan on AT&T, which includes the Hotspot feature. So long as Air Mobs doesn't eat batteries for breakfast, I would use it in a heartbeat.

What say you, ladies and gents? Would you offer up a portion of your data package as a buffer against overages and poor coverage? Or is this idea nothing more than a pipe dream?