Wireless Data Pricing (Commentary)

We may have "redlined" our most vulnerable citizens and decreased the opportunity to enhance the smart city phenomenon.

by / August 26, 2010

A major telecommunications firm recently announced a new pricing plan for its consumer wireless services, signaling its intent to start charging subscribers based on the amount of data they use. While this is an interesting chapter in the constant evolution of the wireless market in the U.S., it might have profound and unwelcome implications on the nascent digital communities movement. Let's work out the relationship.

Many digital communities initiatives are considering new ways to connect residents, neighbors and ultimately citizens to one another, as well as their government. One such strategy with considerable promise is to re-engineer government services with a strong citizen-centric approach, and then make them available where the citizens are: at their home or business and in their car. This strategy, when married to the expanding use of cloud computing, has the interesting side effect of shifting capital expenses to the citizens and using infrastructure and machinery they already own to deliver the service; this often means the smartphone in your pocket and mine.

So the way we find Internet connectivity priced to our smartphone can have a profound effect on our ability, and sometimes our success rate, of using smart government applications. Here are a few examples:

  • A doctor who is checking on a patient's X-ray while out of the office misses a shadow because he or she doesn't have the "high-bandwidth" option and mishandles a life-or-death diagnosis.
  • A resident looking for advice regarding family insurance options decides to not download an effective multimedia presentation because of the file size, and as a consequence, stays on a more expensive plan (to both himself and the government).
  • A police officer who promised to check on a neighborhood store's closed-circuit network through a cell phone is no longer able to do so and must terminate this vital community support service and await deployment of a government network that has been delayed by funding cutbacks.
  • The worse example: the application that hasn't yet been developed. The application that will strengthen community coherence, create jobs and improve service levels because the citizen won't want to make the short-term decision to pay more for a richer plan.

These examples only skim the surface of the potential impacts. The notion of wireless cell phone service to the consumer is rarely considered as part of rich and robust digital communities growth. Perhaps it's assumed that a mobile application will indeed get to the intended recipient. However, unless we explicitly include the wireless industry's decision paths in our computations, it may turn out that we have "redlined" our most vulnerable citizens and decreased the opportunity to enhance the smart city phenomenon.

Wireless carriers must always look to improve their bottom line, as well as their position in the very competitive marketplace. But today, they've become part of a massive, albeit informal, public-private partnership with the emerging wave of digital communities that will increasingly depend on them to deliver citizen-centric services to the citizen/consumer. I hope the decision announced recently to shift to data-related models of charging is thoroughly scrutinized by the consumer. But I hope even more fervently, that it's evaluated by the digital communities movement, and that government, industry and citizen leaders are able to ensure that the notion of the well connected community -- which stimulates service delivery improvements by government, creates strong economic activity and safeguards and undergirds democracy -- is supported rather than harmed by pricing decisions of one part of the creative partnership that has been forged. And if this dialog is done in a strong, collaborative style, it has every chance to increase the telecommunications industry's revenues as such applications expand the type, caliber and importance of the partnership.

What do you think, dear reader? Let's start a good discussion, organize our thoughts around this vital topic and then act.

Dr. Costis Toregas served as PTI's CEO for 18 years. He's a fellow and the chair of the National Academy of Public Administration's standing panel on Social Equity in Governance. Toregas is an adjunct faculty member in the school of Public Policy and Public Administration at George Washington University (GW), a lead research scientist in the GW Department of Computer Science, and a founder and principal of the Global Consortium for Sustainable Solutions.