Last Thursday I received an unusual text message on my iPhone. “You’ve got 100MB left of your 1GB data bundle”.

“Huh?”

This was followed just a few seconds later by a second text which read, “You’ve used up all of your 1GB data bundle”.

Wow, that was quick.

Both texts were surprising, and not just because the second text implied that I had used up 100MB in about 10 seconds, which even if I was on an LTE network – which I assuredly am not – would be pretty good going. It wasn’t even that I was surprised that I had used up as much as a gig of data – I was fully aware that I’d recently been chewing my way through my allowance for several months, Spotify at high quality will do that. The surprise was that I’d gone over my allowance before, never received a text message about it, and never been charged. So what had changed?

I had my suspicions and a call to my carrier, Tesco Mobile, an MVNO that’s uses the O2 network in the UK, quickly confirmed that I was correct. For the last year or so I’d been on a iPhone SIM only tariff, offering 250 call minutes, 5,000 texts and 1GB of data. For a data allowance, this was pretty generous, and double what O2 and Vodafone offer as standard with the iPhone. However, I recently thought of defecting to 3, and after calling Tesco Mobile to cancel, I was retained with a newer, cheaper tariff, 500 minutes, double what I had before with the same 5,000 texts and 1GB of data.

Or so I thought.

You see that, in the world of mobile broadband, 1GB of data is not always the same as 1GB of data. Or that while all 1GB data allowances are equal, some are more equal than others.

It seems that that on my previous tariff, the 1GB of data was actually a number that Tesco Mobile had plucked out of thin air, or perhaps, off a shelf. When I first called to query my texts I was told that my older tariff was actually not really limited to 1GB, but in fact was ‘unlimited’, though the actual ceiling was 3GB, after which Tesco would tell you off.

The new tariff however had no such flexibility – it was a hard limit of 1GB – over which I would be charged at a slightly eye watering 60 pence PER MEGABYTE.

On realising this, I dived straight for the Cellular data button on the iPhone settings and flicked it to off, realising with horror, that a week and a half stretched out before me with me unable to use data. This would be difficult. This would be trying. This would be like…. like 2006

However, this was nothing to discovering that to my horror, in the 24 hours or so from receiving the texts to getting round to turn off data, I had managed to somehow rack up over £28 of charges, pretty much blowing any savings I might have made from switching to the cheaper tariff.

I called customer service and got myself put through to a manager and explained the situation. My key complaint was that I had not been told that there was a difference between the old 1GB allowance, and the new 1GB allowance, and therefore had not changed my usage patterns. The manager I spoke to admitted to me that even internally, there was some confusion over whether data was unlimited or operated on a fair usage policy. It was, to use his term, “a minefield”. What had occurred though was a policy change, and that unlimited was history: – 1GB was now the limit. As this crucial difference hadn’t been made known to me, he agreed to waive the data charges so well done Tesco Mobile, on keeping one customer satisfied. Naturally though, I would have to keep data off on the iPhone or risk racking up those exorbitant data charges once more.

What do we learn from this?

Clearly, carriers have to get sensible. One by one, the unlilmited packages, designed to draw customers in, are disappearing, as operators realise that it’s not cost effective or feasible to run a network that way, especially as more and more people use online services. After all, there’s always some idiot streaming 320Kb Spotify streams spoiling it for everyone else.

As a carrier then, it’s important not to just focus on technical issues, but to be as transparent when coming to market, particularly around data. In fact, the launch of a ‘truly unlimited’ package on T-Mobile UK is a response to this exact issue.

They also need to do more work on education – to provide customers with a clear idea of how to be sensible with their data allowance, and what activities might not be appropriate on the cellular network.

(Such as streaming high quality Spotify streams. I mean, who would do that? Sheesh. Interestingly, if I was streaming to my handset in the morning or the mid-afternoon, then tracks would play smoothly, but invariably around lunch time tracks would stop playing smoothly as people moved outside and the network became congested. I know; selfish of them).

As a user therefore I’m going to have to learn to modify my behaviour, and satisfy my Spotify cravings by syncing playlists at home before I leave the house – my 50Mb cable connection should just about be able to handle it.

It also throws into relief the need for carriers to offer a compelling wifi offload solution as part of their offering – one that it simple to set-up and access, and one that consistently works, in order to help relieve the burden on the cellular network.

In many senses, the arrival of LTE will only exacerbate the need for more clearly defined data limits on packages, for wifi offload, and for modifying user behaviour. An unaware LTE user might feel that because he or she now enjoys greater responsiveness and bandwidth they can go all out on the network – and burn through that data allowance even quicker.

In the meantime though, it throws into sharp relief the freedom and flexibility that ubiquitous fast bandwidth brings, how quickly you become reliant on it, and how limited one feels when its absent.

Now though, when I’m out and about I have no email, no bar code price comparisons in shops, no surreptitious cheating in pub quizzes, no checking time tables to see how late the trains are. Worst of all, no FourSquare. I can now no longer pointlessly check in everywhere.

It’s the long, dark, teatime of the smartphone.

Instead, I have to wait to reach the shores of island of wifi between journeys. I feel thoroughly discombobulated. Is this how it feels in rural areas? Nightmare.

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