Looks like unlimited data is becoming a thing of the past for wireless subscribers, at least in the U.S.  Blame the exploding demand for mobile data. After all, today’s wireless subscribers are armed with dual-core, 1 GHz smartphones that are as powerful as desktop PCs were a few years ago. And those phones are accessing a dizzying array of online data services delivered over wireless networks that can rival cable in terms of speed. Now the explosion.

Cisco researchers taking a closer look at mobile data trends expect the average user will consume 7 GB per month by 2014, which is 5.4x greater than today. Another eye opening prediction is the 39-fold increase in annual global mobile data traffic from 2009 to 2014, or a compound annual growth rate of 108 percent. That’s 3.6 exabytes per month or an annual run rate of 40 exabytes by 2014.

In response, nearly all of the major U.S. carriers are rethinking their all-you-can-eat data plans.

  • AT&T and Verizon are moving in parallel, no longer offering unlimited data to first-time smartphone subscribers. Long-time AT&T subscribers can still get unlimited data, but they “may experience reduced speeds once their usage in a billing cycle reaches the level that puts them among the top 5 percent of heaviest data users.” The same with Verizon. To retain high speed regardless of usage, subscribers of both carriers must switch to tiered plans that tack on per-gigabyte overage charges to their monthly access fees.
  • T-Mobile offers “tiered-unlimited” plans. Subscribers get 2 GB, 5 GB or 10 GB of high-speed data, depending on the plan selected. After they reach that cap, T-Mobile reduces data speeds until the next billing cycle.
  • Sprint is the only major carrier to offer what might best be called a purely unlimited data plan — all you can eat, without any usage-based speed reductions — even for iPhone 4S users. But company CEO Dan Hesse has repeatedly suggested that unlimited data could end if usage gets out of hand.

So how are subscribers getting around carriers’ data caps? WiFi.

In a poll of 1,227 WiFi users, Devicescape revealed that 64 percent use WiFi outside their home or office daily — or many times each day — compared to 10.4 percent who use it only at their home or office. And that 64 percent is most commonly using WiFi at a cafe or coffee shop, hotel or school hotspot.

Meanwhile, the user experience at WiFi hotspots should continue to improve, thanks in part to efforts by groups like the Wi-Fi Alliance and the Wireless Broadband Alliance (WBA). The two groups are collaborating on programs to improve Wi-Fi hotspot ease of use and roaming, improvements that will surely benefit metro WiFi deployments as well.

The Wi-Fi Alliance’s Wi-Fi CERTIFIED hotspot certification program is focused on letting WiFi devices easily connect at hotspots in a security-protected, interoperable fashion. The WBA’s Next Generation Hotspot (NGH) program defines interoperability requirements for WiFi hotspot and 3G/4G operators, addressing concerns such as seamless, secure auto-authentication and auto-connection on multiple operator networks.

The Wi-Fi CERTIFIED hotspot certification program is slated to launch in the middle of 2012. The Next Generation Hotspot Trial, which involves end-to-end inter-operator testing of the NGH requirements, began earlier this summer.

With subscribers already turning to WiFi to supplement their wireless data plans — and industry alliances championing the WiFi option — carriers would be wise to have a strong WiFi strategy in place to help retain customers.

If it’s time for your company to create or recreate a WiFi master plan, Nexius can help. We offer WiFi services to guide companies in designing and deploying the best WiFi strategies for their businesses, from developing a WiFi and mobile broadband rollout plan to managing hotspot and metro WiFi deployments and vendors. Nexius has the teams and tools to help you make the most out the explosion in mobile data demand.