Mobile Data and the Need for Metering

The growth of data revenues was a huge story for the mobile industry in 2009, and those gains are sure to ramp up over the next few years as connectivity continues to expand beyond phones to new devices like netbooks, e-readers and a host of other consumer electronics. That uptake will increasingly be a double-edged sword for carriers, though, which are already struggling with ways to support the increased traffic driven by Apple’s (s appl) iPhone and other multimedia-friendly devices.

Which is why AT&T (s t) and its competitors are beginning to discuss ways to minimize congestion on the network as they increase revenues from data-hungry consumers. There are lots of ways to attempt that, of course, from the current “unlimited” caps that generate disdain among users — and have largely failed to address bandwidth issues — to the congestion pricing that cable companies are beginning to toy with. But as Stacey points out in the latest report from GigaOM Pro (sub. required), each option has some important pros and cons. Variable-pricing models can be confusing to consumers who (like me) don’t know how much bandwidth they typically use. And while embracing alternative technologies like Wi-Fi can ease traffic on the cell network, it can also cut into the mobile-data revenues that will increasingly become crucial as margins from voice whittle away.

The dramatic surge in mobile data usage will continue to ramp up quickly as Android gains traction and superphones become more commonplace. Among carriers, the rich are getting richer thanks to that uptake, but they’re also beginning to experience the kind of network hiccups that invite users to move to rivals that can handle the traffic. The challenge for operators, then, is to figure out how to deliver — and monetize — data-heavy services to the relatively few users who demand that kind of bandwidth without sacrificing the connectivity required from more mainstream consumers. The carriers that can most effectively solve those issues will have a significant edge as we move from 3G toward 4G.

Image courtesy Flickr user B Tal.