A few big data users slow us all down

A new study says that 1 percent of smartphone users use up half the available bandwidth. One major data-hogger is Siri, the digital assistant on the iPhone 4S.

Kai Ryssdal: So I finally got a smartphone, like six months ago. Held out for a long time 'cause I knew what would happen: I'd be on it all the time -- texting, emailing, web-browsing, sucking up data like there's no tomorrow.

I was right. That's exactly what happened. And there's a study out today that says that people who're even worse than me, jamming up the bandwidth for everyone else.

From New York, Sally Herships has more.

Sally Herships: Isn’t it just too bad when some people spoil it for the rest of us? Wireless capacity is a huge problem and just 1 percent of users are hogging more than half of it.

Kevin Werbach: I like to say that wireless capacity is the oil of the 21st century.

That’s Wharton professor Kevin Werbach. He says there are over five billion mobile phone users in the world and we need more bandwidth. He called me from his cell phone.

Werbach: Voice communication, like we’re doing right now, actually doesn’t use that much capacity. Data and video uses a whole lot more.

Arieso,  the company that conducted the new study, says in terms of data-hogging smartphones, the worst of all is the iPhone 4S. You know, the one with the digital assistant.

Herships: Siri, who uses more bandwidth than you?

Siri: Sorry Sally, something’s gone wrong. Can you try that again?

Let me help you. Those who have the iPhone featuring you, Siri, can suck up three times as much data as they would without you.

But we can’t blame it all on Siri. Laptop users with wireless cards are even hungrier for data than smartphone users -- but there are a lot fewer of them. So how will phone companies react? Some of us who’ve had our plans have unlimited data plans. But for new customers...

Jeff Kagan: That’s pretty much gone.

That’s tech analyst Jeff Kagan.  He says there is more spectrum out there, but it’s to be gobbled up by big companies, which would mean less competition and higher prices for consumers.

Herships: So, Siri, what should we do about these people who make things more expensive for the rest of us?

Siri: I don't understand what you mean by 'So, Siri, what should we do about these people who make things more expensive for the rest of us?'

In New York, I’m Sally Herships for Marketplace.

About the author

Sally Herships is a regular contributor to Marketplace.
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Comparing bandwidth (regardless of type) to oil is completely wrong. There is no justification for a "bucket of data per month" scheme like most cell phone companies use.

Bandwidth is like water pressure, not like how much water is in the tank. Sure, if everyone in the building is taking a shower all at once, the water pressure will drop dramatically. But if everyone shuts off their shower, then the water pressure goes back up to maximum flow. In that case, improvements could be made to the plumbing to increase its capacity, but as long as there wasn't a drought, you wouldn't call for people should be cut off after some arbitrary number of gallons of water per month.

"Data" is the same, except that its unlimited in quantity (unlike water). "Data" is not coming from a tank somewhere, and once you reach your 2GB per month, its not suddenly is a huge cost to the cell phone company to pipe you more data (as they would have you believe). Electromagnetic transmission between a server, a cell tower, and your phone is an unlimited, always-available resource. What's limited and in-demand is the amount of time that system can spend talking to your individual phone, as opposed to all the others. Like any computer, it switches between everyone's tasks at a very high speed, but can essentially talk to just one at a time. At moments when a high number of users are on the network, everyone's data connection will inevitably slow down. But cutting me off at 2GB of data use makes no sense at all, and is purely an attempt to take advantage of the public's lack of understanding about how bandwidth works, for profit.

How does bandwidth work then? What is the solution? More towers? Technological advances that we have not realized yet? Please elucidate.

What we need is more consumer advocates in government and at the FCC.

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