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Hard CFO lessons from mobile usage studies

Sandra Gittlen | Feb. 13, 2012
Here's some homework for over the weekend. If you haven't yet read this week's article "Smartphone Data Shakeup: The End of 'Unlimited'," you should.

Here's some homework for over the weekend. If you haven't yet read this week's article "Smartphone Data Shakeup: The End of 'Unlimited'," you should. The points that Computerworld author JR Raphael make are central to your ability to budget for mobile devices and their usage going forward.

By now, you've probably heard the to-do about whether or not Sprint is giving up the ghost on unlimited plans, as other carriers have done. Also, undoubtedly the dust-up over some carriers "throttling" speeds based on data consumption has made it to your doorstep. These are mobile industry moves that should concern you.

The article does a great job giving examples of typical mobile usage and how each application impacts overall data consumed. For instance, it found a typical day of heavy Web browsing, social network activity, email and RSS-based feed-reading added up to 30MB of data transferred. Extrapolate that out to a month and, the article notes, and 900MB are potentially eaten up. That's within bounds of mid-tier data plans (The article neatly outlines carrier data allowances and their costs as well as overage fees.)

But where it gets interesting is when the author adds in usage for real-time streaming via services such as Pandora. There he saw 32MB consumed for a mere hour of high-quality music. Ten YouTube videos as he says "...sucked down a full 125MB of data."

While, as he points out, most users stay within a normal range, a small percentage does not. I believe that as companies add more SaaS-based services, deploy virtual desktop infrastructure for tablets, and encourage video-based learning and interactions, those usage rates are going to rise for a broader range of employees.

The first taste I got of how quickly this can get out of hand was when I took my iPad on vacation in late 2010 and signed up for a lower tier data plan. My reasoning was that I would be gone less than a week and wouldn't need a large number of bytes (I normally use my iPad over Wi-Fi). Boy was I wrong! On the eight-hour drive from Massachusetts to Pennsylvania, my nephew and I streamed Pandora and followed our route on a mapping tool. We also did a considerable amount of Web browsing. During the weekend, because few of my relatives had gotten to play firsthand with an iPad, the device was passed around and everyone used it for different applications, including watching video clips on YouTube and playing games. By the time we headed home a few days later, I got a message from the carrier saying I was nearing capacity on my data plan.

Now, I'll give you that that was abnormal usage for me and only one other time have I bumped up against capacity. But my usage wasn't much "heavier" than your employees might engage in such as researching inventory, calling up video tutorials, or conferring with experts via real-time video chat.


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