Talking tech since 2003

Look around you. Someone nearby is probably looking at their smartphone right now. If you’re alone, that someone may be you. We’re smack dab in the middle of the mobile revolution, where you can do almost anything on a device that fits in your hand and disappears into your back pocket. When offline, our smartphones are still usable for things like games, or reading e-books, or listening to music. But it’s when they’re connected to the Internet that they can become immeasurably powerful.

sprint-t-mobileUnfortunately, that power is stifled by data caps from carriers like Verizon Wireless and AT&T. Once we leave the safety and comfort of our home or office Wi-Fi networks and venture onto a cellular data network, we suddenly have to be conscious of the apps we’re using and the amount of data we’re sucking down. Are you on a 2 GB plan? Don’t watch that 22 minute TV episode on Netflix; that is, unless you’re okay with using 5 percent of your data limit in one shot. On a long commute? It may be nice to listen to the radio through Spotify, but know that every song is a small ding in your data plan, bringing you one step closer to exceeding your limit.

Home broadband users don’t have this issue. Comcast’s Xfinity service operates under a (currently suspended) cap of 250 GB per month. Verizon’s own FiOS service doesn’t have an official cap, though it’s rumored that the company will give you a call if you average over 50 TB per month. That is TB as in terabytes, or, more than most of you will download at home over the next 250 years.

The treatment of the two types of broadband customers — home and wireless — couldn’t be more different.

We smartphone users pay a premium — usually way more than we pay for our home Internet access — for the privilege of watching our data usage carefully and occasionally using our phones as they were meant to be used. We’re at an incredible place in time as far as tech goes, no question, but when I look at the ways unfettered home broadband has impacted our lives and our country’s economy, I can’t help but feel sad for our sorry wireless state. We’re leaving a lot of potential on the table.

This is why it’s so important that the wireless industry has as many contenders as possible; especially T-Mobile, which has really lit a fire under competitors with its “un-carrier” initiative. Competition makes companies worry less about squeezing their existing customers and more about keeping them. According to a 2012 article from Forbes, our spending on cellular plans has gone up 15 percent since 2001, lured upward by the promise of amazing new smartphones and unlimited data; a promise that was later broken and declared “unsustainable” by Verizon CEO Lowell McAdam.

T-Mobile is approaching the industry in a new way and is willing to rock the boat to sign up new customers. Sprint, on the other hand, really seems to enjoy third place. The company, like T-Mobile, offers unlimited data in its plans. But Sprint hasn’t done much experimenting or going out on limbs, and it doesn’t seem like the “play it safe” attitude of the carrier will change anytime soon. This is why Sprint hasn’t been able to scare either Verizon or AT&T in years, while T-Mobile has managed to get every carrier to react to its moves after just one.

If T-Mobile can begin to steal enough customers away from the Big Two, customers on those carriers might start to get some of those perks back that they used to enjoy — for instance, unlimited data. That would be pretty great, right?

But if Sprint merges with T-Mobile, the odds of that happening quickly diminish, and we could potentially lose the one spark we have left in the wireless industry. The two carriers, combined as one and owned by Sprint parent company Softbank, would be a larger third-place contestant. But the new company might also suffer under Sprint’s unimaginative management, and all of the hard work T-Mobile has done in turning its brand around and really shaking up the industry will have been for naught.

According to Reuters, investors are losing hope that Sprint and T-Mobile will come together, citing government regulators who prefer more competition in the industry as opposed to less.

For the sake of our wireless industry and the future wireless Internet we’ll all undoubtedly rely on, let’s hope that is the case.

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