Limited 3G bandwidth is good for mobile apps

Tiered 3G pricing means app developers can't consume endless bandwidth and must start writing smarter, more efficient code

It's been about four months since AT&T announced tiered pricing for iPhone and other smartphone users' 3G data service, ending the unlimited bandwidth option. The universe has not folded back onto itself, despite the hue and cry from application developers fearful that their apps -- mainly games and video players -- would lose customers after eating up the 200MB or 2GB they paid for each month.

That fear is a healthy one -- and all mobile app developers should have it.

[ Also on InfoWorld: Galen Gruman presents a plan for wireless Net neutrality that addresses the legitimate carrier issues but adheres to principles of fair, equal access. | Keep up on key mobile developments and insights with the Mobile Edge blog and Mobilize newsletter. ]

The dirty secret of computing since Windows removed the 640K memory limit on PCs is that most apps grew to waste an incredible amount of resources -- memory, disk space, and processing -- as the need to code and compile highly efficient programs went away. Install files can now be 1GB in size or more. Modern smartphones have processors and storage that rival that of PCs only a few years old, so they too can support wasteful apps.

But cellular bandwidth -- 3G spectrum, that is -- remains limited even as demand grows, and more efficient technologies such as the 4G LTE and WiMax offer just a few multiples more carrying capacity than today's technology, not the order-of-magnitude increases that have been routine in PCs and wired networks.

The concept that routinely streaming high-definition videos, for example, to iPhone and BlackBerry and Android users as they walked, took the train, or carpooled to work was an unrealistic vision. It's not just video, of course -- high-res 3D multiuser games, streaming music, live high-def weather maps, and videoconferencing are equally unrealistic about the limits of bandwidth. There's just not enough to go around if the application model for mobile becomes "everything is streamed to each device over the air."

Apple has set a good example by restricting bandwidth-intensive apps to Wi-Fi; even its own apps, such as the FaceTime videoconferencing app supported in the iPhone 4 and late-2010 iPod Touch. As network capabilities improved, some of these have been allowed to use 3G (Skype being an example) -- a measured approach that prevents oversaturation and disappointing usage.

Fortunately, tiered pricing makes customers smarter about their usage. If bandwidth is free, they'll use it wastefully, just as people leave the tap running when their water supply is unmetered. The truth is that there are few videos that need to be streamed at the moment; it makes more sense to upload them over Wi-Fi or locally upload to the device with USB before they're needed, using the good old-fashioned approach of syncing. Games can also be preloaded, with the over-the-air components being just the updates on each players' moves.

I've been pleased to see that after the initial outcry, life continues for both smartphone users and developers. The iPad -- which never had unlimited pricing -- is chock-full of innovative apps, and the same is true for the iPhone. Tiered 3G pricing is hardly a new phenomenon; it's routine in much of the world, so developers targeting European or Asian customers already had to be bandwidth-savvy. I'm sure as other U.S. carriers shift to tiered pricing (Verizon Wireless has suggested it will at some point), U.S. developers will get bandwidth-savvy as well.

If not, they'll find their apps suffering the rightful fate of big SUVs such as the Hummer: an indulgent fad abandoned quickly by users once the bill comes due.

This article, "Limited 3G bandwidth is good for mobile apps," was originally published at Read more of Gruman et al.'s Mobile Edge blog and follow the latest developments in mobile technology at


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