I previously wrote an essay on Why Our Digital Future Needs Unlimited Data, something that is not likely to happen quickly, and before it does happen there will undoubtedly be many small steps towards that ultimate goal. You might assume that the most obvious path to unlimited data would be for Internet Service Providers (ISPs) to slowly but steadily increase monthly data-download allowances, also known as data caps, on a month by month, quarter by quarter, basis until they become effectively unlimited. Strangely, this does not seem to happening, and any growth that does exist is occurring at an incredibly slow and somewhat sporadic pace, such that we will all be old and grey long before such allowances become effectively unlimited. Even when an ISP generously doubles existing allowances, they are only doubling an allowance that was pitifully small to begin with, and so even a doubled allowance is still very far from being effectively unlimited. In fact, some ISPs have even reduced allowances on their wired Internet connections. Nevertheless, I suspect that the move towards effectively unlimited data is actually happening, but in a non-obvious way, through the use of zero-rated services ; a problematic approach, to be sure, but one that may, in the long run, deliver the effectively unlimited data we will need to realise our bright and shiny science fiction future.
Digital data is digital data, and regardless of what that data is used to represent, it is all just ones and zeroes. So the zero-rated data that is now available through mobile ISPs, such as T-Mobile in America, could actually be used for anything, including downloading applications, sending emails, and surfing the web, and not just for watching streamed video. By providing zero-rated data, the mobile ISPs are conclusively proving that they can easily give their customers effectively unlimited data. I do not think that this is their intent but that is, nevertheless, what they are doing. ISPs are now offering zero-rated data because they are trying differentiate their offerings in a highly competitive, and, in the case of America, highly saturated, telecommunications market. Zero-rating is part of the inevitable race to the bottom that is currently taking place within the telecommunications industry, and it is just one of the ways that we will eventually get to the point where petabytes (millions of terabytes or billions of gigabytes) of data will be downloadable for mere pennies. In the long run, it is services that are going to be important, not the pipes that carry those services. So, pure-play ISPs had better wake up, smell the roses, and diversify into content creation and distribution before it is all too late.