I was talking to the Sunday Times about mobile data rates when it struck me how far we've come in recent years. Back during the mobile industry's analogue days, the most you could squeeze out of a mobile modem was a meagre 2.4 Kbps. Data calls were measured by the minute, not the megabyte, and large transfers would probably have involved a call to your bank manager first.
Fast forward to 2011 and network operators offer "unlimited" data packages, and people seem intent on downloading as much as they can. So much so that some operators have started to cut back data allowances; in January, T-Mobile in the UK tried to halve allowances and then had to backtrack as subscribers made it plain they preferred existing limits. Yet even at half current levels, the amount of data you can transfer over a mobile connection is staggering by 1980s' standards.
This was really brought home to me when during our call the paper asked me to depict the changes in mobile modem speeds over the past 30 years. Any graph would have to go from 2.4 Kbps to at least 10 Mbps — an increase by a factor of more than 4,000. Initially, I was unsure how to create a meaningful image. Like a time-traveller from the 1980s who suddenly found himself in 2011, I found it hard to really take in the gigantic numbers involved.
Then I remembered a graph produced by the Open Knowledge Foundation showing levels of UK government spending. This combines huge and not-so-huge amounts by plotting them as areas.
By taking the same approach to wireless data speeds, I produced an infographic that conveys the advances of the last three decades and depicted speed as a kind of pipe. Even then, the chart (shown on the right) shows 4G networks with a 10Mbps maximum; if it were to show the 300 Mbps speeds that some operators are touting, the pre-4G "pipes" would be even smaller in comparison.
Given the size of these "pipes", network operator's fears of capacity overload come into perspective. We've come so far since the 1980s, and yet we still can't give everyone access to everything, everywhere (with apologies to T-Mobile UK's parent company; if the owner of the country's largest combined network has to cut data allowances, it suggests an industry-wide problem).
We've long argued that network sharing is a sensible step for many operators. A collaborative approach built the Internet, just as arguments about net neutrality threaten to undo that good work. As the network operators prepare to gather at Mobile World Congress, let's hope they have room in their suitcases for some cooperation.