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Tuesday, May 01, 2007

Vodafone's new data plan - defensive measures leave plenty of loopholes & questions

Interesting to look through Voda's new UK data plan pricing - up to 15MB per day for a capped £1, then £2/MB after that. Both the pricing structure and terms & conditions are cleverly (cynically?) crafted to mitigate the risk of any substitution by 3rd party services.

"The £1 per day charge and monthly data subscription cannot be used for Voice over Internet Protocol (VoIP) services such as Skype or Peer-to-Peer services (such as instant messenger services, text messaging clients or file sharing). These services will not count towards the £1 per day charge or monthly bundle, and are charged separately at £2 per MB, with a 5p minimum charge for each data session"

In principle it sounds eminently reasonable, and I've got to admire Vodafone's intention to protect its legacy revenue base while trying to compete & provide decent mobile Internet access. Unfortunately, as always, the devil's in the detail, and I suspect that the complexity & diversity of open IP applications is going to cause trouble, as per usual.

I'd love to know how the precise definitions & packet inspection mechanisms are going to work though, and what Voda intends to do about the possible "false negatives" and "false positives".

"VoIP services such as Skype" - so what does "such as" mean? Does it include web-based callback initiated via a data connection but the voice is still circuit-based(Rebtel etc)? Is a game with "embedded VoIP" included in this? Does downloading a spoken poem count as VoIP? Can I steganographically encode voice into a JPEG image? Is a VoIP softphone connecting to an IP-PBX actually a "VoIP service" or just a "VoIP application"?

....and does Vodafone want to set a precedent and start to charge for inbound VoIP calls, thus breaking the "calling party pays" paradigm? (Ironic, given Keith's Voda/Truphone analysis last week)

Peer-to-peer.... does that include peer-to-server-to-peer? Does it include things based on JavaScript & Widgets or just a SIP- or other IM client? Does accessing a web forum count as "text messaging", especially if I send a private message to someone else? Or leaving a message on someone's social networking page? Is accessing webmail permitted or prohibited?

And what happens if a given software client - Yahoo Messenger, perhaps, or a game - is used for a mix of permitted and non-permitted usage? How do they separate it all out?

And what's a "session" - is that a technical term, eg as long as your phone is registered online with the SGSN, and does it change if the radio network puts your device into idle mode, or if you go out of coverage temporarily? Or does it refer to an application-level session like having a text messaging window open? Or is a single IM message or data flow a "session"?

How does anyone prove any of this? Especially if it's done inside a VPN tunnel? Or if it's all done in XML, with componentised data/software that could relate to 1001 different applications.

My expectation - this type of data contract has a lifespan of 12 months, maximum. Any of the questions above would probably cost Vodafone's customer services about £20 to answer properly, let alone managing the possible billing queries.

Of course the whole thing could just be FUD (fear, uncertainty, doubt). If they can dissuade 80% of people from even trying to do anything too edgy with a 3rd party app, then they may just shrug about the other 20%.

But given that plenty of operators don't care what you do with their data plans - 3, for example, or ONE in Austria, maybe the 80% will just churn instead.


Anonymous said...

Sharp analysis as always!

Anonymous said...


Given that effectively all phone conversations move over IP at some stage in their connection path, VOIP in this context means voip over cellular data. Pretty clear, isn't it? Call-back and gateway services don't use the data connection anyway, do they?

peer to peer, again... you've being deliberately obtuse. this is designed to catch people like the idiot in Italy who used bittorrent for a month on his data card and then claimed he shouldn't pay the Eu20k bill.

All they're really doing is spelling out what fair use means. If you want to do voice, use the cellular voice connection, which is three to four times more efficient in use of spectrum than VOIP-over-data services like Skype (yes, really). Don't act like it's an unlimited DSL line with no cost of carriage. And really, who's going to install a VPN on a w880i?!

Vodafone et al are making a serious attempt to deal with a real issue - their network will cope fine with 'flat rate' web browsing but not with flat rate bittorrent and not with skype. so they offer near-flat rates, but restrict it to certain traffic loading scenarios. It might not work, but it attempts to deal with problems that you don't really recognise.

Dean Bubley said...

Anonymous - do some more research. Some of the callback-type and other "wVoIP" applications do "presence over IP", and other data-channel signalling to initiate a call, for purposes like least-cost routing. Telepo's is a good example, as is the iSkoot Skype client that 3 uses.

So in these case the "media" part of the VoIP call goes over circuit-switched, but some part of the signalling (not the low-level circuit protocols obviously) goes over IP. How does that fit with the definitions in Voda's T's and C's with regard to session #s? (obviously the actual speech "content" is counted as data in this scenario)

Your P2P comment misinterprets my post. I'm on record on this blog & elsewhere as saying that using DPI or other techniques to protect network integrity against risks from BitTorrent et al is entirely reasonable & probably quite effective.

But neither occasional VoIP use nor especially IM or pseudo-SMS pose anything like the same threat to network loads, and the sole purpose of the T's and C's is commercial over-defensiveness rather than engineering pragmatism. Especially given that many operators justifiably believe that only a tiny fraction of users are clever/motivated enough to bother downloading and setting up 3rd party VoIP or messaging clients.

I'd say a more reasonable approach would be to charge £2 a minute for any support calls about issues involving VoIP configuration, 3rd party services etc.

I know very well about the relative efficiencies of circuit voice and cellular VoIP. Skype's an oddity as its high-quality codec & "padding" uses up to 1MB per minute, while others can be as low as 100kB/min. Watch this space for more on that topic in the near future.

Anonymous said...

Analysis? where is the analysis?

This looks to me like a series of questions generated by reading a webpage. Have you actually tried to contact anyone at Vodafone Dean? Perhaps to answer some of these questions? because otherwise this is just meaningless speculation. Whats the point? where is the insight? what are you telling me that's actually useful? rather than being spiky to your critics YOU should actually do some research?

And you're not helping your case by inferring that 80% of data customers would churn to Three. You're not serious are you? Three? This is the ongoing commercial suicide Three?

Dean Bubley said...

Yes, I regularly speak to people at Vodafone, although as I posted the article at 9.37pm straight after looking at the webpage, not on this particular set of policies. I don't have the full set of formal T's and C's - which is why I said I'd love to know how the definitions work, and why I had a set of questions (hence see the title of the post as well).

The thing is - the 3G data plan thing can't work both ways. Either it's competing with DSL or it's not (not full unlimited services, obviously, but lower-tier). I hear plenty of people from Vodafone, T-Mobile and various other operators trying to pitch it as an alternative to fixed broadband, either using laptops or smartphones. If it is, you need to meet users' broadband expectations - which of course include bandwidth caps & P2P throttling these days, but also free use of whichever IM, VoIP, social networking & security apps they choose.

You can't have it both ways - ie saying "sure, it's absolutely a viable DSL alternative.... but you can only use the stuff we want you to, not that other cool stuff your friends use".

The 80% churn comment was obviously somewhat facetious & clearly intended to make a point rather than be a numeric forecast.

Dean Bubley said...

On a side note, it's worth recognising that there are internal debates at many operators (I'm not singling out Vodafone here) about how liberal/conservative to be about response to Internet applications. There are hardcore "block it all!" zealots, and "we should just be a pipe" plumbers.

I subscribe to the Telco 2.0-type philosophy of "do what you can do really well - and try & provide a value-added platform for everything else".

I don't believe that many forms of blocking, obfuscation or apparent spitefulness are great strategies to generate positive user experience & loyalty, even if they have short-term risk-management appeal.

Francesco said...


First of all, thank you very much for the post. Many readers seem to forget that the posts we are reading are for free.

Second of all, a very simple comment: having worked as a management consultant for many big companies for a decade, I would guess that most of your questions on the boundaries of what is allowed or not by Voda service have just no answers at the moment. Probably nobody knows for sure the answers to your questions even inside Vodafone's organization. Answers will be driven by customers questions / behaviors and, especially, by how frequently some questions will be asked or some behaviors will be performed. In other words, Voda is just experimenting. And I don't see nothing wrong with this.

Anonymous said...

Hi there,

I'm on Vodafone - just joined a month ago. I've a blackberry pearl, and pay an extra £15/month for 6mb of data.

I cannot get a straight answer out of any CS rep, via email or call centre. Maybe you have the answer?

What will I get for my £15 after June 1st? I feel like I'm being conned - big time. My base-rate cost each month is £50 (£35 + £15 for bb network).

Hope to learn something, if you know the answer :) Thanks in advance.

Matt Harwood
matt.harwood [at] yahoo.co.uk

Geoff Ballinger said...

The basic problem for the industry is consumer confidence. They must be able to use services they don't necessarily fully understand without the risk of large unexpected bills hanging over them.

Without this data services are not going to make it into the mainstream.

T-mobile, 3, and Orange seem to be starting get this. Vodafone and O2 don't.


Anonymous said...

There is currently no technical solution in place to check what you are doing with your data. The only reason Vodafone states all the restrictions is to safeguard themselves for the future or against excessive use (and i mean very excessive)