23 Oct 2016

Networks Should Integrate Better with Apps

I tried to save a Youtube video offline on my phone, and I got this prompt:

Notice the option to save it overnight, and get 50% of data free. This is a great option to save money for the user, and reduce the load on the cellular network, making it faster for other users, and reducing the investment the network needs [1].

A couple of things need to be improved.

First, it should be completely free. The cell network has unused capacity at 3 AM that would otherwise go waste, so why charge me? Making it free makes the choice simpler for the user: You need to wait till tomorrow to have the video saved offline, but in return, you get it free. That's a simple tradeoff. 50% is not. Airtel is, as usual, being greedy. Google shouldn't show this prompt until Airtel learns to stop being so miserly. Simplify the choice for users.

Second, this offer is only for prepaid users. I'm a postpaid user. Why, then, am I seeing this choice? Google should force Airtel to make it free for everyone, or Airtel should tell Google whether this offer applies to me, and only if it does should Google show me the prompt. As things stand, I'm being offered a choice that doesn't apply to me, so this is a poor UX.

But assuming those problems can be fixed, more apps should do this. A lot of things can be offloaded to the wee hours: OS updates, app updates, bulk uploads to Google Drive, Dropbox or OneDrive, Bittorrent, and so on.

But for this to scale, we need to do things in a different way. This option in the dialog box was presumably the result of an agreement between Google and Airtel. It doesn't apply to other cloud services, like Dropbox, or to other networks like Vodafone. Every cloud service can't strike a deal with every single network. That would be O(MN). It doesn't scale.

To scale, there should be a standard protocol for the network to signal to the phone OS that data is now free [2]. And an API that allows apps to tell the OS they have some bulk transfers to do when it's free. This would also work for small players, who don't have the ability to strike deals with networks.

The standard protocol solves another problem with a fixed time slot, like 3 to 5 AM. Which is that the network may also be free at 2 AM, with all phones patiently waiting till 3. If only both sides could communicate. Or, conversely, the network maybe congested at 3AM, for some reason. Congestion varies from instant to instant, and can't be predicted ahead of time. This requires a protocol for the network to tell the phone when it's free.

The network may also have enough free capacity for only some users, not all. A protocol lets the network give some free time to one set of phones, and later to another set, making sure congestion doesn't set in.

This applies to home Internet, as well. Given that many "broadband" plans have low data caps of 8GB a month or so, it would help to do bulk transfers that don't count towards your data cap [3].

Networks, whether cellular or wired, should integrate better with apps to reduce costs and congestion for users and for the network, and save money for the network. Everyone wins.

[1] It's highly inefficient to spend hundreds of billions of dollars building networks and then leaving them idle for significant periods of time every day.

[2] Not 50% off, but free. You don't want to wake up and find that an OS update cost you ₹100, which has exhausted your balance, so you can no longer make calls or use the Internet. ₹100 may have been a discount from ₹200, but that would still make many people unhappy. If it's free, the decision can be made automatically on your behalf.

[3] Broadband ISPs should also let you exceed your speed as per your plan, if excess capacity is free at that point.

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