Apple iPad owners will consume more data than users of iPhones or even 3G dongles, operators predicted in the run-up to the Friday's launch of the web tablet in the UK.
Executives from the operators talked about the impact of the iPad at the Open Mobile Summit in London on Wednesday, where they debated ways to help their networks cope with the strain of mobile broadband.
According to Deutsche Telekom's chief technology officer Olivier Baujard, the "fixed internet experience today is being mobilised" due to customer demand, and levels of mobile data usage will increase two or threefold in the years to come. France Telecom's senior executive vice president Olaf Swantee noted that the same level of growth has already been seen in some markets since 2008.
"It's demand-driven — so much demand-driven that it does not come from a service provider push," Baujard said, citing devices such as smartphones, web tablets and dongles as the cause. "The capacity to be higher-connected does create measurable growth of consumption," he added.
At the Open Mobile Summit in London, dozens of industry executives discussed the impact of the data explosion on their networks. Many at the event, including Baujard and Swantee, were in favour of offloading the data wherever possible to Wi-Fi networks or femtocells.
However, there was also much talk of tiered pricing, as enthusiastically suggested by Vodafone chief Vittorio Colao at this year's Mobile World Congress. This approach would see some customers pay more to get a higher quality of service, including better speeds.
"We're going to see tiered pricing — it absolutely has to happen," Openwave chief executive Ken Denman told ZDNet UK. "We have a group of consumers [who] — if you present them with the data and information to buy well or buy better and differently — will absolutely take advantage of it. There's a whole generation of people who want more than simplicity; they want volume."
Denman's company sells operators systems for managing traffic. According to him, his clients fear "the growth in megabytes per user that are driven by the kinds of devices that are available" and the fact that "the old models don't work".
France Telecom's Swantee reflected this concern when he told ZDNet UK that his company, which operates under the Orange brand, was closely monitoring the "absolutely phenomenal" increase in data usage. He said the business side of the company is "now reviewing... key performance indicators related to our voice and data network on a weekly basis".
"This quite different to a few years ago, where the business side took the network side for granted," Swantee added.
While there is some level of agreement on the idea of tiered pricing, some of the implications were contentious.
Deutsche Telekom's Baujard told delegates at the conference that techniques including "slowing down certain services when need be for the global comfort of the customers", but Liam Galin, chief executive of mobile optimisation firm Flash Networks, argued that operators will have to "start from the low point" to keep regulators happy.
"Operators will not discriminate downwards, only upwards," Galin said. "You pay more; you get a better service."
While it is common for fixed-line ISPs to offer different qualities of service at tiered prices, the approach is currently not taken by UK mobile networks. Some traffic management does happen, however, in terms of discriminating between types of traffic — VoIP traffic is sometimes blocked, and the operator 3 throttles P2P traffic at certain busy times of the day.