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Mobile data's own goal

Another high speed mobile data network goes live — another set of tariffs falls flat

If there's one thing more fascinating than football, it's applied mathematics. Take Vodafone's new HSDPA service, announced today, for example — it will ship 1.4 megabits per second to your laptop while you're out and about. You might think this perfect for, among other things, watching your favoured football team soar to victory in the World Cup; a forgivable idea, given that HSDPA demonstrations invariably involve football video.

Unfortunately, it could well be cheaper to fly to Germany. The BBC streams the matches at 256Kbps — which, for 90 minutes per match and seven matches per side, comes out at 1.2 GB. That's around £1,000 worth on the 250MB free/£1 per megabyte thereafter tariff — and an unknown amount on the "unlimited" service which, if you go over a gigabyte, leaves Vodafone free to do what it likes to you. Don't worry, it'll be "reasonable" — presumably a "£1,000 for seven matches" sort of reasonable.

There is no shame in launching a restricted service where physics and economics mean you cannot offer as much as you want for as little as you'd like. We would much rather have HSDPA at a price than no HSDPA at all. What's unacceptable is having a tariff that tips over without warning into ten pounds a minute — which is what £1 per megabyte and 1.4 Mbps will cost you at full tilt — or ones that are called "unlimited" but are nothing of the sort.

Operators are in a bind with HSDPA. They want to sell it as an alternative to wired broadband, which it is not. It cannot compete on costs or bandwidth, so the pricing has to dissuade people from trying to use it inappropriately. Fair enough. But in return, those costs have to be transparent and controllable — fuzzily worded contracts and invisible tripwires that plummet the user into tenner-a-minute mantraps epitomise the reasons people distrust this industry.

With T-Mobile having previously said "no IM, no voice over IP, no laptops" that makes two HSDPA networks announced and two own goals. With the other networks yet to play, we can only hope that good sense and smart strategy finally surface. But like another team not far from our minds today, they really are going about it the hard way.