Days Are Numbered for Unlimited Mobile Data Plans

Barcelona, Spain – In Indonesia, nearly a third of the population is younger than 15 years old. So Telkomsel, the leading mobile operator in the country, offers a data plan called FlexiChatting for customers who want to do just one thing: gain access to and update Twitter and Facebook accounts on their cellphones.

Tailored mobile data plans like the one in Indonesia may soon become the rule.

Telecommunications executives in Europe and the United States say that offering plans designed for heavy users of social networks or, for example, video, will allow more efficient use of overstressed wireless networks and make those who use the networks the most pay for that use.

“We are moving into a phase of microsegmentation,” said Hans Vestberg, chief executive of Ericsson, the leading maker of mobile networking equipment, during an interview at the Mobile World Congress, the industry’s largest annual convention, held in Barcelona last week.

“This is going to have a direct effect on data plans around the world,” he said. “Without more efficient use of networks, the vast majority of people on this planet will be cut off from the Internet.”

Over the past two years, most mobile operators around the world have abandoned the unlimited data plans used at the outset of the mobile Internet. In their place, operators have adopted plans that tie data download limits to prices — the more you download, the more you pay.

But such tiered plans are probably only a transition toward a new way of charging for mobile data that will be much more exact, down to the kilobyte, and often tied to the destination of the Web browser.

Rising demand for mobile data, accelerated by the adoption of smartphones, is putting a strain on most of the world’s mobile networks and operators, even those that have invested billions of dollars in capacity and speed.

One billion people, or one in four cellphone users in the world, have mobile broadband subscriptions, according to Ericsson. By 2016, the number of mobile broadband users is expected to increase fivefold, as less expensive smartphones come on the market.

Faced with such a sharp spike in demand, Vittorio Colao, the chief executive of Vodafone, a European telecommunications giant, said operators had little choice but to adopt more graduated data plans to ensure a level of basic access to the mobile Web.

“At the end of the day, some kind of relationship between what you pay and what you use should be there,” Mr. Colao said during an interview. “Today, the subsidy is the other way around. Those who use a lot are subsidized by those who use less.”

Operators will continue to experiment with new ways of linking data prices to behavior, Mr. Colao said.

“There are many ways to do this. You can have video tariffs, you can have maximums per month, or maximums per month per family,” he said. “This is all about competition. Every operator will do what they think is right, and the customers will decide.”

The industry learned painfully from all-you-can-eat data plans, said Hilde M. Tonne, an executive vice president in charge of industrial development at Telenor, a Norwegian mobile operator with 140 million customers in Europe and Asia.

Telenor was among the first operators worldwide to start selling mobile broadband generously in unlimited packages. The operator now sells tiered pricing packages.

“I think the industry just kind of jumped into the mobile data world with unlimited plans, and very little thought was given to how much investment would be needed,” Ms. Tonne said during an interview. “In the end, the unlimited approach was unsustainable.”

Ten years from now, Mr. Vestberg said, standard data contracts probably will no longer exist. Instead, consumers will buy mobile data according to their individual habits, which operators will constantly monitor. Companies are installing the software and hardware tools to make such real-time billing possible, Mr. Vestberg said.

Scott T. Stainken, the general manager for telecommunications at International Business Machines, which sells software for network operators called Smarter Planet analytics, said some operators in the United States and elsewhere were beginning to consider new tariff models, like charging for “bursting,” the accelerated delivery of data for high-definition video.

Such a change could enable operators to limit the amount of mobile video viewing per month. Citing confidentiality agreements with I.B.M.’s clients, Mr. Stainken said he could not identify the operators considering such charges. But most in the industry are considering these options, not just in the United States but globally, he said.

“The question is, How do you deal with the explosive requirements coming from all of these smart devices?” Mr. Stainkin said during an interview. “Today it is significant. It is going to become much, much more significant over the next five years.”

“I don’t think the answer is, I’m going to charge a lot for all of those gigabits we are pumping down the pipe,” he added. “The consumers will decide whether they are willing to pay for a higher level of service or a different content.”

This article, “Days Are Numbered for Unlimited Mobile Data Plans,” originally appeared in The New York Times.