Why The Wireless Industry Is Moving To Flat-Rate Pricing

from the lower-transaction-costs dept

One of the recurring trends in high-tech markets is that as information goods get cheaper, they're increasingly sold as all-you-can-eat bundles rather than as individual units. This has been true of land-line telephone service for decades. In the late 1990s, we saw the same transition occur in Internet access. In this decade, we've seen the explosive growth of Netflix, which is an all-you-can-eat plan for video. Now it appears that cell phone companies are inching in that direction too, as Mike discussed last week. For $99/month, Verizon Wireless, AT&T, and T-Mobile will let you talk on your cell phone as much as you want. Sprint is apparently considering adopting a similar plan. This isn't actually all that new.

There are two fundamental economic forces at work here. First, metering imposes costs, both on consumers and on carriers. For carriers, there are the obvious expenses of keeping track of billing information, as well as the attendant support costs when an angry customer calls to complain about unexpected charges. For the customer, metering imposes the mental overhead of having to keep track of whether it's currently "peak" or "off peak" time, how many minutes are in his plan, whether he's currently "roaming," etc. A lot of customers are happy to pay a little bit extra for the peace of mind of knowing exactly how much they're going to pay each month without having to keep track of their calling activity. Second, the wireless market, like the phone, Internet, and DVD markets, is capital-intensive. Unless the network is already fully loaded, the marginal user costs wireless carriers close to nothing. As a result, metered pricing often causes under-utilization of the network because minutes are priced far above their marginal cost. Switching to a flat-rate plan can be economically efficient because it encourages greater utilization of the network without undermining the carriers' ability to recover their fixed costs. That has always been the rationale behind the free night and weekend minutes offered by a lot of cell phone companies over the last few years. They're just expanding it so it applies 24/7.
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Filed Under: flat-rate, wireless
Companies: at&t, sprint, t-mobile, verizon wireless


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  1. identicon
    Jeremy, 26 Feb 2008 @ 9:25pm

    Re:

    Yes, and you can't use MetroPCS outside of where they offer service. I realize there are some people who never go ANYWHERE but the vast majority of Americans want to be able to go anywhere and use their phone, and that is going to cost a bit more than $49.99 a month.

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