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Data Caps And Treating Employees Like Adults

Carriers like AT&T and Verizon Wireless are using data caps to manage the explosive growth in 3G/4G data consumption. Hey, kids--the 1990s called and wants its bandwidth management strategy back. As Lee Badman points out in "4G? No, It's More Like 4Gee!", the data rates available to wireless consumers are growing rapidly and our demand is keeping pace. When you have high demand and data caps, the chance of overages is very likely, and the last thing anyone wants is out-of-control telecom costs. Consumers don't have much choice in managing data caps, but enterprises have more options.

I know it's easy to treat all of your mobile enterprise users the same. Give them all the same devices and data plans and make them responsible to toe the line. I get it. There are more users than IT staff, and it's more efficient to manage large groups than it is to manage many individuals. However, employees aren't all the same, nor do they have the same needs, so you need to adapt your mobile strategy to the types of users you have. You can tell users, "Only use this iPad for work purposes!" But, let's face it: You know they are going to start installing Angry Birds and Evernote on it.

The real data-consumption costs will come when employees start streaming video and audio over 3G/4G, playing on-line games, or just reading and catching up on email. They will quickly burn through the data plan and start incurring overage charges. Who hasn't sat in a hotel room after a long day and wanted to watch a movie, play a game, or sit on Twitter, Facebook or YouTube and blow off steam? Those little apps, over time, consume lots of data.

During the month of January, I switched off Wi-Fi on my Galaxy Nexus and stayed on cellular data. By Jan. 11, I had plowed through 2 Gbytes. By the end of the month, I hit 4 Gbytes. Most of that traffic was accumulated from downloading apps and doing regular things like Twitter, Web surfing, posting, and reading from Evernote, Read It Later, and so on. The big jump around the 11th is when I downloaded a Google IO video in HD (1.2 Gbytes) before a trip. Had I been on a capped plan (I was grandfathered into an unlimited 4G plan), I would have paid $20 over for the month. Had I been using Exchange email (my company doesn't support Android for Exchange), my data usage would have been much higher. Out of that 4 Gbyte that I used, there was maybe 500 Mbytes for work.

I pay for my data plan. I get nothing from my employer, so the cost is on me and that's OK. But if my employer was paying for my data plan directly or through reimbursements, then it wouldn't be fair for them to pay for all that personal data, including the overages.

Outside of forcing employees to carry two tablets, which would be really inconvenient, you do have some options for managing expenses. I spoke with Brian Katz, who is heading up his company's mobile strategy, at length about managing data plans and overages. Here are a few things worth considering.

First and foremost, you have to get a handle on data consumption. "In the enterprise, we are looking at handling overages by working with the carriers to get visibility of the data usage and then working on some sort of pooling so we can normalize the data usage while eliminating overages," Katz said.

You could make a policy that employees use only corporate-issued devices for work-related purposes. Such a policy makes sense in some situations, such as working with highly sensitive information. I know one consultant working with a Department of Defense contractor whose laptop is locked down so tight that he can't even run unapproved ActiveX or Java code, much less install applications. In most cases, having a Draconian mobile policy is counterproductive. Employees will rebel in subtle ways, just like they do with laptops, and, frankly, I think that's a losing proposition for everyone.

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