The Cloud’s Potentially Huge Liability

Cloud services are redefining how society interacts with digital projects. However, data caps imposed by telecoms could turn the promise of the cloud into a painful and costly situation for many people.

This post was originally posted on the Adaptive Path blog.

For all intents and purposes, the cloud has been an overwhelming hit. For most people with readily available high speed internet, it has taken a lot of the pain and cost away from the storage and management of digital content. Adoption of cloud services have hit the point where many people now integrate them into their daily habits. Under normal circumstances, I would consider this to be a good thing, but as things stand, I feel as though this trend is going to blow up in our face. The impending problems have nothing to do with cloud services or the cloud in general. The problem is with the policies placed around how we access it, specifically data caps from our broadband and wireless data providers.

Interacting with the cloud makes bandwidth all the more transparent. Simple interactions with computing, most notably mobile devices that in prior years would have had no bandwidth footprint now do. Our data use now resembles a steady stream rather than spurts. This unconscious background stream will make our bandwidth use all the more indiscernible. However, the advantages of the cloud start to break down pretty quickly without the premise of free bandwidth. As the average household's bandwidth use increases and begins to run up against established data caps, the impending sticker shock coming from overage charges will lead to bandwidth anxiety. This bandwidth anxiety will create a general fear of using any service that is a perceived bandwidth consumer and could end up setting back cloud-based products and services for years to come.

AT&T says the caps will only impact 2% of their customers, but that argument is myopic at best. CNet goes into the details of AT&T's data cap policy:

Now AT&T DSL subscribers will be limited to 150 gigabytes of uploads and downloads per month for regular DSL customers and 250GB of broadband usage per month for U-Verse subscribers. AT&T's U-Verse service is its upgraded and enhanced broadband service with fiber deployed closer to individual homes. The U-Verse can handle more data traffic than AT&T's traditional DSL network. … If customers exceed the monthly data caps for either the DSL or U-Verse broadband services three times, they will be charged $10 for every 50GB above the cap.

Comcast has a similar policy with a 250 GB cap. AT&T and. Comcast represent the #1 and #2 US broadband providers. If a 250 Gb cap seems reasonable, consider this:

In 2009, the average American watched more than 151 hours of video from TV, computers and mobile devices. Increasingly, people are turning to cloud-based services such as Netflix, Hulu, Amazon Instant Video or iTunes for media consumption because it often represents a much better deal for the consumer. Netflix recently shared that their HD video is 4800 Kbps, equaling 600 kilobytes per second or a bit above 2 GB an hour. If an individual wished to forgo a cable subscription and watch their average 151 hours of video online, they will have used over 300 Gb of bandwidth — 50 Gb over current caps. Keep in mind this is just by watching video. This does not take into account any other online usage.

To people's benefit, the cloud has become quite transparent in most popular services. People watch movies, listen to music, or work on documents the same way they always have, with “magic” happening behind the scenes. People have had no need to change their habits or expectations. Those habits could soon be problematic for people where they end up paying both to own the content and then to access it. Many will likely opt out of using the cloud rather than change how they consume content.

These data caps from telecoms risk stifling advancements in cloud adoption and evolution. More importantly, it is putting a huge roadblock in an obvious path society is headed. At this point you may ask, what does this have to do with user experience? From my perspective, a lot. The cloud may have sprung up from technology-minded individuals, but UX designers have been championing the benefits of the cloud and finding new ways to utilize it for the sake of a simpler experience. Under normal circumstances, this would be absolutely fine. However, in this new reality, I wonder how responsible it is for us to continually drive more experiences into the cloud. It would be easy to remain neutral in this situation and argue that these types of issues are not our problem; that our job is simply to design the best possible experience and let the things out of our control fall where they may. A narrow view on the impact of our work would make that argument reasonable. However, an over-reliance on cloud services opens people up to the possibility of ungodly bills or forces them into expensive unlimited bandwidth plans. Neither are good options for the average person this economy. There is a responsibility to design solutions that will ultimately not let people down (in this case, through unforeseen bandwidth overage charges). If our work does not deliver on that tenet, it is not providing a beneficial user experience.

I am not suggesting that the cloud is some pariah that should be avoided at all cost. However, these caps present new experience challenges that need to be proactively addressed. There needs to be greater emphasis on how to make cloud connectivity smarter and, at times, optional. There needs to be clear and detailed information provided as to the amount of bandwidth being used by a service, app or device so people can make better choices as to how to use their bandwidth wisely. People will need to have a much greater idea of how they use data than ever before. It is not only appropriate but ethical to make that a high priority when designing for the cloud in the years to come, otherwise we risk people avoiding it all together.

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