Unlimited-dataMany companies start out new services by offering “unlimited” data. Shortly after, cut backs or extra charges inevitably follow. Microsoft just nixed their unlimited storage option from their OneDrive service. Comcast just started billing users extra if they go over 300GB of bandwidth per month in certain cities. Sprint is now mitigating download speeds of its “unlimited” data plan for customers who exceed 23GB per month of data usage.

What once was unlimited is suddenly very.. limiting. The question is: is it impossible to offer truly unlimited service, or do companies simply not want to?

Most of the time, companies can’t properly estimate what offering “unlimited” data will really mean, even a short ways down the line. Sometimes a larger number of people then anticipated become “excessive” users. Other times providers simply underestimated the average usage their user ends up needing.

While companies start seeing a need to scale up their data capability, they also start realizing that they have something that is in higher demand than anticipated (i.e. something they can probably charge more for.)

When Microsoft first unveiled its unlimited plan for OneDrive, it didn’t realize that some users would use the service to back up multiple computers or store large video recordings. This behavior caused some users to exceed 75 TB of storage, which is nearly 14,000 times the average. If you give a user unlimited data, it can be impossible to predict how far they will push it.

Companies usually turn to setting limits in part to make it easier to predict costs. At the drop of a hat, the way people use your technology can change, and companies don’t always have time to act quickly enough before sustaining service issues.

For example, most major mobile carriers used to offer unlimited data plans. That is until 2010 when all of a sudden people started watching a lot more video, in large part thanks to the popularity of the YouTube app, on their phones. Data usage soared, and one by one each carrier either eliminated their unlimited plan or cut speeds after certain usage limits were met.

Companies do their best to ensure that they have the capacity to meet demand, but something as simple as a new popular trend can cause usage patterns to change rapidly.

For those reading who may be less tech savvy about data storage: there is no such thing as a hard drive with infinite storage capacity. Anywhere you keep a digital file needs to have a capacity to hold that data.

If you’re wondering, “but what about cloud storage?” They too have physical data centers housing servers all over the world. Not to mention the technicians needed to keep them running, and the bandwidth needed to carry the data between company server and customer device. Everything digital starts with something physical, which means it takes time, space, money, and man-power to create and maintain.

Basically, “unlimited” data is actually just a pseudonym for a companies ability to allow users unrestricted access to data because they have a greater capacity than that usage. What’s not super clear is how much excessive users actually cost companies or how much they adversely affect other users. It’s easy for companies to see an opportunity for tiering service and then take advantage without an actual need due to a lack of data capacity.

There’s one thing we can be sure of: whenever you see a company with an “unlimited” offering, don’t get too comfortable. They’re just figuring out how to tier their costs.

To learn more about Yogesh Joshee, please visit his official website.