The Digital Skeptic: World's Web Won't Like Our Detroit Gas-Guzzler Data Use

NEW YORK ( TheStreet) -- Sergio Tagliapietra figured out the dirty little secret of global, Web-based, software-as-a-service companies.

And he did it while shopping for an Italian cellphone for his American wife.

"When we travel together to Italy, I have to get her an in-country SIM so we do not spend a fortune on the cellphone bill," this trim 30ish Italian told me at a damp Venetian bar last month. "This year I am getting amazing prices. But she still can't go nuts on the Internet usage. It still easily runs out."

Investors should trust Tagliapietra's sense of the true cost for people and businesses to communicate all over the digital world. He's the IT and business process manager for Donghia: Donghia, a Milford, Conn., super-lux home furnishings and textile company. He juggles the tech needs of a global staff of about 150 who serve a demanding global clientele in such far-flung markets as Venice, England and China -- not to mention the firm's design studio here in Manhattan.

"There are many parts to this company, and they work in many parts of the world," he joked. "I sometimes don't sleep as I should."

The two of us were comparing notes on a surprising trend in global telephony: dramatically lower costs not only for international voice and messaging, but for access to the Web on cellular network in international markets such as Italy and beyond.

These lower prices were not just from hip, disruptive global access entrants including the U.K.'s Truphone or San Diego's XCom Global. Oh no. This was discounts from the likes of AT&T ( T), T-Mobile and Telecom Italia Mobile -- also known as TIM.

Tagliapietra pointed out the simply awesome TIM-advertised Italian domestic phone and data prices -- in Italian, of course: 1,000 minutes of talk, 1,000 text messages and 2GB of Web data access for about $5.50 a bucket depending on the euro/dollar exchange rate. After that, data access stops and plans needs to be re-upped.

That, of course, made it sound like the global Web software-as-a-service market might thrive in a new world of low-cost cellular data plans -- until I actually tried global Web software as services, such as my company's Google ( GOOG) Apps for Business account, on TIM. Never mind that 2GB a month in data limit; 40GB a month would probably not be enough for even an average data-hungry cloud-based business services.

It turns out our 21st-century North American Web apps are the data equivalent of 1970s-era, fuel-guzzling Detroit land yachts. Most business-class Web-based services are simply too much of a data hog for true global duty.

The all-you-can-eat data buffet closes in global cell networks
What's fascinating about the total data needs of Web-based software-as-a-service tools is how tricky it is to accurately measure, much less estimate, total data needs. I had to do major digging to get the few hints I found for, say, Google Apps. Lars Johansen, a Google Apps user, asked in a Google Product Forums page how much data will be consumed doing basic office work such as syncing his Google Apps accounts with his Microsoft ( MSFT) Outlook.

Johansen says Google limits the amount of email data it can sync in any given session to 1GB, which sounds like more than enough -- until I realized my current Google Apps mail account has 17 GB of data in it, or about eight times the 2GB monthly data cap enforced by TIM.

When I tested the data needs of more moderate files on my Google Apps, I found a user could easily burn through 100MB in a few hours uploading and downloading files with comments, photos or spreadsheets. The 2GB TIM limit would last barely a few days.

Nobody is getting work done in a data-thrifty environment like that.

The free Web illusion
Investors will be rewarded for having the courage to think as Tagliapietra does. Because strictly speaking, our cherished American notion of a "free Web" is actually a carefully crafted illusion. It's a result of our flat-rate, all you can eat broadband Web pricing model that is matched with a no-cost Web search and retail model that hides the truth that real money must be spent to move data around on a network.

But global markets have no incentive to maintain this fib. Operators such as TIM make good money charging real money for Web access, and there will be little North American software-as-a-service companies can do to change that model overseas.

No matter how you look at it, whoever attempts to waddle up to the all-you-can-eat Web data smorgasbord in an overseas Web data-capped market won't be eating long.

This commentary comes from an independent investor or market observer as part of TheStreet guest contributor program. The views expressed are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of TheStreet or its management.

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