In conversations with executives from mobile carriers during the past couple of months, we’ve noticed a growing conviction that the industry is entering a new phase of mobile access where data plans are shifting to unlimited plans, similar to the offerings for voice and text.

What does the resulting new world of unlimited data plans look like for the mobile ecosystem in the short and longer term?

Consumers are spending less and less for more mobile access as the carriers try to compete on their only remaining source of differentiation – price. As a consequence, we can expect carrier ARPUs (average-revenue-per user) to continue their declines. “Discount carriers” will grow net subscribers and their financial top-lines even as the “high margin carriers” face declining bottom-lines with increasing discontent from capital markets.

Is this short-term unlimited data approach a  sustainable model for carriers? There are a number of examples from other markets faced with commodity pricing pressure that provide some guidance.

In the U.S. airline sector, post-deregulation, we witnessed the emergence of various low-cost carriers, such as SkyWest, AirTran (purchased by Southwest), ValueJet (purchased by AirTran), Virgin America (purchased by Alaska), Southwest, Jet Blue, Spirit, and many now defunct companies. These airlines all started as regional airlines that focused on underserved markets. Over time, they expanded their low-cost footprint to the same geographies of the incumbent market leaders. The typical result was failure, but a few lucky ones were either acquired or transitioned from discount to full-service airlines. There are other industries, such as PC and automotive manufacturing that have demonstrated similar market dynamics.

Will the longer-term fate of today’s low-cost operators follow the boom and bust patterns of these other commodity industries? Which operators are poised to be the next Tesla-like carrier, and which carriers will suffer the fate of the now-default Braniff Airlines? Stay tuned for part 2 of this blog.