I remember getting my first ever phone with a data plan. It was 3 years ago and I remember looking through nearly every carrier’s offerings to see where I could get the best deal. I wasn’t going to get a contract since I change my phone at least once a year (thank you FBT exemption) and I was going to buy the handset outright, so many of the bundle deals going at the time weren’t available to me. I eventually settled on 3 mobile as they had the best of both worlds in terms of plan cost and data, totaling a mere $40/month for $150 worth of calls and 1GB of data. Still when I was talking to them about how the usage was calculated I seemed to hit a nerve over certain use cases.
Now I’m not a big user of mobile data despite my daily consumption of web services on my mobile devices, usually averaging about 200MB/month. Still there have been times that I’ve really needed the extra capacity like when I’m away and need an Internet connection for my laptop. Of course tethering the two devices together doesn’t take much effort at all, my first phone only needed a driver for it to work, and as far as I could tell the requests would look like they were coming directly from my phone. However the sales representatives told me in no uncertain terms that I’d have to get a separate data plan if I wanted to tether my handset or if I dared to plug my sim card into a 3G modem.
Of course upon testing these restrictions I found them to be patently false.
Now it could’ve just been misinformed sales people who got mixed up when I told them what I was planning to do with my new data enabled phone but the idea that tethered Internet usage is somehow different to normal Internet usage wasn’t a new idea to me. In the USA pretty much every carrier will charge you a premium on top of whatever plan you’ve got if you want to tether it to another device, usually providing a special application that enables the functionality. Of course this has spurred people to develop applications that circumvent these restrictions on all the major smart phone platforms (iOS users will have to jailbreak unfortunately) and the carriers aren’t able to tell the difference. But that hasn’t stopped them from taking action against those who would thwart their juicy revenue streams.
Most recently it seems that the carriers have been putting pressure on Google to remove tethering applications from the Android app store:
It seems a few American carriers have started working with Google to disable access to tethering apps in the Android Market in recent weeks, ostensibly because they make it easier for users to circumvent the official tethering capabilities offered on many recent smartphones — capabilities that carry a plan surcharge. Sure, it’s a shame that they’re doing it, but from Verizon’s perspective, it’s all about protecting revenue — business as usual. It’s Google’s role in this soap opera that’s a cause for greater concern.
Whilst this is another unfortunate sign that no matter how hard Google tries to be “open” it will still be at the mercy of the carriers their banning of tethering apps sets a worrying precedent for carriers looking to control the Android platform. Sure they already had a pretty good level of control over it since they all release their own custom versions of Android for handsets on their network but now they’re also exerting pressure over the one part that was ostensibly never meant to be influenced by them. I can understand that they’re just trying to protect their bottom line but the question has to be asked: is tethering really that much of a big deal for them?
It could be that my view is skewed by the Australian way of doing things, where data caps are the norm and the term “unlimited” is either a scam or at dial-up level speeds. Still from what I’ve seen of the USA market many wireless data plans come with caps anyway so the bandwidth argument is out the window. Tethering to a device requires no intervention from the carrier and there are free applications available on nearly every platform that provide the required functionality. In essence the carriers are charging you for a feature that should be free and are now strong-arming Google into protecting their bottom lines.
I’m thankful that this isn’t the norm here in Australia yet but we have an unhealthy habit of imitating our friends in the USA so you can see why this kind of behavior concerns me. Since I’m also a firm believer in the idea that once I’ve bought the hardware its mine to do with as I please and tethering falls under that realm. Tethering is one of those things that really shouldn’t be an issue and Google capitulating to the carriers just shows how difficult it is to operate in the mobile space, especially if you’re striving to make it as open as you possibly can.
Look I can understand how frustrating it can be to live in a place with crap cell phone reception. I spent the majority of my life living only 30 minutes outside Canberra and even that short distance was enough for the reception to basically drop off to nothing unless you were with Telstra. Even then you were lucky to be able to place a call indoors (especially if you had the typical colourbond roof) with most mobile calls being made from the nearest hill you could scurry up. I still suffer from spotty coverage even in town thanks to my current network provider but not once have I thought that a femtocell would be the answer to my problem.
Like I’ve said previously femtocells seem to be like a cash grab from cellular providers who instead should be spending their own money on fixing their coverage problems. Their use case is almost too narrow to be of any use since you need to have a broadband connection (which usually puts you in mobile phone range) and since nearly every broadband router comes with a wireless access point there’s no need to use 3G when you’re at home. In essence you’re just giving yourself full coverage so you can pay the exorbitant cellular data rates whilst at the same time using your own data cap, in essence double charging yourself for the privilege. Just like there doesn’t seem to be a case for a cellular tablet I struggle to find a use for a femtocell other than for a cellular provider to bilk their customers.
It seems that these useless devices have finally made their way onto Australian shores with Optus, the carrier with the worst record for coverage (in my experience at least), beginning trials of the devices:
Dubbed the ‘3G Home Zone’, the new Optus femtocell device is a small base station that plugs into a wireless router and uses a fixed-line broadband Internet connection to boost mobile coverage. Once operational, the Optus femtocell device should typically provide full mobile coverage within a 30 metre range.
Optus recommends that the 3G Home Zone be connected to a broadband service with a minimum download speed of 1Mbps and a minimum upload speed of 256kbps — if the speed is capped at 128kbps or lower, the device will no longer work.
The most insulting part about Optus’ introduction of these devices is that they’re charging for them, and it’s not a trivial amount either. You either pony up $60 initially and another $60 over 12 months (with a $70/month plan) or you pay $240 outright. Now far be it from me to get in the way of a company trying to make a profit but it would seem that the investment they spent in getting these devices functional could have been far better spent upgrading the spots where reception is a problem. Getting 3G indoors is all well and good but the vast majority of use cases for that are already covered off aptly by wireless, and you don’t need to pay an additional monthly fee to use that.
What I would support however would be something along the lines of what AT&T is doing in the USA, giving all users who request it a free femtocell. Of course it would seem like a silly move to begin with but having been an actual AT&T customer and seeing the coverage problems they had a free femtocell would go a long way to keeping people on their network. Of course they didn’t start out free (they definitely weren’t when I was there) but obviously the cost can’t be too high or they wouldn’t be offering it. Hopefully it won’t be too long before Optus follows suit.
Femtocells feel like a solution in search of a problem. Sure it might be great to have full coverage in your house (I currently get 1 bar) but the reason for doing so seems almost non-nonsensical when you look at the requirements needed to do it. I can’t see a future where I’ll ever need a device like this unless they somehow make it affordable with a satellite connection, but even then if I’m that far away from humanity I’d be guessing I wouldn’t want to bring the Internet with me. So hopefully these silly devices will disappear into the dark niche they belong in: the technically ignorant and woefully misinformed.
So I’m sold on the tablet idea. After resisting it since Apple started popularizing it with the iPad I’ve finally started to find myself thinking about numerous use cases where a tablet would be far more appropriate than my current solutions. Most recently it was after turning off my main PC and sitting down to watch some TV shows, realizing that I had forgotten to set up some required downloads before doing so. Sure I could do them using the diNovo Mini keyboard but it’s not really designed for more than logging in and typing in the occasional web address. Thinking that I’d either now have to power my PC or laptop on I lamented that I didn’t have a tablet that I could RDP into the box with and set up the downloads whilst lazing on the couch. Thankfully it looks like my tablet of choice, a wifi only Xoom, can be shipped to Australia via Amazon so I’ll be ordering one of them very soon.
Initially I thought I’d go for one of the top of the line models with all the bells and whistles, most notably a 3G/4G connection. That was mostly just for geek cred since whenever I’m buying gadgets I like to get the best that’s on offer at the time (as long as the price isn’t completely ludicrous). After a while though I started to have a think about my particular use patterns and I struggled to find a time where I’d want to use a tablet and be bereft of a WiFi connection, either through an access point or tethered to my phone. There’s also the consideration of price with all non-cellular tablets is usually quite a bit cheaper, on the order of $200 with the Xoom. It then got me thinking, what exactly is the use case for a tablet with a cellular connection?
The scenarios I picture go something along these lines. You’re out and about, somewhere that has mobile phone reception, but you don’t have your phone on you (or one not capable of tethering) and you’re no where near a WiFi access point. Now the possibility of having mobile phone reception but no WiFi is a pretty common event, especially here in Australia, but the other side to that potential situation is you either can’t tether to your mobile phone because its not capable or you don’t have it on you. Couple that with the fact that you’re going to have to pay for yet another data plan just for your new tablet then you’ve really lost me as to why you’d bother with a tablet that has cellular connectivity.
If your reason for getting cellular connectivity is that you want to use it when you don’t have access to a WiFi hard point then I could only recommend it if you have a phone that can’t tether to other devices (although I’d struggle to find one today, heck even my RAZR was able to do it). However, if I may make a sweeping statement, I’d assume that since you’ve bought a tablet you already have a smart phone which is quite capable of tethering, even if the carrier charges you a little more for it (which is uncommon and usually cheaper than a separate data plan). The only real reason to have it is for when you have your tablet but not your phone, a situation I’d be hard pressed to find myself in and not be within range of an access point.
In fact most of the uses I can come up with for a tablet device actually require them to be on some kind of wireless network as they make a fitting interface device to my larger PCs with all the functions that could be done on cellular networks aptly covered off by a smartphone. Sure they might be more usable for quite a lot of activities but they’re quite a lot more cumbersome than something that can fit into my pocket and rarely do I find myself needing functionality above that of the phone but below that of a fully fledged PC. This is why I was initially skeptical of the tablet movement as the use cases were already aptly covered by current generation devices. It seems there’s quite a market for transitional devices however.
Still since nearly every manufacturer is making both cellular and wireless only tablets there’s got to be something to it, even if I can’t figure it out. There’s a lot to be said about the convenience factor and I’m sure a lot of people are willing to pay the extra just to make sure they can always use their device wherever they are but I, for one, can’t seem to get a grip on it. So I’ll put it out to the wisdom of the crowd: what are your use cases for a cellular enabled tablet?