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.
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?
Telstra was a brilliant example of why natural monopolies should never be put in the hands of private share holders. Whilst the situation has improved quite dramatically over the past decade thanks to strict regulation and enhanced competition we’re still suffering a few headaches of not jumping on the broadband bus earlier than we should have. Still though the Australian government is being no slouch when it comes to charging forward into the future with the National Broadband Network which, if fully implemented, will see Australia able to count themselves amongst the top tier of Internet enabled nations. Still with the high cost and long implementation timeline many are looking at alternatives that can provide similar benefits, and the first place they turn to is wireless.
Today the issue was brought into the spotlight again as Telstra announced their plans to do a nation wide rollout of 4G LTE (Long Term Evolution) wireless broadband services. The comparisons to the NBN flowed thick and fast, with many questioning the benefits of having both:
Telstra will significantly upgrade its mobile network to take advantage of fast 4G technology that will allow users to obtain speeds similar to home broadband connections while on the go.
The announcement comes on the back of a government-commissioned report warning uptake to its $36 billion network could be stifled by wireless technologies.
Long time readers will know I’ve touched on this issue briefly in the past after having a few long conversations with fellow IT workers over the NBN. On a pure theoretical level 4G wins out simply because you get similar speeds without having to invest in a large scale fiber network and you get the speeds wherever you have coverage. The problem is whilst the 4G specification does make provisions for such high speeds there’s a lot of caveats around being able to deliver it at that level, and they’re not all just about signal strength.
Upgrading the current 3G network to support 4G is no small task in itself, requiring all towers to be upgraded with additional transceivers, antennas and supporting infrastructure. Whilst upgrading the towers themselves won’t be too difficult the real problem comes in when people start wanting to use this new connection to its fullest potential, attempting to get NBN speeds from their wireless broadband. This at the very least requires an infrastructure upgrade on the scale of Fiber to the Node (FTTN) as the bandwidth requirements will outstrip the current infrastructure if they are used as a replacement for the NBN. Most critics looking to replace the NBN with wireless neglect this fact and in the end not upgrading the backhauls from the towers means that whilst NBN speeds would be possible they’d never be realised in practice.
Wireless is also no replacement for fixed line as it is much harder to provide a guaranteed level of service, something businesses and government entities rely on. Sure many of the limitations can be worked around with good engineering but it will still lack the scalability of a fixed fiber solution that already has implementations in the multi-gigabit range. Wireless might make sense for some low use consumer products (I’d love to get my mobile videos faster) but the fact is that if you’re relying on your Internet connection for critical business functions you’re not going to be doing them over wireless. Heck I don’t think anyone in the 4G enabled parts of the USA is even attempting to do that.
In reality the NBN and Telstra’s 4G network shouldn’t really be seen as being in competition with each other, they’re really 2 completely different products. The NBN is providing the ground level infrastructure for an Internet revolution in Australia, something that will bring extremely high speed Internet access to the masses. 4G should be seen as an evolutionary step in the mobile sector, enabling much more rich Internet services to be delivered to our handsets whilst offering some of the capability of a fixed line when you’re on the go. The sooner everyone realizes this the better as playing them off each other is just a waste of time and won’t lead to anything positive for Australia as a nation.
I spent the vast majority of my life living out in the country where mobile phone reception was scarce even when you were on the top of the highest hill you could find. For many years I stayed with Telstra because they were the only ones that could provide me with a connection that wouldn’t drop out most of the time and, thanks to my employment at a retail establishment that peddled their wares, I was able to get a very decent plan that kept me going until about 2 years ago. After moving into the city I’ve always felt spoiled having mobile phone reception wherever I go and I’m still mildly surprised when I get coverage indoors since the corrugated iron roof we had would kill any signal. I know I’m not the only one who’s had these kinds of issues but since I was at home I had many other ways to contact people, it was more the convience factor for those few who didn’t have IM or email.
The problem hasn’t gone away for my rural comrades who still languish with poor cell phone reception. Since the population is spread out so sparsely it’s not worth any mobile provider’s time and money to try and improve the signal out there as their potential customer base is quite small. It’s the same reason that they haven’t bothered with upgrading many rural exchanges with the DSLAM architecture required to give the same people broadband although there are other companies providing directional wireless broadband solutions to cover these guys off (that’s not the same as 3G broadband, just in case you were thinking that). The solution that companies overseas seem to be peddling to those who don’t get the mobile reception that they want seems to lie with the introduction of Femtocells, but I can’t really see how that fixes anything, nor why anyone would actually pay for the privilege.
A femtocell is basically a small version of those giant cell towers you see every so often. They work off the idea that they can route the voice and data traffic over a broadband connection, usually provided by the person who has purchased the femtocell. From a technical point of view it’s actually quite a simple and elegant solution as it makes use of existing infrastructure to provide a service that some people potentially lack. When deployed into the real world however there’s some issues that I just can’t see a simple solution for, especially when you consider those in a situation similar to mine all those years ago.
Firstly there’s the dependency on a broadband connection. Now whilst I’m not terribly familiar with the broadband situation in the USA here in Australia if you’re lucky enough to be able to get any kind of broadband the chances are you’re within a certain short distance from a telephone exchange which typically has its own cell tower. If you’re unable to get cell phone reception but you have connected broadband you’re either inside a building (which usually only kills 3G) or in some kind of freakish blackspot. Either way you’re still connected to the outside world via the Internet and possibly a landline or VOIP phone which could be your mobile phone if it’s capable of running Skype or similar. Additionally for those of us who lived with little to no mobile reception and lack proper broadband a femtocell is useless, since it simply can’t operate in those conditions.
There’s also the fact that, should Australian mobile carriers follow the USA’s lead, femtocells will have to be purchased by the end user. Now it’s always nice to have full bars on your phone but realistically if you’re at home there’s not really a need for it. The data aspect is fully covered by having wifi in the house which even the cheapest of ADSL routers come with these days. I can understand the voice aspect somewhat although if you have broadband in Australia you either have a landline which you can divert your mobile to when you’re out of range of a tower or you have naked DSL and VOIP, which could be used in much the same way. Additionally if you’ve got a smartphone there’s the possibility of using something like Skype which would still be contactable via the Internet should you lose signal at home. Really the mobile carriers should provide the customer with an outdoor picocell instead as coverage blackspots like that tend not to be isolated to a single household.
I guess I’m approaching this problem from the view of someone technically inclined as I can see the attraction for someone who’s stuck in a blackspot and doesn’t want to mess around with diverts and VOIP on their phone. Still the limited application of such devices really makes me think it should be a cost beared by the carrier as realistically it’s their infrastructure that the customer is paying for as even if it was free there’s still the broadband connection, bandwidth and power required for these devices. The problem would be rendered completely moot if a service like Google Voice came to Australia but for now it seems we’re still stuck with less than ideal solutions to poor signal issues in residential areas.