Do we really need “always-on” 4G connectivity?

In what seems like a personal battle against WiFi-only Glenn Lurie, AT&T’s President for Emerging Enterprises and Partnerships is pressing device manufacturers to always bundle 4G and WiFi connectivity in their devices, according to this article from AllThings D.

Lurie is quoted as saying “WiFi only is not enough” and “it kills me when people still sing the praises of Wi-Fi only.” He also admits, says the article, that it is tough to convince consumers that always-on connectivity is worth the hundreds of extra dollars it costs per device – not to mention the hundreds extra per year for a 4G data subscription.

Lurie’s job, ultimately, is to help sell AT&T’s 4G services and devices, so his position against Wi-Fi-only isn’t difficult to decipher. Still, the question remains – do consumers really need always-on 4G (or greater) connectivity? It’s not clear that we do; at least not yet.

This would be worth a consumer survey and statistical study (I’m trying to pull one off right now via email…). Anecdotally speaking, however, I have to disagree with Lurie – at least today. I accept that technology and opinions about it change rapidly. There may be a compelling need for always-on 4G or better connectivity in the very near future. But today, one can live without it.

It would be tougher to live without 3G connectivity because being able to access email; do some web surfing and searching; or even use Skype has become something many people take for granted. But if we only really need 4G to do something like watch Netflix or download a movie, there seems to be enough free WiFi around to make that happen for most urban and suburban Americans.

There is a major caveat to this, however. My good friend Eric Nelson of Synaptitude Consulting reminds us that one’s need for 4G is “geographically dependent.” He says that “in the major metro areas of the industrialized world, perhaps WiFi only is adequate.” On the contrary, however, outside of those areas – which make up most of the land mass of the planet – “you’ve got to have 4G at this point.”

In other words, Lurie may have a very compelling argument among those who travel consistently outside of major metro areas and need high capacity connectivity. But even in those cases, another argument has emerged. Early respondents to the survey who are tech-savvy and travel regularly on business say they prefer their mobile hotspots because they “aren’t confined to the devices they are installed on.” In other words, with mobility comes a demand for flexibility. And even with shared data plans, if my 4G tablet, for example, isn’t also a hotspot to which I can connect my mobile phone and PC, then it is too limiting.

In the end it all comes down to cost and pricing. If device manufacturers stop making WiFi-only devices, it will make all of the devices in the marketplace that much more expensive. That in turn might make it more compelling for consumers to go to a mobile operator who offers those devices with a subsidy, so long as they subscribe to a new 4G data package (I’m not sure just connecting that device to a multi-device share package justifies a heavy subsidy). But data pricing still remains static today; it’s not based on actual usage. It still goes the parking meter route of “guess how much time you need”, or in this case, how many MBs. So there’s a fundamental disconnect here.

I’ll make you a deal Mr. Lurie. Subsidize my WiFi+4G device and give me pay-as-you-go access to your 4G data network and I’ll run with you. Until then, I’ll stick with my 4G hotspot on your competitor’s network; patronize cafes and restaurants that offer free WiFi; and check my email, weather, news, and Fantasy Football scores over your 3G network, which works just fine.

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Edward Finegold
About Edward Finegold 122 Articles
Ed is now Director, Strategy for NetCracker. Previously, for 15 years he was a reporter, analyst and consultant focused on the OSS/BSS industry and a regular contributor to BillingViews.

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