Mobile broadband, however, eliminates the leash altogether. Although there are many remote areas where the cell phone networks don't reach, most of us spend the vast majority of our time inside these networks. They work in the car, at the airport and just about everywhere we go.
More importantly, however, Wi-Fi networks are problematic to manage because different networks are owned and managed by different people or companies. If you leave your home Wi-Fi network and go to Starbucks, you'll need a T-Mobile account, and entering the username and password with a digital camera is cumbersome. When you go to the airport, you might get access to a Boingo-provided network -- you'll need another account.
A mobile broadband connection, on the other hand, always uses either the bandwidth supplier network or a partner network. The infrastructure is already in place for you to carry your device around and have it connect from anywhere without choosing a network from a list, entering usernames and passwords, or signing up for new accounts.
Why pricing matters
The biggest threat to hyperconnectivity nirvana is carrier cluelessness. All U.S. carriers, with few exceptions, offer confusing, overly complex pricing options for cell phone service, especially for data, which is typically "rationed." You get a certain number of megabytes for the standard rate, then pay some amount for each additional unit of data. Roaming rates are unpredictable. Plus, carriers tend to gouge customers for "extras" like ringtones and music.
A new study by the U.K. consultancy BroadGroup Tariff Services found that the complexity of pricing for cell phone mobile broadband is driving customers away in Europe. The U.S. is no better. And if carriers try to apply cell phone-like pricing to devices like media players, GPS devices and mobile gaming, they'll strangle hyperconnectivity in its crib.
That would be both tragic and ironic, because hyperconnected mobile gadgets is the revenue opportunity of the decade for carriers.
It couldn't be more obvious: The right model is flat-rate, all-you-can-eat pricing for mobile broadband connectivity. No per-megabyte charges, no nights and weekend rates, no restrictions. And the price needs to be low. People will pay US$3 to US$5 per month for mobile broadband for their digital cameras, especially if the charge is conveniently added to their phone bill. But if carriers gouge, as they tend to do, and charge something like US$15 to US$20 per month, forget it.
And while I'm lecturing carriers about their own business, I might as well point out another golden opportunity: Selling nonphone devices to drive mobile broadband data use. If you were going to shell out US$400 for a new cell phone at the local AT&T or Verizon Wireless store, would you be willing to pay US$650 for the same cell phone plus a new Asus Eee PC that is also connected to the Internet via your new cell phone data plan? Of course you would! It would cost the carriers next to nothing to provide deals like this, and it would provide an incentive for you to upgrade your data plan. Everybody wins. Why aren't the carriers doing this already?
It's time for the entire consumer electronics industry and cell phone carriers to get busy and build the plans, partnerships and devices that will enable the new era of hyperconnectivity.
Fast and easy mobile broadband is so compelling, it's enough to transform even a clunky device like the Amazon Kindle, a must-have gadget that people are falling in love with. Imagine what it will do for your digital camera, GPS, mobile gaming system -- and your car!
Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. He blogs about the technology needs, desires and successes of mobile warriors in his Computerworld blog, The World Is My Office. Contact Mike at [email protected] or his blog, The Raw Feed.