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The new iPad is a beautiful reminder of how stupid data plans are

The new iPad is a beautiful reminder of how stupid data plans are


Sean Hollister expresses why it's ludicrous that each cellular device requires its own data plan.

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iPad FaceTime LTE 1024 Angry Josh
iPad FaceTime LTE 1024 Angry Josh

Apple's new iPad is magnificent (Check out our iPad review). The screen is superb, the processor is fast, and despite its newfound LTE cellular connectivity, the battery life lasts. And yet, I’d never, ever recommend you buy an LTE tablet, or any other integrated cellular device that doesn't make calls. Why? The powers that be have colluded to place arbitrary restrictions on your data which don't make any sense.

Take FaceTime, for example, which doesn't work on the iPad over LTE. You know what works just fine? Two iPads, with one piggybacking off the other's LTE mobile hotspot. Or an iPad tethered to an LTE smartphone. Or a portable hotspot like an LTE MiFi, which can serve other devices as well. (Or Skype.) Remember the PS Vita’s 3G model, which can't play online games over cellular? Hook it up to an LTE hotspot in an area with good connectivity, and you'll have no such trouble. But on the flip side, if you don't pay for that integrated 3G plan and your hotspot dies on the road, your Vita won't get so much as a status update and your iPad won't even be able to check important email.

Why don't carriers make it worth our while to buy devices with embedded cellular radios?

To Verizon or AT&T, it's the same exact data, and to you it's a perfectly crisp, smooth video call out in the field or a game on the go, with no need to bump elbows at a local Starbucks or stay at home. But because our cellular carriers have realized that they can charge us extra for each individual device we connect to their network, cap mobile downloads, and influence software providers not to place strain on the network, you end up paying more for less and enduring arbitrary restrictions when you buy devices with integrated cellular. The answer, for now, is to buy a portable hotspot or a tethering plan instead, but the tradeoffs don’t make sense. Why don't carriers make it worth our while to buy devices with embedded cellular radios?

If you know where I'm going with this argument, chances are you've heard it before: the FaceTime issue underscores a massive debate about net neutrality that's been going on for a long while. If carriers acted like dumb pipes for the data they transport — as they more or less do when you use a mobile hotspot, which is almost indistinguishable from Wi-Fi as far as your device is concerned — then, the argument goes, you'd just pay for the data you use, regardless of what content that data carries or the path it takes to get to your tablet or handheld. The counterargument is typically that carriers need to manage their network, lest it get overwhelmed by the traffic of millions of additional FaceTime users and the like. Still, that's easily solved: simply charge for the actual amount of data actually used — basic supply and demand — and let users throttle themselves.

Imagine a world where you pay your carrier for a single shared data plan that covers all the devices you use, whether they've got a physical SIM card, are tethered with a cable, or wirelessly connect to a mobile hotspot. Your home's water bill works like this: no matter which faucet you turn on, you only pay what your meter reads. Not only would you no longer have to worry about which device is able to use or share a data plan, but you could also switch from device to device should one run out of battery, or extend your connectivity to a friend if you're willing to foot the bill — pour them a glass of water while you're at it. Both AT&T and Verizon have promised shared family data plans in the near future, but I wouldn’t be surprised if there’s a catch. There's still too much profit to be made charging multiple times for the same data.

What's worse, though, is that the current model is a giant roadblock standing in the way of a whole new category of devices with intentionally limited connectivity. All these restrictions on our devices wouldn't be so bad if we could pay less to use devices with a lighter cellular footprint. That doesn’t work when the carriers enforce the same data buckets for the likes of the Vita as they do for a data-gobbling laptop. That's why the 3G Vita doesn't make sense, just as the Microsoft Kin didn't make any sense in 2010, even though both are designed to use less data (the Kin, for instance, could only retrieve social network updates roughly every 15 minutes).

Restrictions wouldn't be so bad if we could pay less for devices with a lighter cellular footprint

How many teens and budget-conscious adults go without smartphones because they require an expensive plan? If there were sweetheart data deals for such devices, there’d be far more reason to buy them. Now, you might argue that pay-as-you-go data is an option if your funds are limited, and that’s true, but you’re still paying relatively the same amount per unit of data without getting the same functionality.

Imagine if you could pay less for less useful data, say a monthly rate of just $5 a month, or a lower per-megabyte charge, and in exchange you only get access to limited data ecosystems like the Kin and 3G Vita afford. It might fly in the face of some net neutrality advocates, but at least it would be fair. Perhaps such devices could even be subsidized by advertising or your purchases.

There are already precedents for such a thing: the Amazon Kindle has free wireless access to download e-books and sync your content. (The Peek, which only did email, is sadly no longer with us.) Remember, it’s not all about smartphones and tablets, either. Low-power sensors have now been made cheap enough to measure our entire planet and every human in it, but only big businesses are enjoying the benefits right now. Simple devices like the Vitality Glowcap, a pill bottle that merely tracks when it's opened and closed (and sends you SMS) require a $15 monthly data plan. The so-called Internet of Things has so much potential, but right now consumers are left out. One pricey data plan per device is currently the rule of the road.