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3G Netbooks Won’t Sell Without Data Plan Overhaul

You've probably seen the latest ad. It's the unflappable Bill Kurtis, riding in a motorcycle sidecar, extolling the virtues of a netbook with integrated AT&T mobile broadband. It's a cute, relatively effective pitch. And I believe him when he says the mini-laptop he's holding “goes places other laptops can't." But I wonder how many viewers would be turned off if the spot ended this way: "I'm Bill Kurtis, and I just spent $1,440 [dramatic pause] on a netbook." The real ending of this commercial explains that you can pick up an Acer Aspire One for $199, after a mail-in rebate. Yet, if you look at the fine print, it says you must sign a two-year agreement that includes a DataConnect plan. That means $40 per month for a measly 200MB, or $60 for a more reasonable 5GB. And this is on top of whatever monthly data fees you might be forking over for your cell phone. Unless the wireless carriers rethink their pricing plans, subsidized netbooks—and all connected electronics—won't be going anywhere. Never mind the fact that you’re only saving $100 on the netbook in exchange for the pricey, two-year commitment. Forget that AT&T's subsidized netbooks come with wimpy three-cell batteries, which don't last nearly as long on a charge as six-cell systems. I can even overlook that the carrier has a machine in its lineup—the Inspiron Mini 12—that is so mediocre, Dell no longer sells it directly. What gets me is that AT&T and Verizon Wireless expect customers to pony up for the convenience of built-in mobile broadband on secondary PCs. Generally speaking, consumers are much better off springing for an ExpressCard or USB modem, and sharing it between a netbook and a full-size laptop. So what will it take for subsidized netbooks to take off? I would start by offering a wireless plan that covers multiple devices. A single $60 monthly fee should include 5GB worth of data not only for your smart phone, but also for your connected netbook, or any other device with an integrated cellular radio. And providers could offer tiered pricing for those who go above that limit. For example, carriers could charge $80 for 10GB—the same amount that connection cards alone commanded just a few years ago. Another approach would be to charge a $30 base fee (the average cost of a smart phone plan) and add $5 to $10 per month to subscribers' bills for each additional device they bring onto the network. In a way, carriers are already starting down the path of one data fee for multiple gadgets. The innovative MiFi from Novatel Wireless is a tiny, battery-powered wireless modem that rebroadcasts its 3G connection as a Wi-Fi signal for as many as five nearby devices, including digital cameras, netbooks, portable game consoles, and portable media players. But it's easy to see why this is a transitional product, while we wait for more devices to come with wide-area connectivity built in. As compact as the MiFi is, it's yet another piece of hardware you need to carry and charge. Perhaps carriers are dragging their feet on creating more aggressively priced data plans because they don’t want to overload their already-stressed networks. Lord knows that the latest iPhone is giving AT&T all it can handle. But increasing speeds alone won't usher in the connected electronics revolution. These upgrades must go hand in hand with data plans that assume customers want to pay one fair fee for a single bucket of data that can be applied to multiple gadgets. If the carriers heed my advice, hopefully within 6 to 12 months you'll hear, "I'm Bill Kurtis, and you can actually afford this netbook." Editor-in-chief Mark Spoonauer directs LAPTOP’s online and print editorial content and has been covering mobile and wireless technology for over a decade. Each week Mark’s SpoonFed column provides his insights and analysis of the biggest mobile trends and news. You can also follow him on twitter.

Responsible for the editorial vision for Laptop Mag and Tom's Guide, Mark Spoonauer has been Editor in Chief of LAPTOP since 2003 and has covered technology for nearly 15 years. Mark speaks at key tech industry events and makes regular media appearances on CNBC, Fox and CNN. Mark was previously reviews editor at Mobile Computing, and his work has appeared in Wired, Popular Science and Inc.