In the ongoing debate about 3G vs WiFi-only slates, the verdict is finally in (at least according to industry analyst Chetan Sharma) and the results are not entirely surprising. According to his recent market update report summarizing the US wireless industry, almost 90% of consumers currently prefer WiFi-only tablets over the 3G versions. Mentioning that his chart compares U.S. 2011 sales of WiFi-only tablets against cellular-equipped versions, Sharma suggests that mobile network service providers, like AT&T, T-mobile, Verizon, and Sprint are not essential for a thriving tablet ecosystem.
There are a number of causes for this situation, of which we will discuss the following below.
Most WiFi-only tablets cost around $100 less than their 3G-enabled counterparts. This figure does not include the extra cost required to subscribe to a data plan. In the United States, getting data connectivity on your tablet implies a contract for a minimum of two years. The big exception is represented by iPad users, who can opt for a month-by-month subscription from AT&T.
Sharma's research brings up the question of the feasibility of such long term contracts. With most devices seemingly dated after only a year due to the rapid pace of hardware development, committing to a two year contract is a hard pill to swallow, and the early termination fees of hundreds of dollars don't help either.
In addition, market studies suggest that most users are likely to leave their tablets at home. Since a lot of homes have access to WiFi Internet, the additional cost of owning a 3G-enabled tablet is simply too high for most consumers.
Most data plans will set you back $49.99 for between 2GB to 5GB ‘free’ monthly usage, with additional charges being tacked onto your bill when the limit is crossed. Only Sprint offers a truly unlimited data plan, but with a hefty price tag of 99.99 USD. These limits are in place due to bandwidth limitations, and, according to the carriers, so as ‘not to disrupt the quality of data service available to other customers.” Right.
While the reasons for these limits are understandable, they certainly seem too low. Devices on Wifi are usually connected to home broadband services. This gives the user the advantage of truly generous data limits, a 100GB being the average of amount of data available on a lot of the popular internet data plans these days.
The only saving grace for 3G+ tablets is the mobility they offer consumers. Daily commuters nowadays prefer to ‘flip’ through newspapers available on their tablets. It also helps consumers avoid boredom on long journeys, or waiting in airports (without free Wifi available). Business professionals on the go may not have ready access to a Wifi network, and 3G connectivity enables them to have access to urgent e-mails, presentations, and documents available online. Still, it's important to remember that elsewhere in the world, you can purchase a tablet, plug in your SIM, and you have data on the move.
With most high-end smartphones being 3G/4G enabled and offering a portable WiFi hotspot feature, or mobile tethering, allowing users to connect their Wifi enabled devices to use the phone’s data to connect to the internet. MiFi (Mobile WiFi) as this called, provides consumers with an alternative to requiring a 3G enabled device. This saves the user the hassle of requiring another long term contract with a carrier and also requires just one data plan subscription to run multiple devices.
With data speeds on the rise with the introduction of 4G LTE networks and with costs hopefully hitting a downward trend at some point in the future, this recommendation might change. But, for now, WiFi only tablets is the more logical choice. Unless carriers minimize the cost of adoption and change the contract to one year, it's likely that this scenario is likely to continue. What say you? 3G/4G tablet with 2 year contract for $499 and a monthly fee? How does that sound?