Wouldn’t it be great to just turn on your tablet and have the device instantly connect to a network wherever you are?
You can do that today but generally you’ll either find it doesn’t work well (the data speed degrades), is very expensive (roaming data charges would give even Bill Gates pause), or the process to get it to work is incredibly annoying.
I tried to do this in Belize on my last trip and after several hours of phone calls to get my data turned on I found I had bandwidth that made my old modem look good. The goal? To stream TiVo shows, although the resulting speed made even sending or viewing small pictures painful. Of course, the video just crashed.
A Global Plan
Interestingly, the only thing that even comes close to this today is the Kindle Paperwhite 3G. Amazon used Qualcomm’s radio and cut deals with most of the global providers so you can use your Kindle Paperwhite pretty much seamlessly wherever you go. However, this is primarily because the Paperwhite isn't used for web browsing very much or steaming at all, so data consumption is minimal.
Mobile companies in the US are now competing on price more aggressively and there is a big effort in Europe (apparently driven by Lucent) to make getting around nearly as easy as the US. T-Mobile stands out as the most aggressive with affordable global coverage but there really isn’t a global plan for tablets and laptops yet. The best bet was once T-Mobile but given they are trying to sell their US business to Sprint I now have doubts they’ll get it done.
Wireless frequencies and technologies are becoming more standardized over time but this process has been incredibly show. This requires a tablet with a very advanced radio to cover all of the differences and connect at full speed. Most radios that are put into tablets degrade badly when taken out of their current geographies. Two exceptions are the Nexus 7 and Dell tablet line which use the Sierra Wireless MC8805 module based on Qualcomm Gobi (3G for Dell, 4G for the Nexus). This allows for a broad collaboration between the OEM and the carrier to provide optimized coverage for the device like this one between Dell and Telefonica. This is a pay-as-you-go plan that covers most of Europe.
A similar collaboration was executed with the Nexus 7 and AT&T in the US called DataConnect providing very affordable coverage to a targeted product. But both were predicated on a product that could move between technologies because a tablet that drops from 3G to 2.5G even if the roaming charges are mitigated, is still a painful product to use.
Wrapping Up: Slow Progress
We are making progress towards a truly global tablet and data plan. The carriers, the OEMs, and Qualcomm recognize that if the radios can’t be used folks won’t order them and ultimately migrate to the carriers and products that allow them to remain connected. Connectivity and affordable data plans that cross boarders are becoming huge differentiators for both OEMs and carriers.
I expect that over the next 5 years we will slowly move to a model where a tablet, phone, or PC that can connect to all networks will connect at full speed and the resulting data cost will be affordable. It is just unfortunate we aren’t quite there yet.