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MWC: Is cellular always necessary?

Thu, 02/17/2011 - 7:25am
Monica Alleven, Wireless Week

BARCELONA – Is cellular the right connectivity for consumer electronic devices? According to a panel at Mobile World Congress (MWC) today, the answer is "yes." But the answer wasn't a resounding one – the needle, according to a graphic represented on a big screen based on attendees' feedback, was a little too close to the "no" column to leave some room for opposing opinions.

The panelists, who represented AT&T, Best Buy, Sony, Synchronoss and TomTom, took on a range of topics as part of their discussion on embedded devices and the role of mobile connectivity in consumer electronics.

Wi-Fi is cheap and pretty widely deployed, while adding a wide area cellular service plan costs more. But to hear Glenn Lurie, AT&T's head of embedded devices, tell it, consumers do need both Wi-Fi and wide area cellular connection options. The bottom line, he said, is "we're going to use all networks. Wi-Fi is essential." Referring to "unconscious connectivity," he said Wi-Fi inside homes or Starbucks is a beautiful thing, but customers also want that anytime, anywhere connection. "We see it working in unison."

Scott Moore, vice president of marketing for Best Buy Mobile, seconded that, adding that there's a sense of relief when the airplane lands and he's able to get cellular coverage, then check in at a hotel and get Wi-Fi. He acknowledged after the panel, however, that when it comes to Wi-Fi-only devices or devices that offer both Wi-Fi and 3G, it boils down to an individual's own economics. If you have the money to spend, you'll go for the gold and get the device with both. If you're in a tight economic situation, you'll probably opt for a Wi-Fi-only device.

Given all the additional devices and services that carriers are offering – tablets, smartphones, e-readers and other connected objects – the question inevitably comes up as to whether carriers will offer one bucket plan to cover a customer's myriad accounts. Lurie said that eventually could happen, but he wasn't announcing anything, nor did he paint it as an easy situation to solve. When it comes to embedding wireless in things, a lot of AT&T's partners and deals are done on a wholesale basis, and it's selling bits and bytes to those partners, which then sell through to the end user. Every megabyte is not the same, he said.

Take the case of a tracking device for a dog or child. Consumers might pay for peace of mind to know their pet or child is safe, but charging mechanisms and network usage vary based on what's happening. If the dog never strays, there's no need to send a message to the owner alerting him or her of the situation. If the dog does get lost, they need to tap the network to send a bit of information.

That's not to say AT&T isn't thinking out of the box when it comes to embedded devices and how it's charging for services. The reason the carrier has been able to add more than 11 million consumer devices in the past two years is tied to the fact that it changed how it went about doing business. His advice for other carriers in the audience: Think different and "forget all the wireless baggage you have from the last 20 years."

Lurie also stayed true to AT&T's message when it comes to cloud computing, which came up during AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson's keynote earlier in the week. People get "wiggy" about whose cloud the information sits on, Lurie said, but the point is, customers need to access their cloud-stored content no matter where they are or which device they're using – smartphone, tablet, TV. In his opinion, Apple has done the best job of this so far, but ultimately, Lurie said it comes down to not worrying about how you get your content – it should be there and easy to access.

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