Friday, July 20, 2012

American MIFI - priced for a limited and shrinking market

I priced US cellular 3G/LTE data access recently. I was looking for something like $10/GB with 12 month expiration, I could then spend something like $60 every 2-4 months.

I didn't find anything like this. Disregarding device cost, most vendors came in at $50/month for 2GB [1]. That included DataJack, T-Mobile and AT&T iPhone tethering.

Virgin Mobile (Sprint reseller subsidiary) seemed to be $35 a month, so it had a clear price advantage. 

The best data access was an iPad at $30/month (no contract), but I assume a good part of the LTE iPad's price premium is an up-front payment to the carriers. So this pricing is probably equivalent to the Virgin Mobile pricing. A March 2012 article  claimed Verizon allowed LTE iPad tethering, but that seems quite unlike them. I haven't found any discussions of this; I assume it's false.

More recently AT&T and Verizon have "coincidentally" created very similar shared data plans that are effective price increases for most customers -- their "peculiar" coordination makes it unlikely that either will compete on price (or anything).

The bottom line was a significant price advantage with the Virgin/Sprint MiFi, but after reviewing the market no solution appealed. My impressions are:

  • The MiFi market is going away. Carriers don't like them, and they're too geeky for most consumers. The US market is being driven to device-specific LTE access.
  • Tethering is going away. Carriers don't like it; even T-Mobile doesn't seem serious.
  • AT&T and Verizon have carved up a nice duopoly in the US. They may weather the end of SMS better than most of us would hope. Sooner or later, we're going to have to sign on to their shared data plans.
I'm putting my MiFi plans on hold for now. It will be interesting to watch how this market evolves, and what kind of tethering options will be available with the 8" iPad [2]. I'll be looking into the mifi market again in November.

[1] Of course they rarely price things so clearly; I just looked at what would provide me with 2GB over 30 days. This is contract-free pricing. There are often hidden fees  and caps tacked on to mobile charges; these corporations have mastered the profitable art of concealed pricing.

[2] The most anticipated product in recent Apple history. I suspect it will be $300 without a Retina display. 

Update: Virgin Mobile USA is a Sprint subsidiary, no relation to Virgin any more.

Update 7/22/12: I managed to overwrite this post with an older version. Oops. Here's roughly what I removed:

  • Enon tells me in comments that the Verizon 3G/LTE iPad provides hotspot service at no extra fee - at least under his contract. The current contract may be different, but this is worth looking into. This would be a significant advantage over the AT&T 3G/LTE iPad! The monthly data fee for an iPad is $30 (cheaper than Virgin Mobile), but I suspect the purchase price of an iPad includes a carrier payment. So the real cost is probably about $35/month and thus comparable to a mifi. Even so, this is/was probably the best hotspot deal on the US market.
  • Sprint iPhone has no tethering advantage, it requires a separate payment plan.
  • See also: Benedict Evans • iPhone pricing and US market share. Interesting examples of how subsidy agreements in different markets changes iOS value.

Update 7/22/12b: Things aren't quite as bleak as I'd though. Walmart and others are trying to spoil VerizATT's party.


Enon said...

A good friend has an iPad 3 with Verizon 3G/LTE that I tether my WiFi only iPad or my laptop to all the time.

The tethering is one of the reasons she went with Verizon. When the iPad 3 was released, AT&T's tethering plans were yet to be announced. Since then, AT&T has enabled tethering, but with an additional fee ($10/month, I believe).

Verizon's tethering is without additional fee and works just fine. The sequence we turn things on is important. I need to turn my iPad's WiFi on first, then the Wifi on her iPad, then the hotspot. Result: my iPad just connects. If I wait and turn my iPad's WiFi on last, we often have to toggle the hotspot on and off a few times before my iPad sees the ad hoc WiFi network.

Verizon is obviously having some trouble keeping up with demand for the LTE network. Occasionally LTE just drops out. At other times of heavy network traffic, such as a Friday evening, the LTE connection can get very slow and she will deliberately drop her connection back to 3G.

But for the most part, the Verizon service has been very functional for her. She's been shopping for a car, out and about doing research on the fly. Heavy data demand: images of cars, frequent blue book value checks, running AutoCheck on VINs, etc.

The tethering has become part of our banter. ("Time to turn your hotspot on!") All in all, our experience with our iPads has been delightful, as Mr. Jobs wanted.

John Gordon said...

Enon, I'll correct my post. Thank you.

Now the mystery: why couldn't I find this anywhere? I did look.

Sometimes the net feels oddly broken.