PlayBook shares data connection with handset: Operator reaction?

Cross-posted to my company blog

Mobile operators like devices that earn them additional revenue, particularly if they promote the need for a second data subscription. Netbooks good, iPads good…but what about the new RIM PlayBook?

Of all the analysis and iPad comparison that’s followed this week’s announcement of the PlayBook, the lack of 3G connectivity has attracted surprisingly little attention. Consumers can of course utilize WiFi but, more interestingly, they will be able to pair their PlayBook with a BlackBerry handset and share the data connection (not only to sync with the Enterprise Server but also to access the Internet). It’s a model that Samsung has also touted for its forthcoming Galaxy Tab.

For the consumer this is a positive move. Why should they be forced to commit to a second data plan for a complimentary device (such as required by the Apple iPad)? Why shouldn’t they be able to share the data allowance they’ve paid for?

Sound familiar? That’s because mobile operators openly dislike ‘tethering’ (using your smartphone as a remote modem for another device). A number of operators have started to charge a premium for the right to tether, notably chasing down iPhone users and charging them an additional GBP£15 for the privilege. The argument from the operators is that the data pull from a PC / tablet is greater than that from a handset. They also assume that adding connectivity to a larger form-factor will move a user away from simple browsing to bandwidth hungry use cases such as torrenting or HD video.

Many still call this double dipping.

BlackBerry consumers are typically light on data usage, predominantly using data to read emails or access BBM, hence the low cost contracts available with a BlackBerry device. In fact you’d have to pool 25 BlackBerrys together to generate the same data burden as a single Android device. However, despite its enterprise positioning, the PlayBook will surely entice greater data consumption through multimedia content and applications. Will operators be happy about their BlackBerry customers suddenly swerving additional tethering charges or not having to subscribe to a second data plan?

For those interested, we’ve already covered the arguments against tethering charges on this blog. Yes, a tethered connection is ‘hungrier’ based on a richer web experience. But this is irrelevant surely? A customer has already signed up to the unlimited data / fair use policy under their existing tariff so it shouldn’t matter how I use this data allowance. If I go over my limit quicker than usual because I’m using a tethered connection then that’s my fault and I’ll accept the punishment.

RIM has confirmed that they will release 3G and 4G models in the future. Without an incentive to support the first generation of PlayBook, I only hope that knee-jerk operator reactions, causing BlackBerry tariffs to rise, or locking down tethering, won’t damage the RIM brand or the PlayBook experience for important early adopters.

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