We’re still in the early days of 4G deployments and adoption, and while I’m loving LTE access on my HTC Thunderbolt, the real impact of next-gen mobile broadband won’t be felt for another year or two. When it does hit, we’re likely to see a lot of changes in how mobile devices and applications are developed, managed and priced. According to Tellabs (via GigaOM), carriers are about to lose their data cash cow, and will actually be in the red with mobile data delivery by 2013 if nothing changes. Of course “if nothing changes” is the key clause here. Things will change because no carrier is going to offer a service that can’t ultimately deliver a profit.
One of the more intriguing possibilities for future mobile pricing models is a move toward Amazon’s Whispernet model. The pricier Kindle Touch version is still bundled with free 3G mobile broadband services, but it’s now limited to Kindle store and Wikipedia access. I expect we’ll see a lot more of this – hardware providers bundling mobile broadband with devices, and even app providers bundling access with certain types of applications. There are many mobile activities that can wait for Wi-Fi, but instant gratification can be a powerful draw , and it’s a feature that many are willing to pay for.
For example, the vast majority of my mobile data usage comes from streaming Slacker or NPR. In the future, I could see Slacker bundling mobile data access with my monthly subscription to give me unlimited music streaming. I get that now, but only through a grandfathered unlimited data plan with Verizon, which I don’t expect to last forever. I wouldn’t want to pay an unlimited “tax” on every application, but if there are only one or two that threaten to put me over my monthly limit, I would seriously consider an application-specific broadband fee.
You can see how this would work for video and other services too. Netflix could bundle access with its video service. So could Amazon, either with its Kindle Fire, or with its video streaming service delivered on somebody else’s hardware. When Apple brings its iPhone 5 to market with 4G, it could bundle access to iTunes. Or it could bake mobile broadband access into its new Nano for fitness applications. The possibilities are limitless.
If delivered well, the Whispernet model is something people would pay for. And in a world of 4G speeds, it would make mobile broadband feel unlimited again, albeit in a limited way.