As I write this, my computer's Wi-Fi antenna mopes among the pay-per-hour networks inside La Guardia Airport, wondering why it costs $8 to access the Internet for the short period before my flight. While it wanders, I fume.
It was over 10 years ago that Apple introduced the iMac: the always-networked "Internet" PC with power that lay in its constant broadband connection. In the decade since, the Web has achieved ultimate primacy in most parts of our daily lives. And yet, few of us can wander outside our front yards with a laptop and still have access to the Internet.
Smartphones have become the stop-gap. But perhaps our phones wouldn't need to be so smart if our notebooks and netbooks weren't so dumb.
As it stands, the three major wireless providers all provide mobile broadband plans for highway robbery rates. With a similarity that approaches conspiratorial, Sprint, Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T all offer USB dongles with 3G access for $60 a month, all with puny 5GB caps and hefty overage charges for every megabyte you run over.
Verizon is nice enough to offer a two-tiered plan with a more economical $40-a-month, and it's glib enough to cap that plan at just 50MB. Fifty megabytes is 1/100th of the $60 plan, for 2/3 the price. Imagine if other commodities worked this way; you could walk into a supermarket and either get a 6-pack of soda for $6, or less than a shot-glass of soda for $4. What kind of a price structure is that? AT&T just announced at CTIA that it'll offer a $40-a-month plan with a 200MB cap, which is better, but barely approaches reasonable.
Some of these plans do, however, give you unlimited access to Wi-Fi hotspots; the two best are AT&T and T-Mobile, with hotspots that are ubiquitous in cities because of their deals with Starbucks and McDonald's. Indeed, if I had an AT&T mobile broadband account, I could log into La Guardia's Boingo hotspot for free and surf away. But I don't want to pay $720 a year for mobile Internet on top of the $480 a year I pay for broadband at home. So here at La Guardia, I'll be out of luck. Just like I am in most places in New York, Chicago, L.A. and Boston. (Many promises of free city-wide Wi-Fi have been made across the country, but few have been fulfilled because of consistent funding problems.)
There's some hope in subsidized netbooks. HP, Lenovo, Acer, and Dell have made bundle deals to sell their netbooks with built-in 3G cards at a reduced price with subscription plans from RadioShack, Verizon or AT&T, that is piloting in Atlanta and Philly—but the plans are the same $60, low-data offerings we have now. Running at 1.3-1.6GHz, and using low-power, low-performance chips like Intel's Atom, these netbooks are only a degree better than smartphones in many respects. Sure, they have keyboards, but forget watching a DVD or running more than a few applications at once. Is that worth $350-$600 up front? I don't think so. More advanced netbooks are on the way; if you're willing to pay about $850 up front with your new AT&T plan, you'll soon be able to score a Lenovo X200, that boasts up to a 2.4GHz Core 2 Duo chip and 4GB of RAM.
Luckily, mobile data use is rising quickly around the world, and 4G networks like LTE and WiMAX will achieve speeds that will begin to rival landline broadband, not just supplement it. When our domestic carriers roll out their next-gen networks in 2011, home ISPs may have installed those unpopular bandwidth caps they've been considering, driving high-end customers to adopt mobile 4G as their full-time Internet solution. As promising as that might sound, WiMAX networks (which have already been rolled out in Baltimore and Seattle by Sprint) are slower and more expensive to deploy than telecoms originally thought. And according to Verizon, that released its new LTE network specs on Friday, the first LTE devices won't have any 3G technology in them, so when you go out of range of the 4G network, you're stuck without service. (Below, a rough outline of Verizon and Sprint's technology roadmap.)
Those gripes aside, 2011 should also bring cheap, powerful chips chips like ARM's Cortex and Intel's next-gen Atom processor, dubbed "Moorestown," running in excess of 3GHz. Slap those processors in netbooks with half-terabyte solid-state hard drives, power-sipping LED-backlit displays, and silver-based batteries that get 10-15 hours on a charge, and the telecoms might have a better offer on their hands. Is that worth $60 a month, with a few hundred bucks up front for the device? Sure. Until then, I'll leave my Wi-Fi card wandering.