Balancing Faster 4G Data & Tighter Caps

4:30 PM -- There seems to be a mild disconnect between the attitude of AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T)'s emerging devices head and the actions of the operator as a whole when it comes to the relationship between 3G, 4G and Wi-Fi .

"The Wi-Fi-only tablet is a half device," AT&T's head of emerging devices, Glenn Lurie, tells LR Mobile in an interview. "People thought they'd use [3G] every once in a while, but it's turned into all the time."

No doubt users do spend the extra $15 or more to get 3G access when they need it. Lurie's statement, however, doesn't seem to quite resonate with how AT&T itself is spending on Wi-Fi off-load or how data usage patterns increase with faster 3G or Long Term Evolution (LTE) on board.

Recall that Cisco Systems Inc. (Nasdaq: CSCO) found earlier this year that current tablets use five times as much data as smartphones on a network on average. For instance, streaming a movie in standard definition over Netflix Inc. (Nasdaq: NFLX) results in data usage of around 1GB an hour. If you want to view in HD, that number gets higher.

So, if you buy the AT&T iPad 2 with a $30 for 3GB a month data plan, you're looking at two, maybe three, full-length streamed films before you hit your cap. That's not even counting Internet radio usage, Web surfing and YouTube downloads.

You could go up to the $50 range for 5GB, but who wants to spend that much if you're still spending on cable and a cellphone plan? If you could buy a massive data bucket -- say more than 10GB for around $100 -- that all your devices could dip into for the month, then it might start to be worth cutting back on the cable spend to get more wireless, but you'd still have to watch your caps.

As we can see from Verizon Wireless 's claims about its LTE headroom this week, the usage patterns seem to rise as we move to faster wireless networks. Big Red said it will start to see capacity problems in some markets as early as 2013.

So, if -- as rumored -- the Apple Inc. (Nasdaq: AAPL) LTE iPad is launched tomorrow, we're still going to be left with a balancing act. Device makers will keep pushing the speed curve, while most carriers seem to want to keep the data caps locked up tight.

Sorry, Mr. Lurie, but it seems to me that Wi-Fi is still absolutely the first choice in connectivity for me and any other user that doesn't want to keep spending more on cellular data every month.

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Light Reading Mobile

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