As demand grows for high-speed web connections on the move, just what is the future of mobile broadband? Julia Kukiewicz, editor of Choose.net, examines if external broadband routers (otherwise known as Mi-fi) really do offer value for money to consumers.
Browsing last week I came across a piece written by Kevin Tofel for BusinessWeek on how Mi-fi is the future of mobile broadband.
Reader, I spat out my tea. Really. And I love tea.
Tofel is an exceptionally smart and tech-savvy guy and he has several good reasons for backing mobile broadband via Mi-fi over USB modems or 3G-enabled devices.
Unfortunately, his main reason is that it’s just good common sense and that really isn’t a good enough reason for anything’s success. Look at Jedward.
Now you see it
If you’ve never encountered it before, Mi-fi, also known as an external mobile broadband router, is a plastic gadget just bigger than a credit card that picks up a 3G signal and converts it to Wi-fi.
What’s cheaper: one Mi-fi router with one mobile broadband plan or several plans, one for every 3G-enabled device you have?
As Tofel points out: it’s the Mi-fi, stupid.
Now you don’t
The trouble is that although the saving may be obvious from a distance, I’ve pointed it out myself, Mi-fi’s potential to save money is a chimera.
Up close, in the rather less sensical and rather more messy business of actual life, it swiftly dissolves.
First, Tofel assumes, and it’s a big assumption, that consumers looking for broadband on the go are unencumbered by competing offers and allegiances
Most mobile phones, smartphones, tablets and netbooks and many laptops are already 3G enabled.
Many are supplied by mobile broadband operators and, if consumers aren’t already tied into data contracts with them, those operators are more than willing to give them a push.
Just last week, for example, 3 mobile broadband launched Facebook Zero in the UK, a free service for mobile devices only and why would you connect with Mi-fi when you use that data-free (even though, in reality, it’ll probably lead to more data use)?
Second, Tofel underestimates the psychological impact of having an extra device to set-up, lug about and, perhaps most importantly for retailers, understand enough to buy.
It’s not that this is a big problem or that Mi-fi can’t save money relatively simply, it can. But we’re unlikely to see it.
The savings you see vs. the savings you don’t
What I’ve just said is, in part, just a ramble about Mi-fi and its relative merits but it’s not just that.
Money-saving products whose ability to save consumers money disappears on closer inspection can be found elsewhere – badly thought-out reward credit cards are a notable example -and they almost always arise because companies don’t think about how their product will fit into a consumer’s life.
In this case, Mi-fi as mobile broadband’s future? Only if providers are prepared to go further to make sure consumers save. Selling the modem with devices might be a good start.
Marketers shouldn’t be fooled by these tricksy almost-savings; consumers rarely are.
This is a guest post from Choose. The site covers rights issues, research and debate into home broadband and more broadly home media and mobile markets.