Netbooks will be widespread by the end of the year, shaking up the PC market and changing our world in ways that will be more dramatic than you expect. You might not have foreseen one of the ways they’ll be distributed – sold and subsidized by the cell phone carriers.

verizonmodem Many notebook computer users are familiar with the concept of a separate “mobile broadband” device built into the notebook, or plugged into a USB port, that gives the computer an Internet connection anywhere within a cell phone carrier’s network. Dell has been selling Verizon and Sprint internal modems with its Latitude notebooks for years. The same thing can be done for any computer with a little $49 USB stick like the one at right.

The connection requires a data plan, a separate monthly fee to Verizon or AT&T or Sprint that allows the device to use the cell phone network for Internet traffic.

Even more of you are familiar with the idea of a data plan for your new Blackberry or iPhone or Windows Mobile phone. For the extra fee, on top of the fee for voice calls, the phone can send and receive email and browse the Internet.

The cell phone carriers love monthly data plans.

You’ve probably realized that the cell phone carriers are subsidizing your purchase of a phone when you sign up for a 1 or 2 year contract. When you replace your phone with a different model, you always wind up signing up for another 2 years to get a discount on the phone, right? AT&T sells the iPhone at a fraction of what it would cost if it could be bought without a contract – it’s subsidizing your phone and paying the difference to Apple.

The same thing is going to happen with netbooks. The cell phone carriers will sell them to you for $50 or $100, with a built-in mobile broadband device, if you also sign up for a data plan. And let’s face it, that’s a great selling point! Using 802.11 wireless is a pain. A netbook will be a lot more appealing if you can pop it open anywhere and always have a fast Internet connection. Of course you want that!

And how do we know that’s going to happen? Because it’s already happening. Verizon will have netbooks in its stores within a month. AT&T is test marketing netbooks in two cities. Pricing and plans will jump around for a while but it seems obvious to me that this will spread inexorably until it is one of the most obvious ways to get a netbook.

Netbooks are not going to replace desktop computers or notebooks or PDAs, but our blend of devices is going to be changing fast!

Share This