Personal hotspot, a feature available on iPhones since the Verizon iPhone 4 launch early last year, enables smartphone users to share their cellular data connection with other devices, such as tablets and laptops. While useful, the feature, which usually carries an additional fee, has thus far been limited on iOS devices to traditional cellular data speeds, which are much slower than most home and office broadband connections. The introduction of the 4G LTE-capable iPad, however, may dramatically change the personal hotspot playing field and be the best value proposition for users seeking mobile broadband access.
In the United States, the two carriers offering 4G connections for the iPad are AT&T and Verizon. Unfortunately, only Verizon has thus far promised to support the personal hotspot feature at launch. While AT&T claims it is looking to introduce the feature “in the future,” it won’t be an option for Ma Bell customers initially.
While personal hotspot features from both carriers on the iPhone cost an additional $20 per month on top of the data plan, Verizon has confirmed that the iPad data plans include the hotspot feature at no additional charge.
Verizon’s monthly iPad data plans break down as follows:
The major benefit of the iPad data plans is that they are contract-free, unlike other hotspot options, such as the popular MiFi device, which are available at a subsidized cost only with multi-year contracts. Without a contract, the small devices cost $270 from the Verizon store. Extrapolating the cost out over two years, a contract-locked 5GB 4G MiFi plan from Verizon will cost about $1200.
The Verizon 4G MiFi.
With the iPad, there is a significant upfront cost of $629 (for the base 16GB 4G model), but after that point the 4G data is available to the user month-to-month without a contract; the data connection, faster than many home broadband connections, is able to be turned off, upgraded, or downgraded as the user sees fit.
Continuing the example from above, an iPad user who signs up for the 5GB plan continuously for two years would pay a total cost of about $1830, but they would also have a shiny new iPad instead of a MiFi that doesn’t offer any additional functionality on its own.
Realistically, however, most users would likely not need the 4G data every single month, and might opt to enable it only when traveling, saving hundreds of dollars over time. It’s this flexibility that makes the iPad such an intriguing mobile hotspot option. Sure, a user can go month-to-month with a MiFi but during those months when the data connection is inactive, the MiFi merely sits in a drawer while the iPad offers a useful computing experience.
The MiFi does have some advantages, however. For price-constrained consumers it remains the absolute cheapest option for getting a dedicated hotspot. It’s also vastly smaller and lighter than an iPad, allowing it to be slipped into a pocket or bag. If you’re truly only looking to provide internet access to another device, such as a laptop, it may be the best option.
But for an extra few hundred dollars the iPad offers all the benefits of a 4G hotspot and so much more. It remains to be seen if AT&T’s inability to offer the personal hotspot at launch will significantly affect sales between the two carriers. We only hope that AT&T offers the functionality soon and follows Verizon’s lead of eschewing an extra charge on top of the data plans.