It's Time For One Data Plan to Rule All Our GadgetsS

If you buy a 3G iPad, you'll be able to purchase data, month by month, from AT&T. Neat! But you already pay for unlimited data access on your iPhone, also from AT&T. So why not have one plan, for everything?

This isn't a rant about iPad data or AT&T, because if anything, the iPad's contract-free data plans represent progress, albeit in a very specific way. No, I'm talking about something bigger. You know how you pay for your home broadband, your smartphone data plan, and possibly your netbook or mobile broadband data plan? And how you may soon be shelling out for a tablet data plan? This is, in a word, dumb.

Imagine a model in which people buy total access to a wireless network, whether it be on a contract or month-by-month basis. Once you've paid for your "unlimited" data connection—a word which wireless providers are already comfortable throwing around in relation to single devices—you can connect all of your devices to it, be they smartphones, computers, tablets or really, whatever. It's data sold on a per-person basis, instead of a per-device basis.

It's easy to see how we, and the companies we buy our data access from, have ended up where we are today. Broadband is purchased from one company, and that covers most of your home devices. Wireless data was generally purchased for use in cellphones, and until recently, cost quite a bit and transferred painfully slowly. 3G data access for non-phone devices is still fairly rare. Our current separation, I guess, was natural. But it's starting to feel silly, and within a few years, it'll seem downright preposterous.

Imagine having 4-5 different 3g capable devices, and then paying 30 dollars for access on each? This is a subset, actually, of the subscription war, but speaking specifically to our pipes as a utility, not content and all that other stuff.

Take Sprint's 4G wireless network. To access it, you can buy a mobile dongle, which lets you access it from outside your house, from any device that accepts USB network accessories. Or, now, you can buy the Overdrive hub, which behaves like a wireless router, and connecting whatever devices you have with you via Wi-Fi, whether you're in your house or not. It's not a perfect vision of how things could work—it doesn't account for phones, and coverage is limited—but it's a step. 4G phones are coming—Sprint will probably have at least one this year—and many of those will behave like Wi-Fi access points, too.

Consider this: Wireless and home broadband networks will one day be one and the same. When that day comes, will it make sense to pay multiple subscription fees, just because you have multiple gadgets? I get it, wireless providers want to know what data is going to what device. In a time when wireless data is expensive, and network buildout costs ridiculous money, it's understandable. But this happened before with land-based ISPs, who actively tried to stop their user from installing routers, and they had to get over it—completely. How soon before wireless companies take the same road? An all-in-one wireless plan offered to millions of people isn't feasible now, and it probably won't be for a while. But shouldn't it be a goal?

Yes it should. Some companies, like Verizon, are talking about moving to metered usage, for reasons of cost. I'm going to say it's better to charge a lot—but at a flat rate with discounts for multiple devices—rather than penny pinch us to death across multiple subscriptions. Issuing different bills for every device that's connected to a wireless network only obfuscates the core truth: We're consuming the same resources, costing wireless companies the same amount, and downloading the same bits whether we're using an iPad or a cellphone. Maybe we're consuming more now, but that's fine: We'll pay more.

So, wireless companies: Please find a way to sell us wireless data access, flat out, someday. It can be on contract, or month by month, or metered. Hell, it can even be expensive—to switch to the right system, wireless companies would have to sacrifice all the income they would have made from redundant data subscriptions, some of which they'll have to make up in the cost of the mega plan. Whatever. That's fine. Just sell us our data access—let us decide how we want to take it.