A recent WSJ article (may require registration) brings more attention to a lesser-known capability of cellphones: connecting your phone to a computer as a USB modem to gain access to the Internet, a.k.a. tethering. This feature was critical to me in a fairly common setting in the consulting life: having spotty or no Internet access on the road or at the client’s office. And I’m arguing now that wireless carriers should include this value-add service in all of their wireless data plans for free, not to charge a monthly fee for it separately.
A natural question of course is “Why should wireless carriers want to give this away for free if it’s so important?” I would pose that it gives two big benefits to the carriers:
- Improved sales of higher-margin smartphones and use of data plans.
- A new software-based monetization opportunity.
By continuing to push so-called “unlimited” plans for cellphones, I think the carrier that makes their marketing more compelling by formally including tethering as a capability would improve their sales and retention rates. At the same time, the carrier would have an opportunity to either sell configuration software to ease support of the tethering function, or else use the configuration software as an avenue for advertising, cobranding, or bundleware opportunities.
To give some context, I used to work at a client’s offices where I had to share a single desktop computer and Internet connection with multiple people throughout the day because it was a very locked-down environment. Since I couldn’t use my own laptop to get things done, I found that I couldn’t keep up with either client project deliverables or extracurricular work that I’d be doing as well all while sharing a single computer. That’s when tethering came to the rescue. After buying myself a smartphone and fussing with the configuration for a while (drivers, registry edits, and the like), I finally got connected! IM, e-mail, the Web, and online resources were available to me again after nearly 2 months straight of maddeningly working off of one computer. It felt like a breath of fresh air.
Recommendation: Carriers should legitimize a value-add service that they have a hard time controlling as a part of their data plans to improve their sales and image as well as opening a new incremental revenue stream for themselves.