When the AT&T + T-Mobile deal fell apart just over a year ago, I wrote that T-Mobile’s best hope was go switch its focus to data. The carrier hasn’t followed my advice (that’s not a surprise 🙂 ), but is going to take some steps that are helpful in unbundling its plans so if you own your phone outright you can get a lower rate.
But although this is a useful step in its own, I have to doubt whether it’s going to draw in a lot of new people to a network that they may perceive as inferior. I predict it won’t change the market position of T-Mobile in a meaningful way.
The future for T-Mobile is still data, not voice. But more importantly, the future is where a single subscriber has lots of devices using data, all sharing a common pool of data access.
Because the future is full of new devices; it is natural for any device that is mobile to have its own mobile data access. Ignoring the cost issue, people would always prefer to have their tablets have built in mobile data access. Smartphones, of course, have data access. Many people have mobile wifi hotspots for their laptops. In the future, cars will have mobile data access as well. Multiply that by 2 or 3 family members, and you have a lot of mobile devices.
And those are just the obvious cases. But there’s a whole world of use cases that are ruled out because of the steep per-month fee for bringing a device onto the network. Use cases where the amount of data needed is minimal (so minimal that SMS is a viable alternative at times), but the value is still high. Maybe it’s a soil moisture sensor at the far end of the garden (that can’t see my indoors wifi network). Maybe it’s a GPS tracker for the cat (fluffy, where are you?) or more likely the teenager’s car (the cat being generally more responsible)? How about a garage door opener remote that runs from my smartphone? A remote car starter for very hot or cold days? The list is undoubtedly endless.
And T-Mobile can help grow the size of that list of applications by actively supporting the “maker” community. Create a developer program. Provide components that can be bundled into things. Partner with Sparkfun and other electronics firms so that when they sell a cell-phone modem it comes with a starter pack. Provides a Raspberry Pi add-on that provides mobile data access. Promote your own brand of hardware if necessary. Sell complete kits. Do whatever you can to support, encourage, and nurture a developer community.
Unfortunately, if T-Mobile wants to do this, the most important thing it needs to do is to change the way it charges for data. In current plans, there is a substantial cost to bringing new devices into a data plan. Drop the price so the incremental cost of adding a device to a plan is trivial. T-Mobile needs to stop fighting the future and embrace it.
The biggest thing, though, that T-Mobile can do to have the maker community coalesce around its service is to structure its rates so that putting a device onto your data plan is frictionless. And by frictionless, I mean very low cost. We all know that it costs some money to create a SIM and to track it in the network. We understand that an active mobile data device consumes some fixed amount of resources even when idle just to maintain its connections. But we also know that cost isn’t $50 a month. Drop the price. Now.
If T-Mobile changes the price to be welcoming, that could be sufficient. But if it actively engages with the development community to support the process, and if it offers starter kits and development tools and easy to use hardware, and if it is seen as promoting a new era in mobile applications, T-Mobile will gain a significant competitive edge over its larger rivals. By the time they notice and try to react, T-Mobile will own the first-mover advantage.
There’s been over a million Raspberry Pis sold, at least half that many Arduinos, and probably another 500K of other similar devices in wide use at this time. That’s a lot of developer potential T-Mobile could mobilize!