Tuesday, 6 March 2012

Has tethering replaced the dongle?

According to Kantar Worldpanel, more than half of UK mobile phone owners now have a a smartphone, rather than a traditional 'feature phone'.

That popularity has meant a huge leap in the amount of time we spend online on the go.

In October 2011, for example, Three revealed that over the precceding 14 months the amount of 3G data their users had chomped through had increased by 427% for smartphone customers.

And, according to research commissioned by Vodafone, mobile data use will continue to increase significantly over the coming years: by an average of 84% a year from 2012 to 2015.

The way consumers access 3G are far from perfect, however. Most smartphone interfaces remain far too fiddly for doing much more than checking Google maps or checking emails.

Getting online on the go using a laptop or netbook is still a necessity for many and for that you need a USB external mobile broadband modem.

Or do you?

Tethering turns a smartphone into a modem: is it killing usb dongles just as, for example, high-end smartphones with 5 megapixel cameras are killing cheap digital cameras?

In 2008, the UK and the rest of Europe seemed to be really latching on to the idea of accessing mobile broadband through a portable modem.

Sales of dongles started to boom and that year the DongleTrack poll by YouGov found that one in five consumers were planning to buy a USB stick to get online.

By February 2011, however, interest had dipped significantly: in the same survey that year just 7% said they expected to purchase a dongle in the future.

It would be disingenuous to suggest that smartphone tethering alone has led to the decline in dongles' popularity.

In the same period, for example, 3G-enabled tablets have become significantly more popular - offering the usability of a computer and remaining portable - and dongle pricing has remained stubbornly uncompetitive, barely falling over the past few years.

Nevertheless, it's not insignificant: if you're able to tether your smartphone and achieve similar speeds to using a dongle, why pay for both?

Especially if your mobile networks makes tethering easier.

Mobile broadband data plans suffered a setback a couple of years ago when the majority of network operators stopped offering unlimited data plans.

Most moved to fairly small caps and those that continued to tell the public that they were "unlimited" simply capped using a fair usage policy instead.

The providers also very quickly caught on to tethering and blocked it in many cases in order to curb the amount of data their customers were using.

Now, though, some UK providers are even encouraging tethering by unblocking the service and/or offering truly unlimited data within their plans or for an extra charge.

For example, at the time of writing, Three mobile contract customers can upgrade to completely unlimited mobile data for just £3 a month, far cheaper than taking out another contract for mobile broadband.

"All-you-can-eat data means that they [mobile users] don't have to worry, they can have that peace of mind for the long term on a contract of their choice" said Three's marketing director, Thomas Malleschitz.

O2 have also released a raft of mobile phone deals in the past year which will allow customers to tether phones to computers.

Despite including tethering in all of its tariffs, however, O2 don't offer unlimited broadband and their biggest allowance is just 1GB, not very useful for those on a laptop.

T-Mobile offers unlimited mobile broadband contracts but every tariff has a 500MB limit on streaming, downloading and uploading.

Crucially, though, users can tether the phone to turn it into a modem if they wish.

The dongle lives... for now

All in all, tethering remains a luxury: not all smartphones allow users to turn their devices into a wi-fi hotspot and, of those that do, many are only offering small amounts of data incompatible with serious online use.

For now mobile broadband dongles are still a feasible option for many consumers but within the near future we will more than likely be using our smartphones for all mobile internet connections.

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