Will Apple's iPad Wi-Fi + 3G crash AT&T?

If AT&T can't handle tethering, how will it cope with unlimited 3G data plans for the newest iPad?

Apple's iPad Wi-Fi + 3G is finally here. And now the trouble begins.

I believe that both the 3G-equipped iPad's sales and data usage will exceed expectations, meaning more people will be using more data than AT&T has planned for.

Worse, other network-taxing developments may conspire with iPad data gluttony to overwhelm AT&T's mobile broadband capability, resulting in slowdowns and possibly even crashes. (Full disclosure: My wife works for AT&T.)

AT&T is now spending to enhance its mobile broadband network, but its precise network bandwidth capabilities are not publically known. We also don't know exactly how iPad sales will go, or what usage models will evolve. But what we do know isn't reassuring.

The trouble with iPad

For an extra $130 over the iPad version that connects via Wi-Fi only, iPad Wi-Fi + 3G also connects from anywhere the AT&T cell phone data network is available.

That higher hardware price gives you only the technical ability to connect. Actually connecting will cost you a monthly fee. For about $15 per month, you can download up to 250MB during that month. For $30 per month, you can enjoy unlimited data. No contract is required, and you can start or stop the data plan whenever you like, with ctivation or deactivation done directly from the iPad.

If you choose the 250MB plan and bump up against the limit, your iPad Wi-Fi + 3G will ask if you want to buy another 250MB-chunk of data, or upgrade to the unlimited plan. Limited-plan users will be constantly invited to upgrade, and many will probably do so.

It's reasonable to expect that advanced users will need more data than newbies, based on what we know about how people use laptops and cell phones. But just because it's reasonable doesn't mean it's true.

The iPad is different. Because iPad is the ultimate media consumption device, less technical people will tend to use more data.

So while we geeks will surf the Web, do e-mail and play multi-player games, less technical users will watch TV and movies, look at pictures on Facebook and do other bandwidth-intensive tasks. And there will be a lot of non-technical users with iPad Wi-Fi + 3G.

I'm not sure anybody -- not Apple, not AT&T -- understands or appreciates this yet. A lot of older people, students and the general public will replace much of their media consumption (or all of it) with iPad usage. College students will replace their home or dorm Wi-Fi network and opt for full-time iPad mobile broadband as their main doorway to the Internet, TV and movies.

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