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?

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Wait! It gets worse

Meanwhile, additional demands are coming from elsewhere. For starters, the iPhone world isn't exactly standing still. The number of iPhone users keeps growing. And the data usage per user is also growing.

Apple may soon make life for AT&T even more challenging. We learned, for example, that Apple may be prepping a next-generation iPhone with a second, front-facing camera for video conferencing or video chat, which involves uploading streaming video from one phone and downloading it to a second phone. With AT&T's unlimited iPhone data plan, many users may just make a video connection and keep it running like a Webcam.

There is also speculation about a future front-facing camera for the iPad.

These front-facing cameras may be restricted to Wi-Fi network usage only. Still, I'm sure AT&T's most important handset partner really wants to see this feature working smoothly via mobile broadband.

Meanwhile, AT&T's already taxed networks have not yet suffered from the coming demand from Android phone users. However, the company announced in January that it would roll out five Android handsets in the first half of this year. What we've learned in the past few months is that Android data usage is growing even faster than iPhone demand.

Of course, even AT&T has admitted that the iPhone (and presumably iPad) monopoly won't last for ever. But even if additional iPhone carriers were announced tomorrow, the fact is that the overwhelming majority of users are already on AT&T. Their increasing usage and additional and future devices will still hammer away at AT&T's network.

Don't let anyone tell you they know what's going to happen with either iPad Wi-Fi + 3G sales or data usage. It's a new world, and nobody can be certain about what kind of burden this new platform will place on AT&T's mobile broadband data network.

What we do know is that AT&T isn't ready for the tethering it promised.

And when you combine tethering with iPad Wi-Fi + 3G unlimited plans, growing iPhone data usage, a new line of bandwidth-hogging Android devices and next-generation streaming video-conferencing, it's hard to see how all that together will be manageable for a carrier that can't handle tethering all by itself.

Mike Elgan writes about technology and global tech culture. Contact Mike at mike.elgan@elgan.com, follow him on Twitter or his blog, The Raw Feed.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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