Why Wi-Fi-only won't cut it any more

3G SIMs are moving beyond just phones – are multi-SIM contracts on the way?

Phones were once the only place you’d want to put a SIM card, but that’s a concept that’s rapidly changing. Tablets, laptops, even cars – there’s plenty of non-phone devices which benefit from a mobile data connection. But the networks haven’t caught up yet.

Consider the new Samsung Galaxy Note 8.0. This 8-inch tablet comes with full phone capabilities, a fact which has drawn a measure of derision from the technology community. Who, after all, wants to be seen making a call on the 5.5-inch Galaxy Note 2, much less this, its hulking big brother? But the Note 8.0 has a SIM slot, so not putting phone capabilities in would be really missing a trick (and hey, just use a hands-free kit, put the Note 8.0 in your bag and nobody will ever know you’re yapping away on a tablet).

The Note 8.0 is just part of a trend in which the idea of the Wi-Fi only tablet is becoming obsolete. The process might be slow – after all it started about three years ago when Apple launched the first iPad – but it’s happening, and before too long the concept of a tablet without 3G could seem silly: Wi-Fi only just won’t cut it any more.

And it doesn’t end with tablets. There are “MiFi” personal hotspots. USB dongles for laptops. Audi has already fitted a 3G SIM slot into its A5 and A8 models, allowing drivers to hook the satnav into Google Earth for hi-res images, as well as turn the car into a mobile Wi-Fi hotspot, and it’s predicted that by 2025 embedded SIMs could be the standard on all new cars, with automobile makers gee’d on through government mandates and an ever-increasing public reliance on cloud services. Apps are already filtering into cars, with Ford’s SYNC AppLink service, currently rolling out in selected European models, enabling you to listen to Spotify playlists or newspaper articles read out to you by Kaliki; these apps can only access the web via a smartphone, and also require one for installation – but embedding a 3G SIM in the car would remove this troublesome middleman stage.

So it’s clear that 3G (and probably 4G) SIMs are destined for a lot of devices that aren’t phones – and yet the current model of selling data doesn’t follow that trend – at least not here in the UK. All the major networks are keen on selling us individual SIMs, tied to individual tariffs. You have a 3G iPad and an iPhone 5? You need totally different accounts tied to totally different SIMs for each.

That works now, but in a year it’ll seem outdated. Shaun Collins of mobile industry analysts CCS Insight tells us the networks need to catch up: “Operators are finding it difficult to persuade users to buy additional data plans with each new connected device, especially tablets. In the UK, less than half of iPads that could have a cellular data connection actually have one.”

What Shaun expects to see are the networks offering “sharer tariffs”: deals that provide a set data limit but spread it over several SIMs or up to 10 devices. That’ll mean you’ll have a single account covering the SIM in your phone, the SIM in your tablet, the SIM in your car, the SIM inside your head (we’re joking about that last one... probably). These tariffs are already available in the US through Verizon and AT&T. Shaun tells us he expects to see them come to Europe this summer.

In the meantime, it falls to manufacturers to solve this problem. The Asus PadFone 2, for instance, goes a long way by letting you embed the smartphone portion inside a tablet and therefore “share” a single SIM across two devices (it might be the perfect device if Asus had deigned to give it a keyboard too... but that’s another matter). Devices like this, sadly, are few and far between.

What do you think of SIMs going into devices that aren’t phones? Are you convinced by our assessment of the situation or are we barking up the wrong tree? Let us know on our Twitter page.

Main image credit: Catherine Kolodziej

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