Will the cellular service business model work for laptop computers? AT&T seems to think so. The wireless provider is offering subsidized netbooks for as little as $49.99 in two markets, Atlanta and Philadelphia. The catch is that buyers must sign a two-year contract for an AT&T data service plan, which starts at about $60/month. As usual, the devil is in the details, and these low-cost netbooks, despite their tempting price, may not be a good buy for everyone.
AT&T says the offer is "promotional," which suggests it may boost hardware prices or even drop netbook sales altogether if experiment doesn't work out. And since it's launching the plan in just two markets, the company seems to be testing the waters here. The move makes sense, though; subsidized netbooks provide a low cost of entry for consumers, and they draw new users to the vendors' expanding high-speed networks.
What does $49.99 get you? An Acer Aspire One with an 8.9-inch display, 1GB of memory, and a 160GB hard drive. A quality netbook, certainly, but the catch is that you have to sign a two-year deal for AT&T's Internet at Home & On the Go service, which starts at $59.95 a month. My gripe with this plan is that its home service is DSL at a poky 768Kbps. Besides, if my netbook has built-it 3G mobile broadband, why should I bother with DSL at all?
The package also includes 3G wireless, but the monthly data limit is just 200MB -- fine for occasional remote access, but not enough for full-time use. Need more 3G? You can upgrade to a two-year DataConnect plan, which ups the monthly data cap to a healthy 5GB. Ah, but doing so doubles the Aspire One's price to $99.99. (Each plan also includes wireless access at AT&T's thousands of Wi-Fi hotspots.)
AT&T sells the Aspire One with no plan for $449.99, and it has similar subsidized plans for other netbooks. The Dell Mini 9, for instance, starts at $99.99. At the high end, a Lenovo Thinkpad X200 starts at $749.99.
The move to cellphone-style pricing for netbooks has been in the works for some time. Radio Shack already offers a $100 Aspire One with a two-year mobile broadband plan, and Verizon is reportedly working on similar deals.
So will your next computer come from your wireless provider?