Let the netbook wars begin

AT&T is going to in its phone stores. The mini laptops will be sharply discounted if you also buy a phone or data plan from the company. Rumors have been swirling for months of netbooks with 3G cellular modems built in, and for a lot of people, esepcially frequent travelers, the small light devices are just right.

Connectivity via the cellular network is also appealing, as the long hyped vision of massive WiFi clouds everywhere and universal net access via WiFi has never materialized. Airports are particularly aggravating, with a range of options--at one end, you have the excellent free WiFi in the Roanoke airport to places like Atlanta where you have a choice of several overpriced commercial WiFi services that offer poor service. And hotels are another trouble spot for travelers, with budget hotels offering free but often slow service and high-priced hotels charging extra for service that is often worse than the their competitor's free service. I'm still trying to figure that one out.

But it all adds up to using the cellular phone network for Internet access. The iPhone has spiked a huge increase in mobile access because of the excellent design and great software, and one of the nicest things about the iPhone, compared to a laptop, is that it works almost everywhere because of the cellular data connection.

But as more and more users migrate to the cellular data services, the cellular networks will overload quickly. AT&T's heavily advertised 3G network is nearly useless, and I don't even bother to turn it on, because I usually get dropped calls and slower data speeds than the slower but more reliable Edge service. Wireless remains an expensive business, with steep operating costs. But we all want mobility access to the network. Communities planning broadband infrastructure have to be thoughtful about wireless investments, because it's possible to spend a lot of money on wireless broadband and not have very much when you are finished.