As 3G laptops become must-haves for enterprise, how will operators respond?

Gartner is predicting that laptops embedded with 3G are likely to become a must-have for the business world beginning next year because new technologies--namely those that incorporate various frequencies for better coverage--and better pricing plans are making them more attractive. Today, the high cost hardware and expensive monthly charges have so far kept the enterprise from investing in laptops embedded with 3G. But that is expected to change.

Does that mean operators will be pushed to lift the 5 GB per month cap they currently have in place on their "unlimited" laptop data packages? Both Verizon and AT&T have a 5 GB cap on unlimited usage while Sprint has no cap but is rumored to be instituting one shortly.

As attractive as the wireless data enterprise market is, 3G operators are in a bit of a conundrum when it comes to mobile Internet access as voice capacity--still the bread and butter of this business--is being sacrificed for high-speed data services. As such, it's difficult to offer a truly unlimited high-speed data plan. That's why Verizon and others have never positioned 3G as a replacement for DSL.

As the enterprise becomes more attracted to 3G-enabled laptops because of the reasons Gartner outlines, usage will surely skyrocket. You have to think that enterprise customers will use the service even when they aren't traveling.

In March, iPass released a new survey that measured 3G enterprise usage in 2007, giving insight into how the enterprise market is shaping up. It found monthly usage increased steadily throughout the year, growing from an average of 152 MB per user in the first quarter of 2007 to 190 MB in the fourth quarter. Of those more established users who had been on the service since January 2007, monthly usage averaged 188 MB in Q1 and 225 MB in Q4, indicating that usage seems to rise with experience.

At the extreme, a small number of users exceeded 2 GB of usage in a given month. These heavy users accounted for less than one half of one percent of all users in the sample and were offset by the 32 percent of business people who used an average less than 50 MB in a month. 

Of course, those statistics come from the encumbered environment Gartner mentioned. Clearly, operators have to be careful about the traffic mix in their networks, but they certainly don't want to alienate the valuable enterprise user either. It will be interesting to see how they tackle the issue going forward. Will femtocells in the enterprise and where business people travel to be the answer? Or will it be 4G?--Lynnette