CTIA: AT&T First to Stake Claim on Netbooks

Standing at the intersection of computing and telecom, AT&T Inc. has borrowed a page from its European counterparts with the expansion of its subsidized netbook strategy. The move solidifies its status as the first and so far only U.S. carrier to commercially embrace the sub-laptop market.

The carrier said at CTIA that it’s running a limited trial in Atlanta and Philadelphia, where a handful of company-owned AT&T stores will offer a variety of “mini-laptops” for as low as $49.99 when bundled with a two-year cellular data plan.

AT&T signed on to the netbook craze last fall with a deal for a $99 Acer Aspire One, bundled with a $60 per month DataConnect 3G and AT&T Wi-Fi service plan, available through Radio Shack. The question that lingers is whether people will want to be locked into a 3G data plan for a device that’s lightweight, optimized for Web applications and basic productivity like Microsoft Office, but which doesn’t have the horsepower for intensive native apps. Especially when ad hoc Wi-Fi coverage in frequented road warrior haunts like hotels and airports is generally sufficient for Internet connectivity. In the Radio Shack example, the whole enchilada ends up costing a user around $1,500.

The new trial might go toward answering that business case question, as it is offering the AT&T “Internet at Home and On the Go” plan. The interesting thing is that starting at $59.95, the data subscription includes not just the AT&T 3G DataConnect plan and unlimited AT&T Wi-Fi hotspot access, but also home broadband in the form of AT&T Fast Access DSL.

That could be a broadband proposition that might make the subscription fees more palatable considering at-home broadband runs about that anyway. And, the take-it-with-you concept invigorates AT&T’s residential DSL product as it continues to fight cable modem inroads. Cablecos are rolling out regional Wi-Fi to extend the value of in-home broadband; AT&T can now give its fixed broadband users nationwide cellular and Wi-Fi access.

“Broadband is not just about speed anymore — it’s about mobility,” said David Christopher, CMO for AT&T Mobility and Consumer Markets.

The trial also adds the Dell Inspiron Mini 9 and Mini 12, and LG Xenia to the device stable along with the Acer Aspire One. They go for $449.99 to $599.99 on their own but AT&T’s subsidized pricing ranges from $49.99 to $249.99 with the purchase of the data plan.

Further exploring the embedded 3G business model, the trial will also feature a subsidized laptop with built-in 3G capabilities: the Lenovo X200, available for $749.99 with Internet at Home and On the Go.

Users can also opt to sign on only for a two-year AT&T DataConnect plan (either 200MB plan for $40 per month or a 5GB plan for $60 per month), to receive discounted netbook pricing between $99.99 to $349.99. The laptop meanwhile is available for $849.99 with a two-year DataConnect plan only.

A preloaded AT&T Communication Manager will connect to the 3G macro network and prompt customers to connect to AT&T hot spots when available. It also stores information for previously used Wi-Fi networks and is capable of displaying usage notifications.

AT&T is offering similar mini laptop promotional rates with the purchase of AT&T DataConnect plans in eight AT&T retail locations in the Philadelphia area.

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