Why do carriers treat tablets differently?

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The fine line between modern smartphones and tablets is increasingly difficult to discern. Smartphones continue to grow in size while tablets continue to offer very little additional functionality.

The average smartphone size is approaching 5-inches, but the market’s largest smartphones exceed even the 6-inch threshold; the Galaxy Mega 6.3 offers a 6.3-inch display and Sony’s enormous Xperia Z Ultra measures 6.4-inches, diagonally. Meanwhile, the lower threshold of small tablets is around 7-inches. Meaning only 0.6-diagonal inches separates the largest smartphone and smallest tablet in display size.

What if we compare physical size? There’s not a lot there either. During my review periods with the Z Ultra and Mega 6.3, I often stated how both devices were much closer in physical size to small tablets than what are commonly considered “large” smartphones, such as the Galaxy Note II, Note 3, or Optimus G Pro. The numbers seem to back that up. The Z Ultra measures 179.4mm tall, 92.2mm wide, 6.5mm thick and hits the scales at 212g. The Nexus 7 (2013) is 200mm tall, 114mm wide, 8.7mm thick, and 290g. The Nexus 7 is noticeably larger. But compared to a phone like the HTC One or Galaxy S 4, the Z Ultra is definitely and visibly closer in size to the Nexus tablet.

Internally, there aren’t many differences either.

z-ultra-review-21

From a short distance, the Z Ultra even looks like a small tablet.

The Z Ultra, for example, offers one of the most powerful chipsets to date, the Qualcomm Snapdragon 800 (Krait 400), 2GB RAM, 16GB of fixed storage, an 8-megapixel camera, and a 3,050mAh battery. The latest Nexus 7, for instance, offers the Snapdragon S4 Pro (with a Krait 300 CPU), 2GB RAM, 16 or 32GB storage, 5-megapixel camera, and a 3,950mAh battery. The displays share the same 1080p resolution and, likewise, similar densities – 344ppi on the Z Ultra and 232ppi on the Nexus 7.

Performance is similar and use cases are aren’t terribly different. In fact, during the Z Ultra review, more people requested a comparison with the Nexus 7 than any phone. (Sorry that didn’t happen! Our time was limited.)

In all, the only things truly separating these two devices are price and classification. Even the price is an exception, since the Nexus 7 is, well … a Nexus. Nexus devices are often sold near or at cost, while the Z Ultra is upwards of $750. (Other comparable tablets start around $500.) And classification. The Z Ultra is (somehow) a phone. The Nexus 7 is a tablet – it has no earpiece speaker, even in its LTE form, though other like-sized tablets do.

Most passersby on the street would recognize that in practically every category, maybe with the exception of design, these two devices are entirely comparable and possibly even interchangeable. Their similarities are undeniable, and both serve practically the same purpose.

note 3 back 2Even slightly more reasonable-sized smartphones fall into a similar category as the Z Ultra. Sitting down to lunch with some friends last Thursday, I sat the Galaxy Note 3, a 5.7-inch smartphone on the table. One said, “That’s practically an iPad mini.” Another said, “That’s not a phone. That’s a tablet.”

Have I made my point yet?

The problem is, wireless providers here in the States treat tablets with prejudice. Tablets are, by and large, treated as different devices in an entirely different category – as if they’re a nuisance or burden. Some wireless providers treat tablets as if they over encumber the networks and cause a strain that wouldn’t be there if subscribers used smartphones instead of tablets.

I say “carriers”, but I emphasize that this largely applies to T-Mobile.

Yes, AT&T and Verizon also treat tablets with a bias, especially on shared data plans. Monthly access for smartphones on Share Everything is $40. A smartphone on Mobile Share starts at $50 per month, and that number goes down with larger data packages. Tablet access on either Mobile Share or Share Everything is only $10 per month, however. This bias takes into consideration that you can neither send carrier SMS or place voice calls over the network (natively). This is, more or less, a good thing.

T-Mobile, however, doesn’t treat tablets so nicely. Currently, I have the most expensive individual Simple Choice Plan. It costs $70 per month and includes unlimited minutes, unlimited SMS/MMS, and unlimited data. No limits. No throttling. And up to 2.5GB of included tethering. It’s brilliant and the price more than makes up for the (sometimes) spotty coverage.

new-nexus-7-review-5When Google announced the new Nexus 7 and later said an LTE model would soon follow, I immediately planned on buying one. Thinking I could keep the current plan, I thought, “Oh! I’m buying this and throwing my T-Mobile SIM in it!”

Moments later, it hit me. I couldn’t do this. I couldn’t simply insert my T-Mobile SIM in the Nexus 7 and take advantage of the awesome plan and unlimited LTE. Many have tried and confirmed what we already knew would happen. Our own Joe Levi had the same idea. He even wanted to find out what it would take (and if it would be practical) to make his LTE Nexus 7 his only device – including voice telephony. He popped his T-Mobile SIM in his LTE Nexus 7 and was stopped by a prompt which said something to the effect of:

“This device must be registered.”

Why? Because the Nexus 7 is so drastically different from the Z Ultra and Galaxy Mega 6.3 I used on T-Mobile, that it requires an entirely different set of data plans. Of course, I can’t place calls or text with it – it doesn’t have that capability. And because of that, I can’t enjoy unlimited data either.

Instead, I have to choose from T-Mobile’s Mobile Broadband packages, which range from 500MB for $20 per month to 10.5GB for $70 each month.

To be fair, $70 for 10.5GB isn’t a bad deal. That’s $6.67 per gigabyte, far less than the accepted average of $10 per gigabyte. The same $70 will only net you 2GB on Verizon – $10 for the monthly access for the tablet and $60 for the 2GB package. That’s $35 per gigabyte. And it’s ludicrous. (Share Everything and Mobile Share are only beneficial to families or people who want or need multiple devices. For an individual, they are terrible offers.)

But it’s the principle we have a problem with. The true differences between smartphones and tablets are few and far between, yet they’re billed as different devices altogether.

The only reasoning that would begin to make sense is that maybe T-Mobile feels people are prone to consume more data on tablets, that the larger displays promote streaming movies and videos or downloading high-bandwidth content. While likely true, the number of people who might actually take advantage of (read: abuse) the unlimited data plans from a tablet also isn’t likely to be any more burdening than the number of people using smartphones to torrent, stream, or hog bandwidth.

In other words, someone who is going to take full advantage of unlimited data is going to do it one way or another, with or without a tablet. The vast majority, I imagine data would prove, wouldn’t actually use a substantial amount of their unlimited data – only a couple gigabytes, at best.

So why does T-Mobile – or any other wireless provider, for that matter – care if I stream Netflix or Google Play Movies from a smartphone, tablet, or computer? Beats me. That’s sort of like charging different prices for gasoline, based on what you’re putting it in – $3.20 per gallon for a car, $3.50 per gallon for an SUV or truck, and $3 per gallon for a scooter or motorcycle. (Of course, this analogy breaks if you include unlimited data, as you can’t buy an unlimited supply of gas. But the point stands.) It makes no logical sense.

So now, rather than fooling with tiered data for a Nexus 7 on T-Mobile, I’m just going to get a Note 3. I’ll keep my unlimited data plan and download and stream until my heart is content.

Thanks a lot, T-Mo. So much for sticking it to the bully carriers.

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About The Author
Taylor Martin
Based out of Charlotte, NC, Taylor Martin started writing about technology in 2009 while working in wireless retail. He has used BlackBerry off and on for over seven years, Android for nearly four years, iOS for three years, and has experimented with both webOS and Windows Phone. Taylor has reviewed countless smartphones and tablets, and doesn't go anywhere without a couple gadgets in his pockets or "nerd bag." In his free time, Taylor enjoys playing disc golf with friends, rock climbing, and playing video games. He also enjoys the occasional hockey game, and would do unspeakable things for some salmon nigiri. For more on Taylor Martin, checkout his Pocketnow Insider edition.| Google+