As any well-read geek will tell you, Apple is releasing some sort of tablet device next week, and the rumors about features have been flying as fast and furious as those men in tights at Cirque du Soleil. I'm not going to add to the noise by speculating about unreleased details like the size, shape, color, price and general feature list. Instead I'm going to add the other noise: the network noise.
Which wireless carrier will offer Apple's soon-to-be-released mystery device? Will it be Verizon? AT&T? The answer, according to sources at the two companies, is both.
We're six days away from the Apple event and carrier details haven't been finalized, which may mean Apple will announce the product without the logical "who and how much" part of the announcement. Network choice would instantly become the elephant in the room.
It sounds odd for Apple to have a major press event without a final carrier deal, but then again, Apple held an event for the iPhone 3GS before MMS messaging and tethering were officially supported by AT&T. And to this day, tethering still isn't supported.
Nevertheless, Apple is in talks with both AT&T and Verizon to support the tablet, according to sources within the companies: One version of the device will run on CDMA networks such as Verizon's, and one will operate on GSM networks like that owned by AT&T.
The AT&T part isn't surprising, given early reports that the tablet would rely on HSDPA, a feature used by AT&T that, according to company spokesman Mark Siegal, "effectively doubles the speed of our 3G network." Besides, AT&T is already a high-profile partner of Apple, as the carrier of choice for the iPhone.
Verizon spokesman Jeff Nelson told me the company has been considering tiered pricing for upcoming tablet devices that will use the company's network, though Nelson wouldn't specifically name Apple's tablet. The data plans are said to be structured similarly to those each company currently offers for netbooks and laptops. But we're unlikely to hear about pricing at Apple's event next week.
According to another source within Verizon, Apple has been in talks with 'the big red map' to offer the tablet on its robust CDMA network. Additionally Verizon is in talks with Apple to bring the iPhone to its network by late spring or early summer, but specifics haven't yet been finalized.
Verizon remains hush-hush given Apple's contractual obligations to AT&T for the iPhone.
So will both AT&T and Verizon's network hold up under the data-gobbling pressure of an Apple tablet?
"Our 3G network covers 287 million Americans," says Verizon spokesman Jeff Nelson. "We didn't build a network and then cross our fingers that devices would work on it. When we built our network we built it with these devices in mind. AT&T didn't, and that's the difference."
Nelson admitted that Verizon did see a "significant spike" in data usage following the launch of the Droid, but claims it hasn't caused any problems for the network. But let's be clear, a 10- or 11-inch tablet would dwarf a Droid in data usage. "Bring it on!" Verizon seems to be shouting.
For its part, AT&T isn't taking the criticism lying down.
"No one would believe for one second that the Droid caused an iPhone-like spike in data usage," laughed AT&T spokesman Mark Siegal. "With the iPhone and other smart devices, we saw a 7,000 percent increase in data usage over the last 13 quarters."
Answering criticism about customer complaints and Verizon's assertion that it didn't plan well for data-heavy devices, Siegal said "AT&T recognized years ago that mobile broadband was the wave of the future. And we built our network on that fact. We've also been aware of complaints and have been actively investing in our 3G network, installing new towers and continuing to provide the fastest 3G network in the U.S."
According to sources inside Verizon, the company's version of the tablet will feature built-in Wi-Fi utilizing Verizon's hotspots for free data; the device will switch onto the 3G cellular network when it's away from a hotspot. This makes it easy and safe to connect to trusted Wi-Fi servers, and you'll get a line-item for that data service on your cell bill. Basically you won't need a home data modem service anymore.
AT&T wouldn't say specifically if millions of Apple tablet users would suddenly be hopping from Wi-Fi hotspot to hotspot with its version of the tablet, but the company certainly wants you to know it's ready to handle that functionality. "We have the largest network of Wi-Fi hotspots in the country," said AT&T spokesman Mark Siegal.
"Verizon doesn’t even touch us. You can go just about anywhere and find an AT&T Wi-Fi hotspot. You can't do that with Verizon's hot spots."
One thing's for certain: I can't wait for next Wednesday, to see both Verizon and AT&T executives in the same room at the Apple event. With any luck, Apple will pass out flak jackets at the door.