Whether or not PCs come with 3G modems embedded (see the debate here) there seems to be a general belief that the way forward is to offer "free laptops" as long as someone signs up for a contract for either fixed or mobile broadband.
While I can see the appeal of this type of subsidy, I'm wondering if it is the wrong way around.
Given that millions of people seem pretty happy to stump up cash (or at least credit cards) for PCs at the moment, why try and dilute value in the industry by persuading them to get computers for nothing instead?
Why not try a different approach - have a $1000 (or $400) laptop, that comes with "connectivity for 2 years" included free in the price, or as a bolt-on upgrade option like extra memory? Lots of physical electronic products come bundled with some service element (eg a warranty) that eventually expires but could be renewed. Just like a warranty, you could have terms and conditions, excusions and policies.
The problem here for the MNOs is that they would no longer "own the customer". But so what? Customers are certainly not owned by the warranty company working with the dealer of their new cars either... but warranty companies are (generally) highly profitable.
This approach - "embedded connectivity" - and the reverse subsidy model of hardware purchase including "free service" isn't new in technology markets either. Telematics products like car tracking systems often come with a year's service included in the upfront price. Software may include a year's maintenance or upgrades.
This also gets around the thorny issue of monthly billing, as well as limiting the credit risk the mobile industry might expose itself to if it started to subsidise a good proportion of the world's roughly $100bn worth of annual laptop sales.