TIME Deal talk

AT&T Mulls $40 Billion Merger With DirecTV

A view shows the AT&T store sign in Broomfield, Colorado
Rick Wilking / REUTERS

AT&T would love to own DirecTV's satellite-TV business. DirecTV wants to bolster its broadband position. The talks were reportedly prompted by Comcast's intention to buy Time Warner Cable, which already faces intense scrutiny from the Justice Department

Consolidation begets consolidation.

Telecom titan AT&T has reportedly reached out to satellite giant DirecTV about a possible merger that would reshape the TV business at a time of rapid change in the industry.

Such a deal would likely be valued at more than $40 billion — DirecTV’s current market value — and would be another example of the decades-long consolidation of the telecom and cable industries. U.S. broadband leader Comcast is currently trying to persuade regulators to let it buy Time Warner Cable in a $45 billion deal.

DirecTV would be open to a merger with AT&T, the Wall Street Journal reported late Wednesday, citing a “person familiar with the situation.” Talks between the two companies have intensified since Comcast announced its intention to buy Time Warner Cable, the paper reported, though it cautioned that the talks may not yet be in an advanced stage.

Given the increasing consolidation in the broadband industry, an AT&T merger with DirecTV would make sense for both companies.

DirecTV has the second largest pay-TV subscriber base in the country but lacks a competitive broadband Internet offering of its own. AT&T is forging ahead with its own broadband plans but would love to get its hands on DirecTV’s satellite-TV business. And AT&T, which is currently worth $185 billion, could certainly afford the deal.

Comcast’s proposed tie-up with Time Warner Cable, its smaller rival, already faces intense scrutiny from the Justice Department over competition concerns, not to mention the Federal Communications Commission, which must ensure the deal advances the public interest. An AT&T merger with DirecTV would face equally intense scrutiny.

News of the AT&T interest in DirecTV comes as the cable industry is meeting for its annual conference in Los Angeles.

On Wednesday, Comcast CEO Brian Roberts made the case that the Time Warner Cable deal would be great for competition because it would strengthen Comcast’s position against the likes of AT&T and DirecTV.

TIME Travel

AT&T Is Building an In-Flight 4G LTE Network

Watch out, GoGo – you’re about to get some serious, big name competition. AT&T plans to launch the first high-speed, 4G LTE-based broadband service for planes flying as high as 35,000 feet, the company announced Monday.

“We are building on AT&T’s significant strengths to develop in-flight connectivity technology unlike any other that exists today, based on 4G LTE standards,” explains AT&T Chief Strategy Officer John Stankey. “We believe this will enable airlines and passengers to benefit from reliable high speeds and a better experience.”

Currently, the state of in-flight wireless is a mixed bag. Industry leader Gogo is launching a new 60Mbps high-speed network on Virgin America planes later this year, while rival ViaSat is launching high-speed service on select United flights. On the other hand, in-flight wireless is still painfully slow on most U.S. airplanes (if you can even find it at all).

Hopefully, the presence of a new big name in the market will bring more connected flights and better prices. We’ll find out if AT&T has what it takes when the new service launches in late 2015.

This article was written by Fox Van Allen and originally appeared on Techlicious.

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TIME Media

Spotify Aims for U.S. Expansion Through Sprint Deal

Sprint customers will be able to take advantage of lengthy free trials and discounted subscriptions to the streaming music service, in a deal that could see Spotify broaden its user base

Spotify has finally nailed down a key partnership that could help it reach a larger audience in the United States. The music streaming service announced today that it is offering extended free trials and discounted subscriptions to Sprint customers.

All of Sprint’s nearly 30 million postpaid customers will qualify for a three-month free trial to Spotify. Customers on Sprint’s multi-line “Framily” plans will get six months of free Spotify, then pay a discounted rate of $7.99 per month or $4.99 per month depending on how many people are on the plan. Spotify regularly costs $9.99 per month.

Partnerships with telecoms providers are a holy grail of sorts for streaming services, which are used heavily on mobile devices. With the Sprint deal, Spotify will be able to slide its fees directly into customers’ cellphone bills, making for a more seamless payment process. The deals are also an opportunity for exposure to a broader market of customers who may not be familiar with on-demand streaming apps. Beats Music, for instance, launched a high-profile campaign with AT&T earlier this year that offers discounts to AT&T’s wireless subscribers and features television commercials with stars like Ellen DeGeneres and Run-DMC.

Spotify remains the leader in the music streaming space, with recent reports indicating that its paying subscriber base is approaching 10 million. Beats, a similar service from Dr. Dre and Jimmy Iovine, is the newcomer with the deepest pockets and the highest pedigree. However, the service is reportedly off to a modest start since its January debut, with Billboard reporting a subscriber count in the “low six-figures.”

The Sprint deal takes effect online on May 2 and in stores on May 9.

 

TIME Media

AT&T’s $500 Million Plan to Crush Netflix and Hulu

New AT&T Store Aims to Outshine Apple on Chicago's Magnificent Mile
Bloomberg—Bloomberg via Getty Images

AT&T is forming a new online video business with the entertainment company The Chernin Group that will use both subscription-based and ad-supported monetization models, placing it in competition with YouTube and Amazon Prime as well

AT&T announced Tuesday that it is forming a new online video business with the entertainment company The Chernin Group. The new initiative will place AT&T in direct competition with premium online video services such as Netflix and Hulu.

The venture will include multiple video services that use both subscription-based and ad-supported monetization models, according to a company release. The Chernin Group, started by longtime News Corp. executive Peter Chernin, will contribute its majority stake in anime streaming website Crunchyroll to the new venture. (News Corp. is one of Hulu’s owners.)

AT&T will enter a crowded market that includes not only Hulu and Netflix, but also Amazon’s Prime Instant Video service and Google’s YouTube platform. Yahoo is also reportedly prepping a Netflix rival, and Microsoft is developing several original shows for its Xbox console. The new AT&T venture will be more similar to Netflix and other online video services than the Internet-based cable competitors being developed by Verizon and Sony, an AT&T representative told Variety.

Further financial details and release timing for specific video services were not disclosed; The release pegged the companies’ investment in the venture at $500 million.

[Variety]

TIME Internet

This Is AT&T’s Plan to Smother Google Fiber

A view shows the AT&T store sign in Broomfield, Colorado
Rick Wilking / REUTERS

AT&T says it wants to explore ways to offer gigabit broadband service to 21 U.S. cities -- in a direct challenge to Google Fiber -- but some skeptics aren't buying it

AT&T’s plan to examine ways to deliver gigabit Internet service to 21 U.S. cities was greeted with skepticism on Monday, as some prominent critics accused the broadband giant of misleading consumers.

AT&T’s initiative is the latest evidence that Google’s Fiber project is spurring major broadband providers to at least pay lip service to gigabit speeds, which are 100 times faster than regular U.S. Internet connections.

AT&T’s announcement, which did not actually contain a pledge to build out gigabit service anywhere, comes two weeks after the company said it wants to offer super-fast Internet service to six North Carolina cities, and two months after Google said that it was considering expanding its gigabit initiative to the North Carolina communities of Charlotte, Chapel Hill and Raleigh-Durham.

“Communities that have suitable network facilities, and show the strongest investment cases based on anticipated demand and the most receptive policies will influence these future selections and coverage maps within selected areas,” AT&T said in a press release.

Not everyone is convinced. Shortly after AT&T’s announcement, three veteran tech policy journalists, Stacey Higginbotham at Gigaom, Jon Brodkin at Ars Technica, and Karl Bode at DSL Reports, urged skepticism about the broadband giant’s plans. Each reporter used some variant of the phrase “before you get too excited” to emphasize that AT&T hasn’t actually promised to build anything.

“Hey AT&T, enough with the gigawashing!” Higginbotham wrote. She pointed out that in her home market of Austin, Texas, AT&T isn’t even delivering on the gigabit promises it’s already made. Given that fact, “Ma Bell should have some explaining to do before these 21 cities get too excited about their hoped-for gigabit service,” Higginbotham wrote.

Brodkin, at Ars Technica, pointed out that AT&T — by its own admission — says that the “expanded fiber build is not expected to impact AT&T’s capital investment plans for 2014.” That seems odd, because laying fiber lines — or buying them from existing dark fiber owners — is very capital-intensive. It also raises the question of why AT&T hasn’t moved to boost broadband speeds earlier, if the necessary investment is so trivial.

Bode, at DSL Reports, was even harsher, calling AT&T’s announcement a “big fat bluff” that constitutes another example of what he calls “fiber to the press release.” In other words, AT&T is using the groundswell of national interest in gigabit broadband speeds to promote its existing service, despite the fact that the broadband giant has yet to deliver what it previously promised.

“We’re in the heart of the age of ‘fiber to the press release’ and 1 Gbps mania, where all you need to do is simply mention 1 Gbps and you get a ticker-tape parade and a statue in the town square without having to deliver a single byte,” Bode wrote. “AT&T’s certainly counting on that reaction from the press and public.”

For years, major broadband companies have insisted that consumers neither need nor want gigabit Internet speeds. Now that Google has demonstrated that there is intense demand for super-fast broadband service, AT&T is singing a different tune. But until AT&T actually delivers on its existing gigabit promises, it’s worth taking the company’s announcements with a dose of skepticism.

TIME Technologizer

Shocker: In 1980, Motorola Had No Idea Where the Phone Market Would Be in 2000

When you make predictions about tech, prepare to be wrong

Yesterday, I wrote two pieces about the impossibility of making tech predictions–one involving a 1981 magazine cover, and one concerning current predictions about the wearable-gadget market in 2018. I promise to move on to other subjects in a moment, but I stumbled across one more random artifact that’s too good not to share.

Marty Cooper is the legendary inventor of the mobile phone, which he came up with in 1973 while working at Motorola. Over at the website of his company, Dyna, there’s a digitized version of an amazing article about the wireless phone market by H.P. Burstyn, from the November 1980 issue of Electronic Business magazine.

At that point, the wireless phone industry barely existed. The story reports that it may be shaping up as a war between AT&T and Motorola; says that what we later came to refer to as “car phones” would make up the bulk of the market, but that pocket-sized phones could be a big deal someday if they could be made to work indoors; and addresses concerns such as whether thieves would be likely to break into automobiles to steal phones, as they’d done a few years earlier with CB radios. Reading it today, it’s both an endearing period piece and a pretty smart summary of where the market was at the time.

It also features some stats forecasting the number of wireless phones to be sold in 10 major U.S. markets:

Wireless phone projections
Electronic Business

The projections I find fascinating are the ones in the middle column. They’re from Motorola, and they involve the year 2000, which was then two decades in the future.

It’s not entirely clear whether the total figure of 207,399 phones represents cumulative sales or sales in the year 2000 or the number of subscribers. But no matter how you slice the data, it’s wildly off. I don’t have numbers for the 10 markets mentioned, but according to the FCC, when the year 2000 rolled around, there were 109 million wireless phone users in the entire country. That’s 400 times Motorola’s estimate for the markets in its study.

In 1980, the folks at Motorola knew more about wireless phones than anyone else in the world. But they couldn’t see what economies of scale would do to pricing for handsets and service. They weren’t aware that the breakup of AT&T, mandated by the U.S. federal government in 1982, would lead to dramatically increased competition in the communications market. They likely didn’t envision that by 2000, it would be clear that phones and PCs were on their way to merging into one category of device.

Today, as far as I know, no research firm is attempting to estimate sales figures for the year 2034. Bu things move a lot faster than they did 34 years ago, so looking out even a few years is an exercise fraught with peril. And the best way to look smart isn’t to act like we’re capable of predicting the future with any precision–it’s to cheerfully admit that we often don’t have a clue.

TIME Netflix

This Is Why Netflix Just Got So Blazingly Fast

The Netflix company logo at Netflix headquarters in Los Gatos, Calif., on April 13, 2011.
The Netflix company logo at Netflix headquarters in Los Gatos, Calif., on April 13, 2011. Ryan Anson—AFP/Getty Images

Newly released data shows Comcast's web subscribers are seeing faster connections while streaming video on Netflix after a deal between the tech giants boosted the connection speed by an average 65 percent between January and March

Comcast Internet subscribers are continuing to see dramatic improvement in Netflix performance following a deal in which the streaming video company agreed to pay for a direct connection to the nation’s largest broadband provider, according to data released on Tuesday.

“This month’s rankings are a great illustration of how performance can improve when ISPs work to connect directly to Netflix,” Netflix spokesperson Joris Evers wrote in a company blog post. “In the U.S., the average speed on the Comcast network for Netflix streams is up 65 percent from 1.51Mbps in January to 2.5Mbps in March.”

The agreement, which was struck in February, intensified the already-heated debate about “net neutrality,” the principle enshrined in the now-defunct U.S. Open Internet rules that prohibited major Internet service providers like Comcast, Time Warner Cable, and Verizon from playing favorites with certain online services at the expense of rivals. Comcast is currently seeking regulatory approval for its proposed $45 billion purchase of Time Warner Cable.

As high-bandwidth services like Netflix have exploded in popularity — during evening hours the service accounts for as much as one-third of all Internet traffic, according to industry estimates — the broadband companies are increasingly demanding compensation in exchange for direct connections to improve performance. Faster speeds mean better video quality and fewer interruptions for Netflix viewers.

(MORE: Netflix vs. Comcast ‘Net Neutrality’ Spat Erupts After Traffic Deal)

Comcast jumped six spots higher on the list — leapfrogging Time Warner Cable, Verizon, AT&T U-verse and other providers — and its customers are seeing the best Netflix performance in 16 months. The performance boost comes after a precipitous decline in Netflix speeds for Comcast subscribers that began last fall, leading to numerous complaints about service quality.

By striking a paid-peering interconnection agreement with Comcast, Netflix gained a direct connection to the broadband giant’s network, bypassing bandwidth providers that operate as third-party intermediaries between residential broadband companies like Comcast and Time Warner Cable and Internet firms like Netflix and YouTube. Financial terms of the deal were not disclosed, but many Wall Street analysts don’t believe it will have a material impact on Netflix’s bottom line.

Nevertheless, Netflix CEO Reed Hastings complained bitterly about having to pay “an arbitrary tax” to Comcast in order to improve service for customers, and urged federal regulators to include paid peering agreements in the new net neutrality rules currently under development by the Federal Communications Commission. Such agreements were not covered by the FCC’s 2010 Open Internet order, which was struck down by a federal judge in January.

Hastings called for the FCC’s new rules to prevent service providers like Comcast from “charging a toll for interconnection to services like Netflix, YouTube, or Skype, or intermediaries such as Cogent, Akamai or Level 3, to deliver the services and data requested by ISP residential subscribers.”

Internet service providers, Hastings said, “must provide sufficient access to their network without charge.” That suggestion is fiercely opposed the nation’s largest ISPs, which for years have complained that they are obliged to deliver high bandwidth content — which often competes with their own video offerings — over the infrastructure they’ve spent billions of dollars to build. Both Verizon and AT&T have acknowledged that they are seeking to extract similar fees from Netflix in order to improve service for customers.

Google Fiber, the tech giant’s gigabit fiber broadband service, remains by far the fastest U.S. provider of Netflix streaming video, with average performance of 3.60Mbps, according to Netflix. Google has already launched fiber initiatives in Kansas City, Austin and Provo, and last month announced plans to work with nine more metro areas to expand the service.

Netflix says its ISP speed index is “based on data from the more than 44 million Netflix members worldwide who view over 1 billion hours of TV shows and movies streaming from Netflix each month. The listed speeds reflect the average performance of all Netflix streams on each ISP’s network and are an indicator of the performance typically experienced across all users on an ISP network. A faster network generally means a better picture quality, quicker start times and fewer interruptions.”

TIME broadband

AT&T Aims to Beat Google Fiber in Gigabit Broadband Race

A view shows the AT&T store sign in Broomfield, Colorado
Rick Wilking / REUTERS

North Carolina has become the latest battleground in the competition to bring gigabit Internet speeds to consumers

Four years after Google launched a not-so-subtle campaign to shame U.S. Internet service providers into improving their broadband service, North Carolina has become the latest front in the battle to offer consumers gigabit Internet speeds.

Telecom giant AT&T plans to offer super-fast Internet service to six North Carolina cities at speeds 100 times faster than regular connections, the company announced on Thursday. AT&T’s announcement comes less than two months after Google said that it was considering expanding its gigabit Fiber initiative to the North Carolina communities of Charlotte, Chapel Hill and Raleigh-Durham.

AT&T’s plan to offer gigabit Internet speeds in the Tar Heel state is the latest indication that Google’s effort to push giant Internet providers toward improving their service is working. Last year, Google announced plans to build out gigabit fiber service in Austin, Tex. One day later, AT&T said that it, too, wanted to offer gigabit Internet service in Austin.

AT&T’s North Carolina proposal — which still must be ratified by the six communities involved — comes one year after the North Carolina Next Generation Network (NCNGN), a group formed by local municipalities in conjunction with local universities including UNC and Duke, asked for proposals from companies interested in offering gigabit Internet service to communities in the state’s Triangle and Piedmont Triad regions.

“All of the participants in the NCNGN project are encouraged by AT&T’s interest to deliver ultra-fast bandwidth to the Research Triangle and Piedmont regions,” Tracy Futhey, Chair of the NCNGN Steering Committee and Vice President of Information Technology at Duke University, said in a statement.

AT&T appears to have gotten the jump on Google — for now. “AT&T’s proposal is the only one being recommended for approval at this time but our communities remain active in discussions with other vendors,” NCNGN program director Elise Kohn told WRALTechWire.

(MORE: Google Is Making a Major Play to Provide Your Internet)

For years, expanding U.S. broadband service has been a national priority. But despite the fact that U.S. researchers developed the Internet, the U.S. has fallen behind in broadband speeds and penetration compared to other developed countries. A recent study by networking giant Akamai ranked the U.S. eighth in global average connection speeds.

Many large Internet providers have insisted that Americans don’t want or need gigabit broadband service, but that’s starting to change, as cities across the U.S. move aggressively to upgrade their Internet networks to boost economic growth and provide increased opportunity for citizens.

“Obviously Google has been this catalyst for AT&T and others to respond to what they’ve done in Kansas City and Austin,” Jeff Heynen, a Wake Forest-based analyst with Infonetics Research, told the Raleigh-based News & Observer. “Here’s an opportunity really for AT&T and Time Warner to respond and get ahead.”

In Texas, AT&T began rolling out its Austin gigabit offering in December. Google has yet to launch its service, because it is still navigating bureaucratic hurdles and assembling the necessary permits. (Needless to say, AT&T wasn’t thrilled about the prospect of giving Google access to the 20% of Austin utility poles that it owns.) In the meantime, other Austin players including Time Warner Cable and a local firm called Grande Communications, are moving to boost their Internet speeds.

“To be honest, we wouldn’t have launched a 1Gbps service unless we didn’t see it happening in the market,” Matt Murphy, president of Grande Communications, a small Austin cable operator, told CNET. “Google has definitely stirred things up in Austin. And when we saw AT&T and Time Warner Cable answering that threat, we knew we had to do something too in terms of speeds and pricing.”

Like North Carolina, Austin is a prime example of how the prospect of Google’s gigabit entry into the marketplace is prompting competitors to improve their services. That, after all, was a crucial part of Google’s strategy. “Google isn’t even offering service in town yet, and already parts of Austin are getting better broadband,” Stacey Higginbotham, a respected tech reporter at Gigaom and Austin resident, wrote in a recent post. “That’s cool.”

TIME Domestic Surveillance

Obama to Propose Ending NSA Phone Data Collection

The National Security Agency (NSA) headquarters building in Fort Meade, Md.
The National Security Agency headquarters building in Fort Meade, Md. Reuters

The White House is set to propose major changes to the NSA's oft-criticized bulk collection of data from millions of Americans' phone calls, in the Obama administration's most significant response yet to outrage over domestic surveillance

President Barack Obama is set to announce a new proposal to scale back one of the most sweeping and controversial domestic surveillance programs in U.S. history, according to multiple reports.

The proposal, which will be presented to Congress, would end the National Security Agency’s collection of vast amounts of data about U.S. phone calls, according to the New York Times, which first reported the plan.

The Obama proposal is the most significant White House effort yet to address the global furor that was sparked after former NSA contractor Edward Snowden leaked reams of classified documents about the NSA’s secret snooping programs. The proposal would end the NSA’s bulk collection of so-called phone metadata, which includes the number the target called, when the call was made and how long the conversation lasted.

The NSA phone-metadata-collection program was part of a secret U.S. surveillance system that former President George W. Bush approved after the 9/11 attacks. It remained hidden from the public until the Snowden revelations.

Under the Obama proposal, the phone records would instead be retained by phone companies, including AT&T and Verizon. Those companies would not be required to retain the data for a longer period of time than they do now, the Times said. The proposed policy shift was not unexpected — it was one of the major recommendations of the President’s Review Group on Intelligence and Communications Technologies, which delivered its report in December.

(MORE: NSA Spying Scandal Could Cost U.S. Tech Giants Billions)

The timing of the White House proposal is also not a surprise. The current court order authorizing the NSA program — which the Foreign Intelligence Surveillance Court (FISC) must approve every three months — expires on Friday. The U.S. has decided to renew the NSA metadata-collection program for at least one more 90-day cycle, the Times said. The purpose of the program is to identify possible terrorist threats to the U.S., but government officials have offered scant evidence that the system has actually thwarted any major terrorist attacks.

On Tuesday, Representative Mike Rogers, the Michigan Republican, and Representative C.A. Dutch Ruppersberger, the Maryland Democrat, will introduce bipartisan legislation also designed to scale back the NSA’s bulk collection of phone metadata. The two lawmakers told the Washington Post on Monday that their goal is that their bill “can be the compromise vehicle that arrives at the President’s desk.”

The White House proposal differs from the Rogers-Ruppersberger legislation in key respects. The former would maintain FISC oversight with respect to individual phone-record orders, while the latter “would have the court issue an overarching order authorizing the program, but allow the NSA to issue subpoenas for specific phone records without prior judicial approval,” the Times said. Obama called on Congress in a press conference Tuesday to “pass the enabling legislation quickly,” saying his proposal would address many of critics’ concerns.

Instead of collecting and storing the phone records of millions of Americans, the White House proposes to obtain “individual orders” from the FISC that apply “only to records linked to phone numbers a judge agrees are likely tied to terrorism,” the Times reported. Under the current policy, the NSA holds the phone data for five years, under authorization by Section 215 of the Patriot Act.

The proposal will not require that phone companies retain the data “longer than the 18 months that federal regulations already generally require,” the paper reported, after intelligence agencies determined that the impact of that change “would be small because older data is less important.”

Under the new system, the FISC would require the phone companies to “swiftly provide” phone records “on a continuing basis,” including data about “any new calls placed or received after the order is received,” the Times reported. The new system would also allow the U.S. to seek phone records for people “two calls, or ‘hops,’ removed” from the original number that is being scrutinized, according to the paper.

Lauren Weinstein, a tech-policy expert and privacy advocate, expressed guarded optimism about the White House proposal. “On its face, this sounds like a definite improvement over the status quo of the program, but the devil will be in the details,” Weinstein says.

Reached by TIME, representatives of Verizon and AT&T both declined to comment on the White House proposal. Earlier this year, AT&T and Verizon began issuing so-called transparency reports providing data on the number of law-enforcement requests for customer information that the company receives in the U.S. and other countries. Those reports do not separately disclose information about orders made under FISA, but instead combine such orders with other government requests.

TIME Technologizer

With AT&T LTE, Microsoft’s Surface 2 Tablet Just Got a Lot More Interesting (at Least to Me)

Microsoft Surface 2
Microsoft

A long-promised power-user feature arrives.

Starting tomorrow, a new version of Microsoft’s Surface 2 tablet goes on sale at Microsoft Store and Best Buy locations. Don’t get too excited: It’s just a variant of the current model, but with built-in 4G LTE wireless networking. Microsoft said that such a model was in the works back in October, when the Wi-Fi-only Surface 2 debuted.

This version of Surface 2 comes with 64GB of storage and costs $679; it’s unlocked, but designed for use with AT&T and supported by all of that carrier’s pre-paid and post-paid plans. You can pay as little as $15 a month for 250MB of data, or tap into the same data bucket you use with your AT&T phone by adding the Surface to a Mobile Share plan for an additional $10 a month.

In case you’re doing the math, the $679 price is $130 more than a 64GB Surface 2 without LTE, and $150 less than an iPad Air with 64GB and LTE. Microsoft hasn’t said anything about there being plans for an LTE version of the more potent Surface Pro 2.

Did I say not to get too excited about the Surface 2 with LTE? Let me clarify. Tablets with built-in mobile broadband are a niche market: Most buyers prefer to save a few bucks by buying Wi-Fi-only models. So I don’t expect the new model to have a major impact on Surface sales. (AT&T, curiously, won’t be selling the tablet in its own stores.)

But Microsoft pitches the Surface 2, with its built-in copy of the Microsoft Office suite, as a productivity tool. And after spending the past two and a half years using an iPad with LTE as my primary computer, I’m convinced that embedded LTE is one of the biggest productivity-boosters that a computing device can offer. While other people are hunting for Wi-Fi hotspots or futzing with phone tethering, I’m online, getting stuff done.

For the things I like to do with a tablet, the ideal configuration is a screen size of nine inches or more, a weight under 1.5 pounds, 64GB or more of storage, built-in LTE and a keyboard case or cover that doesn’t add too much bulk. The pickings are surprisingly thin in that category, but this new Surface is now part of it once you’ve added one of Microsoft’s keyboard covers. When I look at the Wi-Fi-only Surface 2, my instinctive reaction is, “I can’t imagine being as productive on that as I am on my iPad Air.” With the Surface 2 with LTE, it’s more like “Hey, that’s a plausible alternative, at least.”

The Surface 2 still has its issues. Windows RT 8.1, its operating system, remains short on apps so enthralling that you’d choose a Surface over an iPad just to get them; Office, its theoretical killer feature, has not yet been totally reimagined for touchscreen use. But the app situation is improving, gradually, and Microsoft’s working on more touch-centric versions of the Office apps. I’m intrigued enough by the concept to hope that it eventually lives up to all of its potential — and the availability of LTE is part of that process.

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