Do You Need a Contract for a Tablet?
By Aaron Parson
Like smartphone contracts, cell providers offer tablet contracts with discounted prices for tablet hardware in exchange for a long-term commitment to a data plan. You do not necessarily need a contract for your tablet, however. You can buy many tablets without a contract and pay data fees monthly, or you can buy a Wi-Fi only tablet and avoid cell charges entirely.
Wi-Fi Only Tablets
All tablets can connect to the Internet through your local Wi-Fi network. Just like your home computer, this connection does not require a cellular data plan, nor does it have a usage cap (unless your Internet service provider caps your usage across your network). Wi-Fi-only tablets sell for less than comparable tablets with cell connections, but you can only use their online features at home or at other locations with a Wi-Fi hotspot. If you have a smartphone that supports tethering, you can use it to get your tablet online without its own data plan.
One alternative to buying a contract or data plan for your tablet is to use an existing smartphone data plan with tethering. This technology uses your smartphone's cell signal to create a Wi-Fi hotspot that any tablet can connect to. When tethering, any data used by your tablet will charge directly to your cell's data plan. Tethering options vary by carrier, and many require an additional monthly charge to use the feature.
Monthly Data Plans
Any tablet that uses a cell network to reach the Internet will incur data charges. Not all such charges require contracts, however. For example, Apple sells the cellular-capable iPad with no contract and a variety of month-to-month data options from AT&T, Sprint and Verizon. These plans charge more based on how much data you use, but do not require a long-term commitment. Depending on the cell providers in your area, you may also be able to use a SIM card from another carrier, some of which support prepaid plans for tablets.
Though buying a contract for a tablet locks you in to that device for several years, cell providers often offer discounts for tablets bought with a contract instead of a monthly data plan. For example, as of 2013, AT&T takes $100 off the cost of any tablet purchased with a two-year contract. If you plan to keep the same tablet for the duration of a contract and use it regularly, such discounts can outweigh the downside of a contract.
Aaron Parson has been writing about electronics, software and games since 2006, contributing to several technology websites and working with NewsHour Productions. Parson holds a Bachelor of Arts from The Evergreen State College in Olympia, Wash.