AT&T Jumps on Shared Data Bandwagon with Confusing Choices
AT&T and Verizon are pushing customers toward shared data plans and AT&T's new shared options are a tangled web indeed. For most people, such plans are not a good deal, but in some cases they can give you an advantage.
But good grief, try finding a page on the AT&T Web site that clearly shows what it will cost to buy a smartphone, and use it for voice, data and messaging. If I were the cynical type I’d say the company wants to confuse you, but let’s give it the benefit of the doubt and just say AT&T’s plans are so complicated that even the marketing folks don’t understand them.
Having said that, let’s give it a go. The new shared data plan (AT&T calls it Mobile Share) allows customers to pay for a single pool of data and share it across as many as 10 smartphones, tablets and laptops. Unless you’re an octopus you couldn’t possible use that many devices, so this makes the most sense for families whose members each have their own device or two.
So if you’re a family that has two smartphones and one tablet, you can share 6GB of data with unlimited texts and voice minutes for $170 a month, exclusive of taxes and the like. It breaks down like this: $90 for the data; $35 for each smartphone and $10 for the tablet.
Or you could share 4GB of data ($70) among two smartphones at $40 each, plus one tablet for $10, which would total $160 a month, which isn’t a very good deal since you’re getting 2GB of data less and only saving $10. Got that?
The very cheapest shared data plan is $40 a month for just 1GB of data, and $45 for each smartphone and $10 for each tablet for a total of $95 a month if you have one smartphone and one tablet.
All of the shared data plans offer unlimited voice and texting, but since people are using those services much less these days while data consumption is soaring, you can see that the carrot of unlimited talk isn’t all that tasty.
Now let’s look at individual plans. You can get 3GB of data for just $30 a month, but then you’ve got to buy voice and texting plans. If you don’t use lots of minutes you can go for what AT&T calls the Nation 450, which gives you (duh) 450 minutes for $39.99. Adding 1000 texts to the plan costs an additional $20, which takes you to around $90 a month. Yes, you can go cheaper, but AT&T really wants you to buy data, so the next tier down is just 300MB for $20. Do the math and you’ll see what a rip off that is when you figure cost per megabyte.
All in all, it’s pretty clear that the shared plans are not a good deal unless you have multiple devices and a big appetite for data.
There is one good thing about the new shared data plan: AT&T, unlike Verizon, will not make new customers sign up for one, and old customers can keep existing plans. By the way, AT&T is vague about when the Mobile Share plan will be available, saying only “soon.”
Of course, the best way to save on data costs is to use your device on Wi-Fi as much as possible, because data downloaded that way costs you nothing since it doesn’t count against your allotment of data. (Here are more tips on how to keep data use under control.)
What irritates me the most about all this is how opaque the choices are. It wouldn’t take a programming genius to develop an online application that calculated prices for different levels of service and different numbers of devices. But neither AT&T nor Verizon are interested in making it easier to cut through the fog and find the most cost-effective plan.
But maybe you can show me that it’s not as complex as I think. If so, lunch is on me.
San Francisco journalist Bill Snyder writes frequently about business and technology. His work appears regularly in CIO.com and the publications of Stanford's Graduate School of Business and the Haas School of Business at the University of California at Berkeley. He welcomes your comments and suggestions.