AT&T’s Capped Data Plan Could Save You Money
Don’t know if you’ve seen the frantic blog headlines, but they boil down to this: Those big, greedy, monolithic cellphone companies have found yet another way to gouge us for more money.
AT&T is the first company to introduce capped data plans. After June 7, new customers will no longer be offered a $30 plan for unlimited Internet use on a smartphone (including iPhones). Instead, you’ll have to gauge how much data you use, and buy the appropriate number of megabytes a month, and worry about either going over or paying for capacity you never use — just like you do now with talk-time minutes.
Verizon and the other carriers will probably follow suit promptly.
How anticonsumer, right? Surely this is yet another way to exploit the masses and stifle innovation!
Look, you know me. I’m the first guy to lead the charge against cell-carrier greed.
But this is different. This time, I think you’ll wind up coming out ahead. I think AT&T has put together one of the fairest, most carefully considered plans in a long time.
First of all, if you’re an existing AT&T customer, the new plans are optional. You can hang onto your $30 unlimited plan if you like. Yes, even if you get a new phone.
If you’re a new customer, or an existing one who wants to save some money, here’s the deal. There are two new capped Internet-service plans:
* DataPlus costs $15 a month and gives you 200 megabytes’ worth of data transfer.
Of course, who has any idea what “200 megabytes’ worth of data transfer” is? AT&T says that that’s 1,000 e-mail messages without attachments, plus 150 that do have attachments, plus 400 Web page views, plus posting 50 photos on Facebook and similar sites, plus watching 20 minutes of video from sites like YouTube or Hulu. If you use more than 200 megabytes, you’re automatically billed $15 more that month for another 200.
* DataPro costs $25 a month—still $5 less than the unlimited plan—and gives you 10 times as much data: 10,000 e-mail messages without attachments and 1,500 with attachments, and 4,000 Web pages, and 500 photos posted, and 200 minutes of video. If you go over the limit, you’re automatically billed $10 for another gigabyte of data.
(DataPro also entitles you to use your iPhone for tethering — that is, the phone acts as an Internet antenna for your laptop — for $20 more.)
If your Internet activities break down differently, use the sliders at www.att.com/datacalculator to see what your typical activity would consume. Turns out the DataPro plan is enough for a million e-mail messages a month, which should just about cover my e-mail load.
In each case, AT&T will send you three free text messages and e-mail alerts as you approach your monthly limit (at 65, 90 and 100 percent of your maximum). You can also check your data use by calling *DATA#, or by using a free iPhone or BlackBerry app. Yes, it’s a pain to have to worry about data limits, but at least monitoring them will be easy.
Here’s the kicker, though: AT&T says that 98 percent of its customers use less than that two gigabytes. In other words, incredibly, 98 percent of us will actually save money on the new plans.
To see if that would be true for you, you can see how much data you’ve been using at wireless.att.com. On the Account Overview page, at lower right, click View Past Data Usage. You get a handy bar graph showing the last few months’ worth of data consumption.
Like hundreds of people reporting similar surprises on Twitter, I discovered that my wife and I almost never use more than about 150 megabytes a month. Here I am, a power-using geek, and I could put both phones on the DataPlus plan and save $360 a year!
Now, AT&T is clearly not in the altruism business. Why would it do something that saves money for 98 percent of its customers?
AT&T says that it hopes the new plans will entice more people to graduate from plain phones to smartphones.
(I wrote back to spokesman Mark Siegel: “Really? I assumed that the motivation is to nail the superheavy users, those top 2 percent who’ve been getting a free ride. They’re paying $30 a month but contributing a disproportionate amount of AT&T’s network traffic.”
His response: “Yes, really. The motivator is primarily to give people more choices than they have had before. We could see increased numbers of smartphone customers.”)
Most AT&T customers have indeed concluded that they’ll be better off with the new plans. But there’s still plenty of skepticism, especially about the future. “iPhone 4’s video chat and similar features will usher in whole new ways of consuming more data,” wrote @mobiledivide on Twitter. “Your current usage/activity is moot.”
Well, I’m not too worried about the video-calling thing. You could video chat for 15 minutes every single day and still use up less than half of your DataPro allotment.
And if it’s future inventions you’re worried about — well, that’s getting a little far-fetched. That’d be like refusing to leave the house because you’re afraid of getting hit by lightning. Yes, there may be new cellphone features someday that use even more bandwidth than video (although I can’t think of one off-hand) — but by that time, there will be more plans and, more importantly, more cellular towers and routers to handle all that traffic. (AT&T alone is spending $18 billion a year to beef up its network.)
Maybe I’m just dazzled by the $360 a year AT&T just saved me. But as I see it, AT&T has just pulled off a very delicate balancing act indeed: it came up with a new pricing scheme that benefits almost everyone, customers and AT&T alike.