These Share Data Plans Aren't a Good Deal

Following Verizon's lead, AT&T has announced the data-centric plans it had threatened and they don't sound like money savers compared to the old solo subscriptions. 

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Following Verizon's lead, AT&T has announced the data-centric plans it had threatened and they don't sound like money savers compared to the old solo subscriptions. Unlike Verizon, AT&T will not require all new phone owners to opt into the data plan, allowing users to choose the plan that best suits their needs. But, this is just the first of what looks like an overall move to bring AT&T to the data-only, relatively voiceless world that its CEO, Randall Stevenson, predicted a few weeks ago. And, from the looks of it, that world won't be cheap.

The two data-centric plans out there have the same underlying concept with slightly different pricing structures. Instead of making voice call minutes the basis of the plan, both Verizon and now AT&T have transitioned to data as the main thing subscribers buy. Where the sharing comes in is spreading that bandwidth across various devices, with voice as an add-on. Before, a standard talk and 3GB data plan for a 4G LTE phone on AT&T costs $69.99 for the unlimited minutes and another $30.00 a month for the data. That's $100 compared to $110 for 1 GB more of data on the share-everything plan. Here's how the full pricing breaks down for AT&T:

Verizon has a similar deal, but, as their pricing chart shows, the lowest cost for a smartphone with both voice and data is a not-cheap $90. There are better deals if you move up to more data. At 10GB subscribers pay $140, for example, which is $10 cheaper than AT&T's price for the same options.

This kind of pricing structure particularly stinks for individuals with one smart device. Someone with a plan with 450 voice minutes, 1,000 text messages, and 2 GB of data (the minimum) on Verizon will pay $80 a month. For the same amount of data, but unlimited texting and talk, a customer will pay $100. Though that might look like a deal for all that talking and texting, but Verizon and AT&T know talking isn't what we do on our phones these days anyway. The latest research found that making calls is the fifth most popular activity we do on our smartphones, leading our friends at The Atlantic to join our cause for a new non-centric name for the smartphone.

The benefits of these plans are supposed to be for multiple people, like families, who have lots of wireless devices. But even that deal only looks good for groups with a few users who don't use that much data. A family that talks and texts a lot, but doesn't need a lot of data can save money.

New data-centric plan: A family of four sharing 8GB of data and unlimited talking and texting will pay $250 on Verizon.

For heavy talkers: Families that talk more, save more. Plans with 6,000 minutes have a base-line minutes cost of $219.99, already putting the cost close to the $250 the shared plan offers with unlimited calling plus 8GB data to share. (Again: Who talks that much these days?) Adding 8GB data total (2GB per phone) puts the price up to $370, making the share plan a better deal.

For heavy downloaders:  As data, not talking, get priority, users save less. On the old plan, for example, to get the same amount of data, a group of four could split the minimum offering of 700 minutes for $89.99, plus each phone has to pay for their own data, which at $30 per phone per 2GB tacks on another $120, and then each additional line also pays a $10 fee, making that a grand total of $240, a $10 savings over the new set-up. One could argue, again, that a user gets more talk and text with the data share situation. But, again, that's a function that people use less and less.

Rather, these plans are a set up to get the most out of changing user habits. And, this is just the beginning. Who is to say that these wireless carriers won't start charging for certain data services? One day before AT&T announced these data-first plans, 9to5Mac rumored that the wireless carrier would charge extra for FaceTime, thus penalizing users for one of the data functions that actually incorporates voices.  And Stevenson didn't deny the rumor either. "I’ve heard the same rumor," he said at the Fortune Brainstorm Tech conference. Following that up with this nugget of non-reassurance: "It’s too early to talk about pricing," he added. Though Verizon and AT&T bill these plans as ways to better serve customers changing wireless habits, really the company is restructuring its pay structure to better serve its own interests based on changing wireless habits.

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.