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Summary:

AT&T just dropped the price of mobile data on its shared plans considerably, but there’s a catch. The discounted plans are data only, meaning no smartphone users need apply.

AT&T flagship store logo
photo: AT&T

In an odd change in mobile data pricing policies, AT&T plans to introduce on Friday a new set of shared plans that heavily discount data if you only access Ma Bell’s network with tablets or laptops, but not phones.

The new data-only plans, announced Monday, start at $30 a month for 4 GB and scale up to $335 for 50 GB a month. Consumers can add up to 10 devices to their plans – each tablet or gaming device costing $10 a month and each laptop or modem costing $20 – and small businesses can add up to 25. In addition to the new data-only tiers, AT&T plans to supersize all of its shared plans, offering 30 GB, 40 GB and 50 GB buckets to both consumers and small businesses.

When you compare the new data-only plans to its regular data share pricing plans, the differences are substantial. A 4 GB plan on a regular mobile share plan costs $70 a month, $40 more than the equivalent data-only plan. At higher tiers the discount is just as big: a 20 GB regular share plan costs $200, while the data-only version costs only $110.

AT&T shared data-only plans March 2013

AT&T justifies the differences in pricing through the inclusion of unlimited voice and SMS in its regular plans, while data-only plans, by definition, include no such benefits. But AT&T’s complex shared plan framework actually double-charges customers for those traditional telephony and messaging services. Connecting a smartphone or feature phone to the AT&T network costs anywhere from $30 to $45 a month, and you would assume that those premium rates reflect the cost of voice and SMS.

The good news is AT&T is encouraging the use of data-only devices on its network. It wants to usher in the tablet and mobile-connected revolution on its networks so it’s offering steep data discounts for those use cases. It’s a trend we’re likely to see throughout the U.S. mobile industry. The problem is AT&T seems to be inadvertently punishing the large majority of smartphone subscribers in the process.

Here’s an example: If you were a data-only customer with two tablets and a 4G mobile hotspot, you could get a data-only plan that would allow you pool 10 GB a month between your three devices for the very reasonable rate of $100 a month. Now if you were to add a single smartphone to the same plan you wouldn’t just be tacking on a $30-$40 standard connection charge. Instead, you would wind up paying $190 a month by moving to a mixed voice-and-data plan. Basically you wind up spending nearly double to add talk and text to single gadget in a four-device plan – that does not seem like a fair deal to me.

AT&T share plans voice tiers March2013

I applaud AT&T for offering cheaper data options and exploring the concept of a data-only mobile service. But in the process it’s also exposing the fundamental flaws of its regular shared plans. AT&T really needs to do away with the complex system of sliding connection fees, which ultimately charge different rates for data depending on the device you use. Instead, it should make it clear as day what it’s charging for voice, SMS and the cost of connecting a device. Then it should just sell us data at a set universal price.

  1. Nitish Kannan Monday, March 18, 2013

    rip off, in India it’s exactly 2 dollars or 128 rupees a month for a unlimited 3G sim card for tablets, of course after 5 GB they throttle you, but come on ,no overages, way better deal. Why can’t Americans get that, I only use my iPad with wifi here and on corporate android plan.

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  2. You would have to be a complete and utter moron to pay $335 for 50GB when Clear sells unlimited for a flat $50. These prices seem like they were tailored to the wallets of corporate fat cats and not the average consumer. Any carrier that is still charging triple-digit rates for data is lying about the cost of providing that service – corporate greed at it’s finest.

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  3. “AT&T makes it cheap to connect tablets ”

    Cheap? On what planet is this cheap? Maybe if they add 3 zeros to the GB numbers.
    Water on the moon is cheaper than mobile data., what they are offering is less value than dial-up if dial-up would cost hundreds of $.
    You get fooled into thinking those prices are sane just because you have wifi everywhere and home broadband, so you don’t really need the 3G/4G data.
    You are paying for emergency situations ,that much data isn’t more than that, and paying more than what anyone sane should.
    On the flip side some carriers around the world charge10-20 times more.

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    1. Kevin Fitchard Monday, March 18, 2013

      I see your point, Realjj, but it’s all relative. As you point some carriers are charging a lot more. In my mind these rates are low enough that would consider getting a connected tablet, and using mobile broadband beyond my smartphone for something besides emergency use.

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      1. But even 50GB of data is nothing, the web is more than just web browsing and what they are doing,pay for 3G/4G and offload to WIFI is like a restaurant that provides the plates but you got to bring your own food and ofc you pay for a full meal.
        Even with phones, at this point , one is better off with just 2G for voice and WIFI for data to just save 30 to 300$/month.
        You got movies going 4k ,phone cameras going 4k maybe this year ,but that’s extreme, a more reasonable use is video chart , youtube and Netflix and music.
        A pic from a 13MP cam is almost 5MB so just over 200 pictures in 1GB.
        This page,just saved it to check, is 1,59 MB (1.677.507 bytes) so 644 such pages in 1GB
        How much of all that 3G/4G allows you to do and at what cost? If you were free to use your device for w/e you want how much data would you use?
        In the US wifi is everywhere and over 80% of the population is in urban areas so it’s rather hard to justify paying for 3G/4G.

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      2. Kevin Fitchard Tuesday, March 19, 2013

        I would argue the opposite. 50 GB is an enormous amount of data. My wife and I only consume 60-70 GB or so each month on our home broadband connection, and we both work from home, rent the occasional movie and use Netflix streaming. Granted we don’t do any file-sharing, but our use is fairly represented of a modern connected couple.

        But to your point, 50 GB is probably not the best example since no one is really going pat $300-$500 for a subscription. 10 GB a month seems much more within the price range of typical family/share plan, so the question should be if those usage levels are realistic.

        I’m assuming you would argue it wouldn’t because you’re expecting to use mobile BB the same way you would use home BB. I would argue that’s simple not possible today. I don’t think mobile BB will ever be a complete replace for a home wired or LAN connection. It’s simply not an efficient use of capacity.

        That said mobile BB will get cheaper. Despite the flaws, AT&T is actually dropping its pricing for data, and that trend will continue. At some point you’ll actually be able to get that 50 GB a month for the same price you pay for 10 GB. But then again, both of our expectations for capacity will be much higher. :)

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      3. Can’t reply to your last post so doing it here.
        Mobile broadband can replace broadband and some carriers are attacking that market. In the US certain players are lacking the motivation to have decently priced mobile data that leads to them losing broadband and maybe cable subscribers – one more task for regulators.
        As for data usage just checking news ,that includes some video and audio, takes more than 50-60GB for me and you must not use Netflix much.
        As for the future got no clue how it will look ,it just can’t be the current model ,w/e kind of hybrid manages to provide a compelling offer because we need a few TB of any kind of wireless data to be sub 100$ and right now mobile data is where wired internet was 15 years ago while in some places real competition is lacking (some hope from Sprint and T-Mo).

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  4. Why can’t you just tether you tablet to your smart phone for free via bluetooth and then use your cellular plans data charges from the smart phone.

    BlackBerry has been doing that for almost 2 years now but obviously Google and Apple can’t do that without pissing off the carriers. It is not like even 5% of iPad owners buy the cellular models as it stands.

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    1. You absolutely >can< do that on AT&T and Verizon's share plan for no cost, so long as you have a smartphone-based plan. Of course, it's only $10/month to add a tablet to one of those plans and no longer need to tether… So it's a tradeoff.

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      1. Kevin Fitchard Tuesday, March 19, 2013

        Hi Paul, Mark,

        That’s a good example of how arbitrary these plans are when it comes device data rates. Under the data-only plans you pay a much a cheaper rate per GB for a mobile hotspot than you would if you used your phone as a hotspot.

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  5. Kevin,

    I bet Skyping is ‘illegal’ True?

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  6. Jetoine Mathurin Saturday, March 23, 2013

    lol u would think so. moving forawrd that wont be enoght date i have replaced traditional cable with netflix amazon prim and a few others i plow thru that measly 50 gb in maybe a week 2 tops i max out at about 120 gb a month bull shit thats enough

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  7. Jetoine Mathurin Saturday, March 23, 2013

    besides where are those new plans anyway thy certainly hide on att site

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