On Sunday, AT&T(s T) is reconfiguring its mobile data plans in a way that will anger many customers but may actually please others. It’s raising its smartphone and tablet data plan rates, while simultaneously offering customers a better deal on the data they do consume. The operator’s $15 / 200 MB and $25 / 2 GB are plans are going away for new subscribers, replaced by a $20 plan with 300 MB and a $30 plan with 3 GB. The bottom line is all new customers will pay more every month for data, but they will also pay less per megabyte.
AT&T will also offer an additional 5 GB high-volume smartphone plan for $50 a month, which includes tethering and mobile hotspot use. For tablets, AT&T will offer the same $30 and $50 tiers as it does for smartphones, though without tethering, and it will keep its $15 / 250 MB plan in place. The same $10 per gigabyte overage fee will remain in effect for all of the higher-tier plans, though its rather discriminatory policy toward data excess on its lowest-tier plans will persist. Customers with the $20 / 300 MB plan will have to pay another $20 to get another mere 300 MB. All existing unlimited customers on the old capped and unlimited plans are grandfathered in (though throttling will remain in effect for unlimited), but existing customers can switch to the new pricing tiers if they wish.
There’s a way to look at this as a positive. AT&T is actually lowering the per-MB cost of data as mobile Internet and app use skyrockets. That’s a trend that needed – and still needs – to occur if operators are to keep ahead of the increasing bandwidth demands of smartphones and tablets. AT&T still isn’t as cheap as Sprint(s S), which is still holding on to unlimited plans, and T-Mobile, which offers gobs of data for dirt cheap prices, but it’s definitely undercutting its primary competitor, Verizon Wireless(s Vz)(s vod), which offers 1 GB less for the same price on the most popular $30 plan. Unless operators want mobile broadband innovation to go stagnant, pricing-per-megabyte will have to fall further.
Make no mistake about it: AT&T may be smoothing over the edges, but this is most definitely a price hike. Some of AT&T’s current customers may switch over the plans by choice, particularly customers that often go just over their current 200 MB or 2 GB caps each month. But AT&T will be collecting $5 more month from all new customers. That’s going add up to a hefty pile in AT&T’s coffers, and most customers won’t be happy about it.