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Explaining AT&T and Verizons’ complex shared-data plans

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Confused by how AT&T’s new shared-data plans(s t) work? Well, we’ve put together a primer to show you how they work and compare them to Verizon’s(s vz)(s vod) similar pricing structure. Ultimately, shared data might not be for you, but hopefully this guide will help clear up the confusion.

Verizon’s plans went into effect last month, and they are mandatory for all new customers. Current subscribers on Verizon’s individual tiered data plans can keep their rates for the time being, but customers grandfathered into Verizon’s old unlimited plans will have a tough choice to make when they upgrade to their next devices: They can either pay full retail cost for the phone or chose between a shared or tiered individual plan.

AT&T’s shared plans will take effect in late August, though it hasn’t revealed an exact date. AT&T’s will be purely optional for new and existing customers.

First, you need to select a data bucket. The following prices are for shared data between any number of devices either directly connected to the carriers network or tethered via Wi-Fi or cable. For instance if you buy a 6 GB bucket, all of your devices will draw from the monthly 6 GB pool. If you go over that allotment both carriers charge $15 for every additional gigabyte.

Now that you’ve got your data, select the number and types of devices you and your family will use. The reason for the different rates for smartphones, modems, tablets and feature phones is due to the fact that both AT&T and Verizon bundle in unlimited SMS and voice with each device. Feature phones make lots of phone calls and send lots of text messages while tablets do not. Why both carriers are discriminating between the all-data connectivity of a modem versus a tablet is beyond me, but they do.

All of these prices are per device so if you have both a tablet and a feature phone, your monthly device connection fee will be $40, the total of the $10 slate fee and the $30 phone fee. If it’s four smartphones, Verizon will charge you $160. As you’ve probably noticed, AT&T’s smartphone fees are variable, depending on the size of the shared data bucket you buy. That brings us to our next chart.

AT&T charges less to connect smartphones if you invest in more data. That may seem like it gives AT&T a big advantage over Verizon, but in most cases Big Red charges lower rates for the data itself. Whether you save money on one carrier versus the other depends on which combination of devices and plan you sign up for.

Take the individual user with a single smartphone that wants to use his phone as a mobile hotspot. A moderate user just looking for basic connectivity could sign up for an AT&T 1 GB plan and pay $95 $85 a month, while the same plan on Verizon would cost $100 $90. However, if that same single-smartphone customer committed to 4 GBs, the carriers would offer the same price point, $110 a month. And if he bumped up usage to 10 GB a month, Verizon comes out on top charging $140 versus AT&T’s $150.

When you start adding more devices to the plan, the numbers get more complicated. An AT&T plan with four smartphones costs $240 compared to Verizon’s price of $260. But if that same data plan connected two smartphones and two tablets, you’d pay the same rate on both carriers, $200.

It’s not a hard and fast rule, but in general if you’re looking to connect more smartphones, AT&T comes out on top, but if maxing out data usage or connecting a lot of non-smartphone devices is important to you, Verizon’s plans fare better.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Mark Strozier

23 Responses to “Explaining AT&T and Verizons’ complex shared-data plans”

  1. I guess the cheapest way is for users to keep their usual plan and use Open Garden app on Android. data can be shared with laptops (Mac and Windows), Android tablets and other Android phones in the family.

  2. First… I actually like the shared data plans that verizon came out with.. My partner and I both have an iPhone and were paying for unl data on each. Most data in a month we were using combined was about 1.5 – 2 gigs. We had 1400 minutes to share and unl text. We were paying 190 a month including tax ( small corporate discount ) NOW we bought two iPads and even though we got the Verizon iPads, I was not going to pay for data on a continuous basis… Then enter these share plans… Umm we pay less now, and have both iPads on the shared Data… what is not to like? My bill went down about $24 and we have 4 GB to share. Now I realize not everyone will work out this way.. so why don’t those people just stay on what they have and pay full price for a phone.. no big deal.. and no contracts.

    As far as the title “complex” Ummm only complex for a complete moron. It’s pretty basic pricing. Also, keep in mind that we really would not even have to pay the $10 for the iPads and could save another $20 and use the hotspot feature in our phone, and anyone else could do the same to save some money, since that hotspot feature no longer costs extra.

  3. joesph

    I hope the biggest movement will come in the next few years. Sprint as lack luster they are,still have unlimited plans. Myself and I know a few others if still available will make this transition from Verizon to Sprint. Taking unlimited away was the most foolish move both companies could have made. It’s not like I had trust before for Verizon I don’t likewise any other big company but this last move sealed any possibility. Hopefully Sprint will be ready in 1 or 2 years once grandfather contracts start coming to renewal and I hope others around that time do a mass Exodus from Verizon and ATT. There has been some articles that this maybe if indeed it happens over 65% of wireless customer base. Putting Sprint in the for front of customers. Don’t screw it up Sprint.

  4. Java 1959

    Imagine that. The two largest TELCO’s coming up with very similar pricing plans at about exactly the same time. Price fixing anyone?

  5. Dave Wright

    IMO it’s fairly obvious that these new plans are admissions by ATT and VZW that voice and SMS revenues (cash cows) are going the way of the Dodo in a hurry (see the article yesterday by Chetan Sharma on what OTT is doing to voice and text). Does anyone really care about unlimited voice and text in the age of Skype, iMessage and WhatsApp? The per device access charges are simply a maneuver to preserve those revenue streams, Basically, you’ll still be paying for unlimited voice and text, even though you don’t want or need it.

    Kudos to Kevin for pointing out how inane it is that tablet access fees are 50% of hotspots or laptops. Someone might want to let these guys know that the iPad 3 (new iPad) works perfectly well as a hotspot.

  6. att could have toss the per device fee gain customers back sold more phones and tablets but no greedy corporation and i will no longer be a att customer sharing is good but in this case u spend more then u should for data remember its just a phone we all have pc’s at home where data is unlimited but probably soon will be capped also

  7. Jim Crawford

    Easy for wireless guy maybe, but these plans make my head spin — for how expensive they are.

    I used to work for NYNEX, one of the pre-Verizon RBOCs. One memory that stands out was an in-house conference where some of the key bean counters joked that it would take the FCC an army of accountants to track where all the telco’s money went. Quite an eye-opener. They had assets that were written off for years. . .and years. . .and years, in fact, paid for many times over by customers.

    Anyone who knows the least about telco tariffs and rate setting understands that these plans are deliberately created to be confusing to average consumers, many of whom pay for far more minutes or data than they actually need, out of fear that they’ll be penalized for exceeding their plan limit. These new, supposedly improved shared data plans for smart phones are no different.

    Jim Crawford

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hi Jim,

      I didn’t say it would be easy :) I actually made a mistake in my own math, which I had to correct in the post (Thanks Q). I figured putting all of the tables in one place would make it a little easier to calculate and compare. My brain is mush from looking at them as well.

      • Gary Yund

        Hehe, yah, I had to update my spreadsheet a number of times to get everything just right for myself. I wish I could share it so people could tweak the numbers without being able to save it. I was also taking a look at Sprint, and it seemed like they have the best value of the major carriers that you can buy or use the iPhone on it so far, but I don’t know how great the service is.

  8. Hello, question on this:

    “while the same plan on Verizon would cost $100”

    Should that instead be $90? [Verizon smartphone $40 + Verizon 1GB $50?]

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hi Q, you’re right, I accidentally shifted the price on both plans by $10 for some reason. AT&T would be $85 and Verizon $90. Thanks for pointing that out. Correcting now.

  9. Thank goodness i’m on tmobile! 5 gigs of hspa+ speeds (20+ mbps) and 2 smartphones for 90 a month total. That’s just the data with vzon and att!

  10. Rex Meddleton

    The new att/vzw rates draw a line in the sand between them and the discount carriers. Dear verizon, if you ever cancel my existing plan that’s 66/33 voice/data phones, you will lose me as a customer, which might be in both our best interests :)

  11. Gary Yund

    I just updated the spreadsheet with the expense details to add the “Cost per GB” of data. For a family of four with three smartphones, the typical plan to get would be the 4GB plan. Under this plan, the cost per GB will be $30 per GB instead of $15 as it is currently. If you actually decided to share 1GB with three smartphones, your cost per GB is $135 under AT&T and $120 under Verizon. Chances are you’ll probably overage on it. I’m typically on wifi when at home or at work, so on average my data usage is probably around 300-400MB per month.

  12. Gary Yund

    Nice article, but one thing to mention that while comparing the plans to each other is one thing, comparing them to their current plans is another story. You’re actually getting more for less and the whole aspect of “shared” data is a marketing gimmick. You’ll actually end up spending about the same or more compared to your current plan. I wrote a brief article on it here last night doing a comparison for my family in general:

  13. wirelessguy

    The plans for both carriers are simple and do not require this ridiculously long explanation. Step 1: pick your devices. Step 2: pick your data bucket. Simple as that. Furthermore, the aitho omitted the. $150 15GB and $200 GB data buckets for Verizon. This article is poorly written and attempts to make a simple program overly complex.