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AT&T’s new shared data plans: Can you split a measly 300 MB of data?

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AT&T(s t) this week will introduce a new tier to its Mobile Share plans that will probably baffle most GigaOM readers: a 300MB shared data option. When you’re done laughing I’ll explain why this might actually be a valuable plan to many people.

Most of you probably want bigger shared data buckets, not smaller ones, and I’ll bet a 300 MB bucket isn’t even enough to meet your individual smartphone’s needs, much less the needs of multiple devices. According to Chetan Sharma Consulting, the average smartphone’s data appetite is more than 1 GB a month at many of the big carriers — and shared plans are only encouraging our mobile data voraciousness.

AT&T flagship store logo Why would AT&T introduce such a measly shared bucket of megabytes? Well, that 1 GB is an average, and like every average it’s composed of a broad spectrum of users. At one end you have people like Om Malik, who can eat through 5 GBs on his iPhone in less than two weeks. At the other end is my wife, who until we switched carriers in January was on a 200 MB monthly plan and never even got close to hitting her cap.

My wife isn’t a Luddite. She used her Android phone quite extensively every day to check email, update Facebook(s fb), surf the web and download and read e-books for her daily commute. What she doesn’t use are bandwidth-intensive apps like video streaming or picture sharing services. Apart from Facebook, she’s not hyperconnected to a social network. And mainly she’s using her phone as a leisure tool, not as the centerpiece of her professional career.

And I guarantee you my wife isn’t an exception or an extreme, just as Om isn’t an extreme at the high-end of the mobile consumption scale. While there are people milking every last megabyte they can out of unlimited plans, there also are people who own smartphones that have never downloaded an app from iTunes(s aapl) or Google Play(s goog). You probably know many of them. They could be your parents, grandparents and maybe even your spouse.

The other mobile consumer

Smartphones are proliferating far beyond the tech-savvy into the hands of mobile data neophytes thanks to cheap smartphone deals and hand-me-down devices. And those people simply don’t need 2GB or 3GB data plans. The trend among U.S. carriers, however, is to eliminate smaller-bucket data plans as options. That’s a raw deal for many low-volume data users because it forces them to buy more data than they could conceivably consume in a single month.

Many smartphonesAT&T’s new plan goes into effect Friday, the same day as its new Next upgrade program. Granted if you’re looking solely for the cheapest price for a small bucket of megabytes, you should probably look elsewhere than AT&T. It’s charging $20 for 300 MB a month on Mobile Share, but the way the program works, the less data you buy the more you pay for the core service. That means you pay for $50 to connect each smartphone to the 300 MB plan, as opposed to $40 for a higher data tier.

But the new tier winds up being a much better deal for low-volume data users than AT&T’s current contract plans. AT&T’s cheapest individual smartphone plan (300 MB, 450 minutes and unlimited SMS) runs $80 a month. Registering just a single smartphone on the new Mobile Share tier will cost you $70 a month and give you unlimited voice to boot. Now if you have a family of super-sparse data users, you can start attaching multiple devices to that plan. Two smartphones connected to the 300-MB plan would cost $120 a month.

The real advantage, however, might be for people who still haven’t graduated to the smartphone. Given feature phone limitations, it’s not unreasonable to hang four of the handsets off a single 300 MB plan, and that bill would run you just $140 a month, basically $35 per device.

I’m not going to rush out and buy this plan, and you’re probably not either. But there is a big segment of mobile consumers out there still coming to terms with the mobile data revolution we’ve long since embraced. These plans could definitely be cheaper, but at least AT&T is giving those consumers options — rather than ignoring them entirely.

Empty tank image courtesy of Shutterstock user Niyazz; Smartphones image courtesy of Shutterstock user Reno Martin

9 Responses to “AT&T’s new shared data plans: Can you split a measly 300 MB of data?”

  1. This is pathetic. This why I only use 3G or HSPA devices without shared plans when possible to avoid accidental overages. If it means digging up and old Windows Mobile 6 device then so be it. AT&T has been good about allowing users to turn off LTE data and surf the lower bands on Iphone 5 but not any of their other smartphones. IOS 7 also does away with the 3G toggle meaning the next update to Iphone 5 and the brand new 5S could 100% LTE with no ability to switch bands.

  2. Frank A NYC

    I certainly get by with 200MB on AT&Ts $40, 500 minute plan. I’m not on facebook or twitter so I do not need to check my phone every 30 seconds. I have wifi at home and it is available in many public places these days. I cut my bill in half just by switching from a post paid AT&T plan to a pre paid plan. It’s all pre paid and unlocked phones for me from now on.

  3. Ron Larson

    Here is the problem with these capped plans. We, the consumers, have to tools and methods to control precisely what we spend.

    I’m fighting with AT&T now. I bought a 300MB international roaming package for my iPad for a trip to Canada. Within a week they had claimed I had used up my allocation. I bought the more expensive 600MB. Yet somehow they claimed I used 10X my allotment and sent me a bill for $500. $500 for checking email on an iPad in Canada. It is impossible, yet they claim I must have used it.

    I’ve demanded that they prove to me that I used that much data. They claim that my iPad reported that to the Canadian telco Rogers and that was the end of the matter. Yet I have no meter on my iPad. I can’t ask my iPad “How much data did you send across the Mobile chip this week?”. We have to trust the telcos to be honest.

    I would pay good money for an app that not only tracks the actual usage, but then cuts off the antennae when I reach a cap that I designate. But I suppose such a cap wouldn’t mean a damn thing. If the telco’s wants to make up numbers in order to gouge their customers, then my stats are worthless.

      • Ron:

        On my Android device, I use a free app called Watch Dog that measures my data usage, both WiFi and over the air. I have no idea if this kind of data measurement would hold any weight if presented to a carrier. At the very least, you would have something specific to use in your argument. I realize that you are talking iPad, and I am referencing my Android (so this is not Apples to Apples, pun intended), but maybe there is an iPad app like this. My provider also gives me my exact data usage at any time by simply sending a 3 letter text to them. Their automated reply shows my usage month to date.

    • There are tools and apps available your iPad itself has a tool built in although you have to reset it monthly. Search in the app store for data counter or data tracker. Also you can review your usage through the view my account option if your on a session based pricing tier. If your iPad is on a mobile share plan or a regular postpaid plan you can review all usage on your monthly statement. The telcos are not going to lie to you about data usage. They have much bigger things to worry about then your data usage. Something had to been running in the background.

  4. It’s easy to use a minimal data plan and still use your smartphone, as long as you have WiFi connections in your typical daily routine. I have my Android device set to update apps only when connected to WiFi. Home and work have WiFi, so I’m free to do as much as I want with my device there. I only use my data plan for email, maps and the occasional web search. I have no need to stream music or video when I don’t have WiFi. My prepaid plan that uses the Verizon network costs me $29 a month, and I never get close to using my 500 MB monthly limit. Of course, I don’t get LTE service and use an older smartphone, but I don’t need the speed.

    • Kevin Fitchard

      Hey Jim,

      I think a lot of people are in the same situation. I work from home as well so I’m in Wi-Fi coverage 95 percent of my life it seems (Maybe I need to get out more)…