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AT&T unveils voluntary Mobile Share wireless data plans

In some scenarios, the plans are less expensive than Verizon's Share Everything

AT&T announced voluntary wireless data sharing plans on Wednesday that don't require new and current customers to enroll, a marked distinction from the Verizon Wireless' forced Share Everything plans for new and upgrading customers. The Verizon plans took effect last month.

AT&T didn't specify a starting date for its Mobile Share plans, saying they will be available in late August to both consumers and business customers. AT&T made the explicit point in a statement that "current customers are not required to switch to the new plans, but can choose to do so without a contract extension."

AT&T's plans have been under evaluation for months as part of an overall industry effort to find ways to charge for data usage as young customers lessen the demand for voice networks.

A spokesman for AT&T refused to comment on Verizon's sharing plans or whether AT&T is setting up a voluntary plan in reaction to Verizon's approach. Verizon customers strongly criticized the plans when they were first announced, although a Verizon spokeswoman said customer response has been generally positive since they rolled out.

AT&T also said Wednesday that it would not change its device upgrade policies. Verizon's Share Everything plans allow unlimited data users to use an older phone or a more expensive unlocked phone. But if they buy a new subsidized-price phone, they have to convert to the Share Everything plan.

"I have no doubt that AT&T studied the Verizon plans closely and took all the feedback and controversy [with Verizon] into consideration," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates. "AT&T's plan is a more open environment, as you can keep the old plan, but it is still not inexpensive."

Like Verizon, AT&T has set up data sharing across up to 10 devices, with unlimited domestic calling and texting provided. Under the voluntary shared plans from AT&T, users will pay between $30 and $45 a month for each smartphone or mobile device used, and a separate fee depending on how much data they select. But -- unlike Verizon -- the monthly device charge for smartphones drops as the monthly data allowance increases.

With AT&T Mobile Share, 1GB of shared data will cost $40, plus $45 for each smartphone. The plans step up from there in six tiers to 20GB of data per month for $200, and device charges of $30 each. The cost per month for basic phones in shared AT&T plans will be $30; for laptops and laptop modems, $20; and for tablets and gaming devices, $10.

Today with AT&T, individual consumer tablet customers can buy 3GB of data for $30 a month, compared to the Mobile Share cost of $40 per month for 1 GB. Today, business customers with AT&T can buy data for various devices for $45 a month for 3GB.

Mark Siegel, an AT&T spokesman, said those current individual rates will remain available to consumers and business customers, and both groups will have the option of sharing data across up to 10 devices at the new rates.

In terms of what customers might actually pay for AT&T's or Verizon's shared data plans, the prices are lower with AT&T when more shared data is used with more smartphones. But actual prices depend on which devices are used and the amount of data purchased.

AT&T charges less for each smartphone as the amount of shared data increases, starting at $45 per smartphone for 1GB of shared data and dropping to $30 per smartphone for a 20GB shared data plan. Verizon keeps the cost for each smartphone constant at $40 each, no matter how much shared data is purchased.

Another distinction in the carriers' two plans is that AT&T has set up two larger tiers of data per month than Verizon, offering 15GB for $160 a month and 20GB for $200 a month. Verizon has six tiers, the same as AT&T, but Verizon tops out at 10GB of shared data for $100 a month, and charges $15 for each 1GB of overage.

As a result, in one example, when picking a comparable quantity of data in both plans -- 10GB shared with 10 smartphones -- AT&T would charge $420 per month before fees and taxes, while Verizon charges $500.

However, in another example, if only 1GB of data is shared with just two smartphones, AT&T would charge $130 a month, the same amount Verizon charges.

Gold said that the carriers are likely to adjust their plans and charges over time, especially as competition heats up. Even so, he said that if a group of customers in a family or work group is using a lot of data with multiple 3G and 4G wireless devices, shared data plans are "certainly better [deals] than having an independent plan for each one."

One common theme in both AT&T's and Verizon's shared plans is that both are charging just $10 per month for data for each tablet, no matter how much data is purchased. That's an attempt to allow smartphone owners to also use a tablet more affordably, analysts noted, rather than buying a separate data plan for a tablet. Many tablet users eschew data plans for such devices, and prefer using them over Wi-Fi, a concern to the wireless carriers interested in selling data.

"All the carriers need to be cautious that they don't make shared data too attractive, and hence make lots of devices draws lots of data over their networks, which would likely cause major congestion problems," Gold said. "So it's a balancing act between what customers want -- low prices and lots of data on multiple devices -- with what the carriers need, make plans attractive, but not too attractive to bog down networks."

Gold predicted that data sharing plans won't substantially increase the use of 4G-ready tablets or notebooks in the near term, although many customers may buy such devices and then not use them over cellular connections while keeping the option to do so later.

Jeff Kagan, an independent analyst, predicted that Verizon will eventually follow AT&T by reducing some of its shared data requirements on new and existing customers or offering new incentives. "That [forced data sharing] approach has kicked Verizon in the stomach with the negative feedback," he said.

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is [email protected].

See more by Matt Hamblen on Computerworld.com.

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