AT&T throws down usage-based pricing gauntlet

* A new era dawns in mobile data plan pricing

AT&T has thrown down the mobile-data pricing gauntlet by rearranging its subscription plans into two usage-based tiers and eliminating its all-u-can-eat option. The new plans could save certain smartphone users money but might also send heavy data users -- such as iPad enthusiasts -- to the poor house.

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Other mobile operators are likely to follow suit with usage-based pricing as the multimedia-rich applications marketed for the latest smart phones and tablet devices bog down their networks.

Here are the two AT&T plans:

* DataPlus allows you to consume 200MB for $15 per month. Each additional 200MB increment costs another $15.

* DataPro allows you to consume 2GB of data for $25 per month; you pay $10 for each additional gigabyte used. DataPro users with smartphones can enable tethering (using the smartphone as a wireless modem with laptop) for yet an additional $20 per month.

Bottom line translation: pricing for a smartphone voice and data bundle now starts at just $54.99 per month for an individual plan.

AT&T states that currently, 65% of its smartphone customers use less than 200MB of data per month on average, so the new plans should save a lot of people money. That might be true.

But assuming that figure is accurate, there are a couple things to consider. First, is this consumption behavior natural? Or are a number of users without unlimited monthly plans curbing their usage so as not to pay big bucks in overages?

No way to really know. But it’s a good bet that the 65% aren't using Apple iPhones and are more oriented toward e-mail (think BlackBerry) and social networking.

Second consideration: Existing iPad customers, who already have a $29.99 unlimited monthly plan from AT&T, can choose to keep it or switch to the DataPro plan.

Keep it!

The iPad is likely to exceed the limit of AT&T's DataPro plan pretty fast. Consider movie downloads/streaming, a big app for the iPad: Depending on the resolution, if video is compressed, a two-hour movie might consume 500MB to 1G. That means two to four movies alone on the iPad in a month, and you're done before you start paying overages in $10 chunks.

Still: For all the networks to survive, the carriers' pricing has to become cost-based. That means that people need to pay their fair share of what they use. Whether the actual usage amounts and associated price plans AT&T has devised work for iPad and iPhone users remains to be seen. But the concept behind having big consumers pay proportionally more is fair.

And AT&T is offering monitoring tools and text alerts when you are approaching your usage limit. This is just the right thing to do to educate the public about their real consumption of network resources.

Learn more about this topic

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