AT&T shifts to usage-based wireless data plans

New customers no longer get unlimited data, though starting price lower

AT&T effectively has scrapped its unlimited wireless data offering for new subscribers. The new scheme offers a lower starting point for monthly costs, but usage is capped at 200MB or 2GB. Also new: letting laptops tether to smartphones as a wireless modem, but you'll pay $20 a month to do so.

AT&T Wednesday announced two new wireless data plans based on the amount of data subscribers use. The change spells the end of unlimited wireless data use for new customers and likely higher charges for existing customers who use more than 2GB of data per month for activities such as watching videos and online gaming.

Existing customers can keep the unlimited plans they have, but can switch to the new ones without having to extend their service contracts.

Also read: The state of 4G wireless in 2010

Also, after a trail of continuous promises and false starts, the carrier finally will let laptops and other devices use some smartphone models, including the iPhone, on the AT&T network as a broadband connection. But subscribers will have to pay $20 more a month for this "tethering" service. That's still less than the capped DataConnect plans that AT&T currently offers, at $35 and $60 per month, for laptops or netbooks fitted with cellular modems.

Tethering for iPhone users will be available this summer when Apple releases iPhone OS 4.0.

Based on the new data pricing, AT&T's voice and data bundle now starts at $54.99 for an individual plan and $24.99 per month for an additional line on a FamilyTalk plan. That's $15 less than the previous starting price, according to AT&T.

Earlier this year, AT&T cut the price of its unlimited data plans by about 30%, to $30 a month, in a bid to draw new subscribers. One blogger recently tried to test just how unlimited the data is for his just-released Apple iPad.  

But the usage-based plans are part of a cellular industry trend to require the relatively small number of heavy data users to pay more for using more. In May, Verizon Wireless announced that customers of its upcoming LTE 4G network likewise will pay for "buckets" of data.  

In Europe, both Vodafone and Orange offer capped data plans for their iPhone and iPad users.

Now, new users will have a choice between two plans starting June 7: DataPlus, $15 a month for 200MB of data traffic or DataPro, $25 a month for 2GB. According to AT&T, 98% of its customers use less than 2B, and 65% use less than 200 MB. Customers on the 200MB plan who exceed their limit can get another 200 MB for $15; customers running over the 2GB limit  can pay $10 for an additional Gigabyte.

For new Apple iPad customers, the 2GB plan will replace the original $29.99 unlimited offering. For all subscribers, the new wireless data plans continue the carrier's policy of offering mobile users free access to AT&T's network of 20,000 Wi-Fi hotspots, bypassing their cellular data limits.

AT&T is offering a set of free tools and alerts to help customers manage their data usage. At three usage milestones, starting at 65% of their limit, AT&T will send a text and even an e-mail alert to the customer. Users of iPhones and some other devices can download a local application to monitor their usage, or call *DATA# from their phone to get an update for the current billing period. Finally, an online calculator will let users estimate mobile data use to decide on which plan to choose.

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