Unlimited Data Plans: A reality check

AT&T has really been pissing me off lately with their attitude towards unlimited data plans.  Look, if you don’t want to respect your original definition of “unlimited” then stop screwing around and just eliminate the plans.  Nothing could be worse than screwing your most loyal customers, first with an opaque throttling definition and now with a transparent definition that leaves your best customers being more poorly served than new customers paying the same price.  AT&T grandfathered in Unlimited Data customers to keep them happy, but its treatment of those customers has more than ruined any good will from the grandfathering.  Strike One and Two against AT&T.

Of course AT&T is compounding its mistreatment of loyal customers by raising the upgrade fee for new devices when you come off contract.  Now let’s see, I can’t really keep my unlimited data plan and it costs me more to get a new phone and stay with AT&T then to go to Verizon?  Essentially AT&T has put the question of which carrier I, and millions of other customers, will be on the next time we buy a phone.  Pretty dumb given that, other than occasional frustration with coverage, I am a pretty happy AT&T customer and have been for about 8 years.  Strike 3?

Now for some reality checks.

I checked my smartphone data usage for the last year and in no month did I exceed 500MB.  So on the surface I really have no reason to maintain an “unlimited” data plan and if I do I’m in no danger of being throttled.  Part of this is that I frequently carry a tablet with me that has its own 3G data plan, so a change in usage habits could drive my smartphone data usage up.  But would it go up from 500MB to over 3GB?  Doubtful.

There are three other factors that likely will keep me with AT&T even though I’m annoyed with them:

First, no other U.S. carrier has a decent selection of Windows Phone devices.  Verizon and Sprint are mostly ignoring the platform, though that might change this fall.  T-Mobile is focused on the low-end of the market.  Only AT&T has the high-end devices from the top 3 Windows Phone manufacturers, Nokia, Samsung, and HTC.

Second, we do not have great coverage at our house from any of the carriers and AT&T gave us a free Microcell.  So our AT&T coverage at home is effectively quite good now and I can give out my cell number with confidence I can be reached.  With another carrier we’d have to find a way to address this, possibly by purchasing a Microcell if that carrier offered one.  But it is both an issue and a cost that would need to be addressed in any switch.

Third, I do enough international travel that I favor staying with a GSM carrier such as AT&T or T-Mobile over CDMA carriers Verizon and Sprint.  In other words, not only would Verizon and Sprint need better Windows Phone offerings to capture my attention, they’d have to be Global (dual CDMA/GSM) phones.

So while I think AT&T’s treatment of its loyal customers is just awful, and I sometimes envy the better coverage my Verizon-toting friends have, there are more reasons for me to stick with AT&T than to leave.    That’s the reality.

Now I do have one device where AT&T’s policies leave me confused.  My iPad also has an unlimited data plan.  I’ve seen nothing out of AT&T that indicates what happens when an iPad user exceeds the old 5% mark or the new 3GB mark in data usage.  There are months where I’ve exceeded the 1.5-2GB that some where reporting caused AT&T to throttle their Smartphone unlimited data plan usage.  But I’ve never been notified I was in the 5% and never noticed any throttling.  Moreover, since my next tablet is likely to be a Windows 8 tablet and the iPad data plans won’t carry over to that, and my other reasons for sticking with AT&T mostly don’t apply, I’m open to a carrier switch for the new device.  I know you are asking about my international roaming problem, and the truth is that there pretty much isn’t international 4G data roaming.  So I’m likely to focus on the best domestic 4G offering for a new tablet and just rely on WiFi when traveling internationally.

Bottom Line: AT&T is making it hard to stay a customer, but as each individual re-evaluates their carrier choice most may end up sticking with them.  Still, customers will remember how badly AT&T screwed them.  And when circumstances change they’ll dump AT&T out of principle.


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9 Responses to Unlimited Data Plans: A reality check

  1. Small suggestion: Windows Phone 7.5 has the ability to share its Internet with other devices through Wifi; so maybe you could reduce your costs by cancelling your tablet’s 3G data plan…

    • halberenson says:

      Three problems:

      1) I already have battery life problems on the phone and tethering with WiFi would make it much worse.
      2) WP7.5 has the support, but it is dependent on AT&T releasing new firmware for my phone (Samsung Focus). They haven’t done so.
      3) Even if the firmware was updated, the Unlimited Data Plan doesn’t support tethering. And once I go off the unlimited plan I can pay for the appropriate capacity on each device.
      Testhering is a good alternative for either very intermittent use or for situations where the phone can be hooked up to an external power source. That isn’t the way I use my tablet.

      • Jonny says:

        I have been using usb tethering with my focus for almost a year (works only with devices with standard usb – obviously). Works great.
        1) battery gets charged while plugged to my laptop
        2) No need for at&t to bring the firmware update (all versions of focus support this – all wp7.5 devices infact support this)
        How-to: http://pocketnow.com/windows-phone/samsung-focus-does-tethering-after-all-on-windows-phone-7

        • halberenson says:

          Won’t work for an iPad 🙂

          It’s also rather inconvenient for mobile scenarios, and drains the Tablet battery.

          It IS exactly the scenario I used to do with Windows Mobile and a laptop so I didn’t have to pay for Internet access in hotels, airports, etc. But generally I was not mobile (as in moving) and had access to both a horizontal surface and a power outlet for the notebook.

          • halberenson says:

            Oh, and At&T requires a plan that is $20 more in order to tether so you may be in violation of the Terms of Service. If you do this “properly” that $20 wipes out the cost advantage of tethering over having separate plans. Indeed the best alternative might be a minimal data plan on the phone and then a MiFi type device with its own plan that the phone, tablet, and notebook (as well as a spouse or co-worker) could all use for the bulk of their mobile data needs. Still not that convenient when you are truly mobile though.

  2. dave says:

    The throttling seems to be targetting grandfathered unlimited plans, and NOT based on data usage. I have a WinMo Standard 6.1 samsung “Jack” (I know, I know…) and there’s no way I’m hitting the limits bing reported for data consumption for throttling to kick in. But, I do have $15 per month unlimited data plan. With throttling hitting me, it was virtually impossible to do anything with a data connection. When the problem mysteriosly appeared, I thought my phone was failing. Then it cleared up all of a sudden. Now it seems to be creeping back again intermittently.

    If all contracts could be changed unannounced unilateraly for the benefit of one party, it would be chaos.

    • halberenson says:

      At&T uses the clause that says they don’t guarantee actual performance to justify this change. But it is really your contractual agreement not to enter into a class action lawsuit that let’s them get away with it.

  3. halberenson says:

    Verizon is currently offering 4GB for $30. Seems like AT&T is trying to drive people intomVerizon’s arms.

  4. Pingback: Strike 3 for AT&T? | Hal's (Im)Perfect Vision

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