As readers may know, I’m not the biggest fan of AT&T — find someone in New York that doesn’t complain endlessly about AT&T’s 3G coverage, dropped calls and less than stellar customer service and I’ll buy you lunch — but AT&T dropping its unlimited data usage plan in favor of two cheaper data plans is not likely to be the pitchfork-and-torches moment that AT&T haters have been waiting for. (Cultofmac.com featured a photo of a circle of middle fingers next to the announcement.)
In fact, it looks like most AT&T smartphone users will benefit from the change in service expected to be introduced with the iPhone 4G on Monday. Instead of $30 for unlimited data usage (the plan current subscribers will get to keep), new subscribers will be able to choose between 200 megabytes at $15 a month or 2 gigabytes at $25. At the 200-meg rate, overage is $15 for 200 extra megs; at the 2-gig rate, it’s $10 for another gig. However, even current users of the 3G iPad will be forced to pick one of the new plans.
Now consider this: Consumer Reports released a study with online bill analysis firm Validas in February suggesting that at an average of 273 megabytes per month, iPhone users consumed five times as much data on average than BlackBerry users (54 megabytes). Other smartphones, not including BlackBerrys, take an average of 150 megabytes monthly. Twelve percent of iPhone users gobble up more than 500 megabytes per month, with a third of that group using up more than a gigabyte a month.
The information in this report was collected through November 2009, which is notable as Android usage has increased a good deal after the introduction of the Verizon Droid that month. Also, as everyone in this industry can attest to, tech changes fast and megabytes can turn into gigabytes overnight. Streaming mobile video has been running the whisper circuit for a while now — imagine how quickly that will run up data usage.
Still, this move will likely benefit most AT&T users — for the moment. And $10 for an extra gig is surprisingly reasonable (compare that to Verizon’s 20 cents per megabyte under the 25-meg data plan — a gig would run $200 ).
But there’s also a perception issue here — instead of building a better network to fully support its users with what it promised, AT&T is back-pedaling by putting caps on usage. AT&T probably should never have offered unlimited data plans in the first place, but they did, and taking it away stands to further worsen AT&T’s bad rep in many consumers’ mind.
Will Verizon follow suit in canning its unlimited usage plan? Wall Street tech analysts are guessing so much in the coming months. Many signs point to the imminent release of a Verizon iPhone, with an unverified report on TheStreet.com suggesting ongoing negotiation to release it by the end of the year. Some industry insiders think secretive Apple CEO Steve Jobs tipped his hat at the All Things Digital D8 conference yesterday by refusing to deny the cherished mobile device is making a leap to other carriers.
However, if the iPhone doesn’t find its way to other carriers, Android could get another leg up on mobile device numero uno — especially if AT&T competitors Verizon and Sprint keep unlimited data usage plans. Already Android has made significant gains in the space with version 2.0 installed on a slew of popular devices, and the next upgrade will offer several features you can’t get on an iPhone.
I’ve noted before, people love Apple but hate AT&T. I’ll add that the problem with walled gardens is that you tend to box yourself in.