AT&T's New Data Plans: a FAQ

When AT&T told iPhone owners on Wednesday that their all-you-can-eat buffet was about to close, some shrugged, some shrieked.

It shouldn't have come as a shock, analysts said yesterday -- and others repeated today.

Jack Gold of J. Gold Associates put it best. "Unlimited was unsustainable."

But does the endless data party really have to end? Not really.

Questions about the capped data plans? We have answers

I want to save some money and ditch the $30 unlimited plan I'm on. What plan should I pick? If this isn't a "Your mileage may vary" question, we don't know what is.

First: Check what you've been using over the last six months. You can do that by logging in at the AT&T myWireless Account home page, then clicking on "View Past Data Usage." The default is the last six months.

If you've been using under 200MB on a regular basis, jump on the $15 deal for a $15 savings. More than 200MB? Spring for the $25 2GB plan, and pocket the $5.

Regularly swill more than 2GB a month? Stick to the unlimited plan. (See below for why.)

Pretty simple, really.

Do I have to give up the unlimited plan I have now? No. You're grandfathered in on the current unlimited plan indefinitely, even if you renew your contract or, say, buy a new iPhone this summer.

If I try the $15 200MB plan and it doesn't work out, can I go back to the $30 unlimited? Nope. Once you switch to a new capped plan, you can't return to the unlimited deal.

If I sign up for the 200MB plan, can I later change to the 2GB? Do I have to pay a penalty? Yes on the first, no on the second.

You can bounce between the two capped data plans anytime you want, said AT&T. "There is no early termination fee to move between the new plans," the company's spokeswoman confirmed.

It works the other way, too. Say you pick the 2GB plan, then a month or two later realize you're using just a few score megabytes of data. Boom. You can drop down to the 200MB plan and save $10.

So if I sign up for the 200MB plan and go over the allowance, I pay $15 for another 200GB, or $30 for 400MB total? And 2GB plan customers get another 1GB for just $10? In other words, they pay $35 for 3GB? Did I do the math wrong? You're a regular math genius, you are.

That's how AT&T designed it. So, we asked AT&T to tell us if we read the numbers right, and second, explain why the fees are what they are.

"The overage structure for the two plans was designed to be similar to the data plans themselves," a company spokeswoman said. "In other words, we wanted to let customers receive roughly similar amounts of additional data for approximately the same price. That's why the pricing of the second bucket of data for the [$15] DataPlus plan is the same as the price for the first 200MB. With the [$25] DataPro plan, an additional 2GB will cost slightly less than the first 2GB contained in the plan."

Satisfied?

We didn't think so.

I don't want to go over. How do I check data usage? You can call *DATA# from your iPhone to receive a text message that spells out your data usage for the current billing cycle.

You can also download the free AT&T myWireless Mobile app from the iTunes App Store; the app provides an up-to-date tally of calling minutes and data consumed in the current cycle.

AT&T will also text your iPhone when you've consumed 65%, 90% and 100% of your monthly allotment.

I have an iPad 3G, too. Do I need to pay attention to the new capped plans? You'd better.

Plenty of people are beefing about what they see as a bait-and-switch. When Apple introduced the iPad last January, CEO Steve Jobs made a point to tout the unlimited $30-a-month data plan for the 3G model and that fact that there was no contract commitment. You'd be able to pay for data on a month-by-month basis, dropping it when you didn't need it, picking it back up when you did.

That flexibility gets a serious leg cramp next Monday.

Here's why. If you're now on the iPad 3G's $30 all-you-can-eat data plan, and drop it at any time, you can't go back: The next time you want data, your choices will be between $15 for 200MB and $25 for 2GB. No more unlimited data for you.

That means you have to keep paying the $30 -- and have the account set to auto-renew -- to remain on the unlimited plan.

From where we sit, that's the same thing as if you were locked into a long-term contract. Maybe it's worse, since it's infinite.

We're light eaters in my house. Can we share one data plan among several iPhones? You cannot.

The data plans are per-line only, AT&T confirmed. Adding another iPhone to your existing family plan costs a minimum of $25 per month. But look on the bright side: That's $15 less than before. (The $15 cost savings, naturally, comes from the $15 difference between the current $30 unlimited plan and the $15 200MB deal that kicks in Monday.)

How much does tethering cost? $20 a month on top of the $25 monthly fee for the 2GB plan. (Tethering isn't offered with the $15 plan.)

This doesn't apply to iPhone owners -- this is the first time we've been offered tethering -- but if you've been paying the $30 per month for tethering another make of smartphone, you're grandfathered. So why pay $10 more a month? Because the old $30 tethering deal included an additional 5GB of data.

The new $20 plan -- which replaces the $30-with-more-data deal -- doesn't come with any data allotment.

Can I tether my iPhone to my iPad? Negative.

Even though the iPad and iPhone both support Bluetooth, iPhone-to-iPad tethering isn't available. When asked why, an AT&T spokeswoman said, "That's a device question. I recommend you ask Apple ."

Apple did not reply to our question. Shocker.

It's possible that everyone is keeping mum because iPhone-to-iPad tethering will be switched on in iPhone OS 4, which should hit the iPhone next week and the iPad sometime this fall. We're hopeful.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld . Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com .

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