Shared data plans are now mandatory for AT&T

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If you have no interest in shared data plans for your smartphone, your options are becoming more limited.

Starting October 25, AT&T will require all new customers to sign up for its Mobile Share plans. These plans include unlimited voice and text, plus a single pool of data for multiple devices.

Existing AT&T customers can hang onto their traditional plans, with a set amount of voice minutes and text messages, and separate amounts of data for each device. Subscribers can also upgrade or downgrade their plans, and can purchase new phones without being forced onto Mobile Share.

In some situations, shared data plans can save money. In general, they’re worth looking into if you need more than the basic amount of voice minutes and text messages. They could also save money if you already pay for mobile hotspot or tablet connectivity, or if you’re in a family that doesn’t use much data.

But for individual users who need more data instead of unlimited voice and text, Mobile Share isn’t that appealing. AT&T’s basic Mobile Share plan starts at $70 per month and includes just 300MB of data. With the soon-to-be discontinued individual plan, the same $70 would get you 3GB of data and 450 voice minutes. (Each text message would cost an extra 10 cents.)

AT&T refers to the change as “streamlining,” but the carrier is clearly trying to squeeze more revenue out of voice and text by requiring unlimited plans, while people shift toward higher data consumption over time. And AT&T’s not alone—when Verizon launched its Share Everything plans last year, they were mandatory from the start for new subscribers. T-Mobile and Sprint don’t offer shared data, but they include unlimited voice and text in their respective plans, so there’s no way to save money by calling or texting less often.

This week, U.S. Cellular also announced a move to shared data plans, which include unlimited voice and text. Plans start at 1GB of shared data for $50 per month, plus $40 per connected phone. U.S. Cellular will be discontinuing its unlimited data plans, though existing subscribers will be grandfathered in to their old plans.

If you’re an individual customer with minimal voice and text needs, you could check out alternative options like Virgin Mobile, whose plans start at $35 per month, or Ting, which only charges for what you actually use. Both options (known as MVNOs) use Sprint’s network for coverage; on the downside you have to pay full price for new smartphones. If you can’t pay that much upfront, or if you need a larger network with more coverage but no shared data plans, you’re simply out of luck now.

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