AT&T calls it “Mobile Share,” while Verizon’s name is “Share Everything,” but they’re both the same concept: the United States’ two largest mobile carriers are attempting to move customers away from cellular plans with limited talk time minutes, SMS/MMS messaging, and per-device data caps, in favor of new plans that share data between up to 10 devices. Going forward, their multi-device plans will offer unlimited calling and SMS/MMS messaging, letting users choose only two things—the number of devices they want on the plan, and a collective data allotment from 300MB to 20GB for all of the devices to share. Per-device recurring monthly costs range from $10 for a tablet (iPad) to up to $45 for a smartphone (iPhone), varying based on the provider and plan. Both AT&T and Verizon will offer tethering/Personal Hotspot functionality at no additional cost.
With the next iPhone’s introduction now roughly a month away, it’s important for you to know your current options, regardless of whether you’re thinking of buying your first phone from Apple, switching carriers, or considering a change of data plans. On one hand, multi-device users and families may see improved features for roughly the same prices as before, but on the other hand, individuals with a single device may find the new plans offensively expensive, particularly if they’re transitioning from old plans with few talk minutes, limited messaging, and unlimited data. Verizon’s Share Everything plan is already live, replacing almost all of its previous individual and family plans, while Mobile Share launches August 23, 2012 as an additional option beyond its prior plans, which will be kept around.
Between the two carriers, Verizon has significantly more options when it comes to data pools. Starting at 300MB, it next goes to 1GB, then 2GB, and increases in 2GB increments up to 20GB. The plans start at $40 and increase by $10 with each jump in data. AT&T, on the other hand, has 1GB, 4GB, 6GB, 10GB, and 20GB plans, ranging from $40 to $200. Verizon’s data packages climb in price at a slower rate than AT&T’s, such that you’ll pay $100 for Verizon’s 10GB or $120 for AT&T’s 10GB of data.
After choosing a pool of data, you then pay additional fees for each device that shares the plan, with smartphones generally costing the most. AT&T’s per-smartphone fees range from $30 to $45 depending on your plan—you’ll pay $45 per month for an iPhone on a 1GB plan, $35 at 6GB, or $30 at 10GB or more—while Verizon charges $40 per smartphone regardless of plan. The two companies take the same approach in charging for each additional basic phone ($30), mobile hotspot device ($20), and tablet ($10).
Despite these differences, the service plan prices turn out to be extremely similar between the carriers: after running a bunch of different comparisons, a “big” difference was $10 per month between carriers, before taxes and fees. But since that can mean nearly $150 per year of additional expense, you’ll want to spend a little time pre-planning your bill to save every dollar you can. Both companies offer calculators on their websites to help you predict what your bill will look like; here’s Verizon’s, and here’s AT&T’s.
To help you consider what your monthly iPhone bill may look like on a new shared data plan, we’ve come up with a variety of scenarios that fit typical individual and family users. Remember, your first bill will be larger due to the up-front cost of the device and possible activation fees.
AT&T – $120/month
Verizon – $120/month
Couple: 2 iPhones, 4GB Data
AT&T – $150/month
Verizon – $150/month
Couple With One Power User: 2 iPhones, 1 iPad, 6GB Data
AT&T – $170/month
Verizon – $170/month
Family of Four: 4 iPhones, 1 iPad, 6GB Data
AT&T – $240/month
Verizon – $250/month
Small Business With Heavy On-Road Access: 4 iPhones, 1 iPad, 20GB Data
AT&T – $330/month
Verizon – $320/month
AT&T’s Mobile Share plan is actually a better value than its Individual and Family Talk plans if you are a seriously heavy cellular user. With unlimited talk, messaging, and 5GB of data with Mobile Hotspot—the closest the carrier previously offered to the new Mobile Share 4GB plan—you’re looking at $140 for a single line before even adding in the iPad, versus $110 for Mobile Share. Even AT&T’s prior 3GB plan with unlimited talk time and no tethering comes in at a comparable $120. On the other hand, Mobile Share is a poor value for those who use extremely limited amounts of data, voice calling, and text messages. Prior AT&T plans accommodated individual customers for as little as $60 per month, versus an entry price of $85 for Mobile Share with 1GB of data. Family Plans could also be more affordable with few minutes or no messaging, but again, Family Plans with unlimited service are more expensive than Mobile Share. Some users may find the old plans to be a better option, and thankfully AT&T continues to offer them, while Verizon does not.
There are a few other factors to consider. First, both carriers still offer iPad-specific, month-to-month data plans ranging from $15 to $50 a month, and you’re not obligated to put your iPad and iPhone on the same plan. This may be a better choice if you only intermittently use the cellular connection on your tablet, and the addition of Personal Hotspot support to AT&T’s Mobile Share plan enables iPads to forego cellular service entirely in favor of Wi-Fi tethering if you prefer. This was already an option for Verizon users, but will become considerably better with both providers when the new iPhone adds faster LTE support.
Second, these shared plans may also mean the end of unlimited iPhone or iPad cellular data plans if you’re grandfathered in with either company. AT&T has said it will allow users who stay on traditional plans to keep their prior data packages, but Verizon has announced a different strategy. If you want to keep unlimited data when you upgrade to a new device, you have to pay full retail for the device—no discount. Otherwise, you can choose either a 2GB data plan for $30, or a Share Everything plan. Giving up unlimited service doesn’t sound great, but iPhone users have a tendency to overestimate their actual monthly data usage: log in to your account on AT&T’s or Verizon’s web site to see how much data you’ve actually used over the past half or full year before you assume that unlimited data is the only way to go.
Third, your cellular data usage does have the potential to increase in the future. FaceTime cellular video calling is on the horizon, so if you think you’ll make video calls away from Wi-Fi, plan for extra data usage. Similarly, if you expect to heavily use tethering/Personal Hotspot functionality to let your computer access the Internet from the road, you may need more data in the future than you did in the past. Should you not want to pay more per month than you actually use, AT&T and Verizon both charge $15 per GB per month for data overages—more than the $10 you’d pay each month for the next step of data service, but perhaps less than you’d pay over multiple months of a contract.
Viewed from a big picture perspective, these shared data plans are certainly a mixed bag: Verizon customers, particularly individual users with very limited voice/messaging plans and unlimited data, are facing the prospect of large price hikes for possibly unwanted extra voice and messaging services. But families and other multi-device users may find that the new plans make sense; if not, AT&T’s prior plans remain available as fallbacks, even for customers switching from Verizon. In any case, iPhone users should use the introduction of these new plans as an opportunity to determine the amount of cellular data they’ve previously used. By choosing a new plan with an appropriate amount of data based on past usage and the number of devices needed, multi-device users may be able to save money. There’s no clear winner between AT&T and Verizon as the plans are so similar, but with Sprint, regional carriers, and possibly T-Mobile itching to become 4G/LTE players, we’ll be watching carefully to see how the options evolve—if at all—over the next six to twelve months.