AT&T makes it cheap to connect tablets – as long as you don’t also own a phone

In an odd change in mobile data pricing policies, AT&T plans to introduce on Friday a new set of shared plans that heavily discount data if you only access Ma Bell’s network with tablets or laptops, but not phones.

The new data-only plans, announced Monday, start at $30 a month for 4 GB and scale up to $335 for 50 GB a month. Consumers can add up to 10 devices to their plans – each tablet or gaming device costing $10 a month and each laptop or modem costing $20 – and small businesses can add up to 25. In addition to the new data-only tiers, AT&T plans to supersize all of its shared plans, offering 30 GB, 40 GB and 50 GB buckets to both consumers and small businesses.

When you compare the new data-only plans to its regular data share pricing plans, the differences are substantial. A 4 GB plan on a regular mobile share plan costs $70 a month, $40 more than the equivalent data-only plan. At higher tiers the discount is just as big: a 20 GB regular share plan costs $200, while the data-only version costs only $110.

AT&T justifies the differences in pricing through the inclusion of unlimited voice and SMS in its regular plans, while data-only plans, by definition, include no such benefits. But AT&T’s complex shared plan framework actually double-charges customers for those traditional telephony and messaging services. Connecting a smartphone or feature phone to the AT&T network costs anywhere from $30 to $45 a month, and you would assume that those premium rates reflect the cost of voice and SMS.

The good news is AT&T is encouraging the use of data-only devices on its network. It wants to usher in the tablet and mobile-connected revolution on its networks so it’s offering steep data discounts for those use cases. It’s a trend we’re likely to see throughout the U.S. mobile industry. The problem is AT&T seems to be inadvertently punishing the large majority of smartphone subscribers in the process.

Here’s an example: If you were a data-only customer with two tablets and a 4G mobile hotspot, you could get a data-only plan that would allow you pool 10 GB a month between your three devices for the very reasonable rate of $100 a month. Now if you were to add a single smartphone to the same plan you wouldn’t just be tacking on a $30-$40 standard connection charge. Instead, you would wind up paying $190 a month by moving to a mixed voice-and-data plan. Basically you wind up spending nearly double to add talk and text to single gadget in a four-device plan – that does not seem like a fair deal to me.

I applaud AT&T for offering cheaper data options and exploring the concept of a data-only mobile service. But in the process it’s also exposing the fundamental flaws of its regular shared plans. AT&T really needs to do away with the complex system of sliding connection fees, which ultimately charge different rates for data depending on the device you use. Instead, it should make it clear as day what it’s charging for voice, SMS and the cost of connecting a device. Then it should just sell us data at a set universal price.

(c) 2013, GigaOM.com.

 
Read what others are saying