How AT&T's Data Limits Affect You

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Redman predicted Sprint will not go to data caps because it needs to differentiate itself from other carriers and has been touting the faster WiMax wireless platform as that differentiator.

In fact, Sprint is launching the HTC Evo 4G smartphone on Friday, giving users access to 4G WiMax or 3G service where WiMax is not available. Sprint's press release touts the Evo as giving users "reliable transmission of large amounts of data and real-time collaboration," which would contradict instituting a data cap.

A spokeswoman on Thursday said Sprint is "always evaluating pricing, but we have no changes [related to data limits and pricing] to announce at this time." Sprint's central marketing message is, in fact, based on unlimited usage as indicated with its Everything Data plans, which include unlimited Web, texting and calling with any mobile device in the U.S.

Fourth-largest carrier, T-Mobile USA, also hasn't commented on AT&T's move, but also isn't considered as capacity-strapped as either AT&T or Verizon.

Other carriers could respond by setting up new plans for even less than $15 a month for low data users, Redman said.

What's the Impact on Wireless Data Users at AT&T?

The impact, in dollars that new AT&T subscribers might pay, is somewhat debatable. Some analysts and AT&T argue that nearly all AT&T smartphone users (98%) today use less than 2GB of data a month, and most (65%) use less than 200MB, which would make them eligible for the less-expensive plan.

"Most users will find that with the mix of Wi-Fi and 3G, that on small form factors [like the iPhone], 2GB is plenty of broadband today," Redman said. "What happens in two years may be a different story."

Redman said a smartphone's screen is so small and the resolution so low that it doesn't use nearly as much data as a laptop or tablet, especially those that support high-definition resolution screens. Even a video chat functionality in the expected fourth-generation iPhone wouldn't mean a user would be likely to exceed a 2GB monthly limit.

"It's not yet clear just how much bandwidth video chat will use, as there are ways to pretty aggressively limit bandwidth usage through slow fram rates, heavy compression, etc," Gold said. But video chat will use more bandwidth than text or voice chat, he said.

What About Other Conventional Uses?

AT&T advertised that 2GB is enough data to support sending and receiving 10,000 e-mails without attachments, plus another 1,500 with attachments, as well as view 4,000 Web pages, post 500 photos to social media sites, plus watch 200 minutes of streaming video.

That last item, streaming video, could be the most challenging limit for younger users, given the growing popularity of online TV. Analysts noted that 200 minutes of streaming video is only slightly longer than three episodes of the popular Fox series, Glee.

"AT&T is getting people to think about how they use data with new pricing and overage charges," Burden said, although he agreed that the heaviest data users on the iPhone are a "small percentage."

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