Which New AT&T Data Plan is Right for You?

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Oh, the humanity. AT&T has taken the initiative to pull the plug on unlimited data plans--a move that Verizon and other wireless carriers will likely follow once the dust settles from the initial backlash at AT&T. Don't fret or panic just yet, though. As it turns out, the new data plans may, in fact, save your business some money.

We knew it was coming, and AT&T is the first wireless carrier to drop unlimited data plans in favor of tiered pricing.
According to AT&T, 98 percent of its customers consume less than 2Gb of data bandwidth per month, and 65 percent actually eat up less than 200Mb. That means that more than half of the businesses and business professionals paying for "unlimited" data are barely using any data at all.

Let's illustrate with an analogy. I can go to McDonald's and get a Big Mac value meal and be pretty full for about $5. So, when I go to someplace like Old Country Buffet and spend $10 for a smorgasbord of mediocre all-you-can-eat food, the odds of me actually getting $10 worth are virtually nil. In fact, the vast majority of patrons don't really get their money's worth under the all-you-can-eat system.

The same is true for unlimited data plans. At face value, the unlimited data plan sounds great because you never have to worry about how much data you have already used, or how much bandwidth you still have available for the month. More importantly, you don't have to worry about the horrifying shock when you get your bill and it is double what you expected because of overage charges.

There is something to be said for the peace of mind of knowing that the cost of your data usage will remain consistent--even if you are paying double what you ought to be paying since you don't really consume that much data. But, apparently 65 percent of AT&T customers can cut the monthly data cost in half and save $15 a month.

The new data pricing comes in two flavors: DataPlus and DataPro. The DataPlus plan includes 200Mb of data for $15 a month, and the DataPro plan includes 2Gb of data for $25 a month. It doesn't sound like much compared to unlimited for only $30 a month, but if AT&T is correct, 98 percent of customers could save at least $5 a month and never notice the difference.

So, how do you decide which data pricing plan is right for you? If you are already an AT&T customer, you can go online and log in to your wireless account. At the bottom right of the Account Overview window there is a link to "View past data usage". Clicking on this link enables you to generate reports displaying your data usage from previous months. It seems that I am more of a power user and need the additional capacity of the DataPro plan, while my wife would be just fine saving $15 a month under the DataPlus plan.

If you are not an AT&T customer, then obviously there is no data usage history to reflect on. AT&T developed a tool to help you predict your usage, though. The Data Calculator lets you estimate the number of e-mails and file attachments you expect to receive, the number of Web pages you expect to visit, the minutes you expect to stream music or video, etc.--and estimates the amount of data you will consume. Using the Data Calculator, you can determine whether the DataPlus or DataPro plan is right for you.

In addition to these new pricing plans, AT&T also announced that all wireless data subscribers will be able to connect for free to all AT&T wi-fi hotspots--providing even faster data access that does not count against the monthly bandwidth maximum. In addition, AT&T will also begin to offer a tethering option--expected to be available on the upcoming iPhone as well--for an additional $20 a month with the DataPro plan, but tethering does not come with any separate or additional data capacity. The data consumed while tethering will count against the 2Gb available on the DataPro plan.

I don't mean to accuse AT&T of doing something altruistic for its customers, but it seems like the vast majority of businesses and business professionals can actually cut a few dollars from the monthly wireless service bill under the new data pricing plans. AT&T may lose some revenue, but the benefit to AT&T is a customer-base that is more conscious of the data being consumed, and perhaps less likely to overload the 3G network. What it loses in profit, it makes up for in reduced support costs and fewer headaches.

To be clear--those already subscribed to unlimited data plans are welcome to keep them...for now. However, the unlimited data plan will no longer be available as an option as of June 7, and any new data plans--such as those resulting from upgrading to the new iPhone when it becomes available, or activating a dormant 3G data connection for the iPad--will fall under the new pricing.

You can follow Tony on his Facebook page , or contact him by email at tony_bradley@pcworld.com . He also tweets as @Tony_BradleyPCW .

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