Jan. 20, 2012 at 11:36 AM ET
A company that analyzes wireless bills has found that when AT&T increased their tiered data plans by $5 for another gigabyte, it did not offer the best value for consumers whose data consumption tended to be far lower than those tiers.
Validas, a Texas-based company that analyzes wireless bills through automated software, targeted AT&T's recent change from a $25 for 2GB plan to a $30 for 3GB. (AT&T also gave smartphone customers currently paying $15 for a 200MB data plan a new 300MB plan for $20.) In a nutshell:
While the math indicates that the new plan is a better value ($10/GB down from $12.50/GB), our data suggests that average AT&T Smartphone data consumption is 1) far lower than these tiered limits (calling into question whether the new plan effectively offers better “real world” value for the average user than the old plan) and 2) has not recently peaked in such a way that would necessitate the extra gigabyte for the typical user.
The company pulled the average data usage for AT&T and Verizon Wireless data users for the four quarters of 2011, sampling use from 9,114 AT&T users and 11,650 Verizon users.
As their data shows on the graph above, AT&T usage trends up going into the fourth quarter from the third, by about 20 percent, but that's also roughly the same increase shown from the first quarter to the second. So Validas asks, "Why the 1GB/$5 change now? In other words, while there was a spike in average Q4 AT&T data users’ data usage, we don’t believe it was unique enough in character compared to past increases in data usage to necessitate the 1GB/$5 change."
AT&T responded to msnbc.com about this. Spokesman Mark Siegel told us, "Data usage is increasing by about 40 percent per year, as we have noted in many news reports. In light of this continued growth, we wanted to offer customers more data up front in our new plans and a great value."
Siegel argues that this is a way for the carrier to future-proof its data plans: "Given the 40 percent annual increase in data usage, and given the likelihood that such usage will continue to grow, we concluded that our new plans make sense for all of our customers — those who use a lot of data and those you don't use much at all," he said.
Still, it's not hard to see how some may be annoyed by their carrier preemptively raising customers' rates in anticipation of future data use.
This isn't the first time AT&T has been under scrutiny for its data plans.
In May, NBC News reported on a class action lawsuit that accused AT&T of systematically overcharging its then-20 million iPhone and iPad customers by overstating "the amount of data used on virtually every transaction that can add up to overcharges for millions of consumers." Lawyers for the suit tested several phones over several months, finding "phantom charges" that AT&T explained as apps that run in the background or that automatically update.
Validas claims to save consumers an average of $400 annually. Savings for big company clients such as eBay go up to $2 million, with The State of California saves over $925,000 per month though its services.