May 8, 2012 at 5:02 PM ET
AT&T Mobility CEO Ralph de la Vega recently told CNET that the carrier plans to offer family data plans soon. Verizon has repeatedly pledged something similar. T-Mobile and Sprint already offer such plans. But will these plans — which allow a family to share a "bucket" of data, just like they can now share a "bucket" of minutes — help you save money?
Short answer: Probably.
Long answer: Probably, but there are some catches.
Since T-Mobile and Sprint already offer family data plans, we have a general idea of what we can expect AT&T and Verizon to do. As with the other two carriers, you'll likely be able to purchase a single data plan which is to be shared among two or more lines. In the process you'll save anywhere between $10 and $50 overall (depending on the plan configuration and number of lines). That's not bad — the money adds up after all.
But while you're saving some green, you're also missing out on some things.
Need an example? Let's look at T-Mobile's current "Classic Unlimited — Plus" plan:
Did you notice the very important thing these two plans have in common? They're both offering the same amount of "high-speed" data.
This detail is fine and dandy if only one of the lines on a family plan belongs to a data hog. Carriers now offer apps to let you track your usage, and some even let you set warnings so you don't go over. Many people who pay for 2GB plans actually use far less than 1GB per month, so this sort of pricing could be ideal.
But if both you and your buddy, partner or family member are prone to using up most of your smartphone's data allowances, the $20/month you've saved by getting a T-Mobile family data plan could come back to bite you in the form of throttled speeds.
Yes, this theoretically isn't an issue with Sprint, who claims that it doesn't throttle data speeds, but then again a lot of things are theoretically problem-free. When Verizon and AT&T do launch similar plans, a similar excessive use may end up costing you overage fees.
It would also pay to be on the lookout for increased per-phone surcharges that aren't advertised as part of the bundle, but are part of the final price. And any change that you make to your plan to save overall money by doing a data bundle may come with an unwanted side effect, such as the need to surrender a particularly desirable (but discontinues) voice or text message plan.
All those thoughts aside, we'll have to wait until AT&T and Verizon officially announce their own family data plans to truly figure out how everything compares and whether customers benefit in the long run — and to see if the definitions of "unlimited data" get redefined again. Although both giant carriers have committed to family plans, when we ask them, neither is forthcoming about when the plans will see the light of day.
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