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AT&T vs. Verizon: Who's got the best family data plan?

AT&T phones and tablets
AT&T via Laptop

AT&T has counterpunched Verizon’s heavily promoted Share Everything Plan with a shared data option of its own, the cleverly named Mobile Share plan. On the surface, the two offerings seem very similar, even in pricing — but are they really? Who has the better shared data plan, AT&T or Verizon? Let’s do some digging!

First, a quick primer on shared data plans. The plans from both AT&T and Verizon sport the same basic structure, dishing out unlimited talk and text along with a central pool of data that several devices can sip from. The cost of the plan depends on a few specifics; the base cost depends on the size of the data pool. The more data you need, the more it’s going to cost you. You also have to pay a monthly fee for each device you want to connect to the plan. Mobile tethering is included for free, though.

The chart below comes from AT&T and shows the monthly costs for the data plan itself as well as the devices you can connect to the pool. Up to 10 devices can be included on a Mobile Share plan, the same as with Verizon.

AT&T's family data pricing plans
AT&T's family data pricing plansAT&T via Laptop

Speaking of Verizon, here is its Share Everything pricing.

Verizon per-device access within shared plans
Verizon per-device access within shared plansVerizon via Laptop

Verizon shared data pricing plans
Verizon shared data pricing plansVerizon via Laptop

So how do the two plans compare? 
As you can see, they’re pretty neck-and-neck. At the 4GB tier where many families will probably land, the pricing is exactly the same. At higher tiers, AT&T’s base cost is a bit higher than Verizon’s to the tune of $10 to $20, but it’s offset by the fact that AT&T’s monthly smartphone fee decreases by $5 at each consecutive tier until you hit the 10GB mark, where it caps out at $30 per handset.

That makes AT&T’s Mobile Share plan slightly cheaper than Verizon’s Share Everything if you have at least three devices associated with the plan AND need 6GB or more of data per month. The more phones and tablets you have connected, the bigger the disparity becomes. Conversely, dropping that to two devices puts the competing services in a deadlock, while people who plan on connecting just a single smartphone along with some other devices will save a fiver or so a month on Verizon’s plan. Again, that’s only if you plan on using 6GB or more data per month.

AT&T has another advantage when it comes to high data plans; Verizon maxes out at 10GB per month, while AT&T offers 15GB and 20GB data pools. They’re pricey, but they’re there.

Verizon’s Share Everything plan has two data tiers missing from AT&T’s model: 2GB and 8GB. That additional coverage could appeal to users who, say, need a bit more than 6GB of data, but don’t want to make the considerable price jump to the 10GB tier.  The 2GB tier could also be a good option for users who want to share data between a single smartphone and a tablet, especially if you tend to stay on Wi-Fi networks.

Both services slap you with data overage charges of $15 per GB. Verizon lets users who are worried about hitting their cap buy an additional 2GB for $10 — but only if it’s purchased before you actually exceed your data allotment.

Are shared data plans even a deal?
Ah, that’s the $150 dollar (monthly) question, isn’t it?

We’ve actually already studied the cost-effectiveness of Verizon’s Share Everything plan, and since AT&T’s Mobile Share is so similar, the same basic findings apply. Here they are in a nutshell: if you already have unlimited talk and text or often get hit with overage charges, shared data plans can save you some dough. If not, you might be better off sticking to your traditional tiered plan.

And that’s another area where AT&T moves ahead, as the company was quick to point out in its press release: Verizon has abandoned its older pricing schemes in favor of Share Everything. Current subscribers can keep their existing plan for now, but if you want a shiny new subsidized phone, you’ll be forced to make the switch to pooled data.

AT&T, on the other hand, is keeping its per-phone data plans in place and considers Mobile Share as yet another option, rather than the predetermined way of the future. You won’t need to switch to Mobile Share when you upgrade your phone, and if you wanted, AT&T will even let you switch from individual data plans to a shared data plan without forcing you to extend your existing contract.

So which company has the better shared data plan?
AT&T’s plan flexibility and cheaper higher tiers — assuming you have at least three smartphones on the plan — are definite advantages, but really, the best plan comes down to your use case, and as we said, the two shared data plans are identical at the 4GB tier that will probably prove to be the most popular.

We recommend tallying up your household’s devices and data usages, then crunching some numbers to see which shared data plan is right for you. Mobile Share won’t be available until August, so you’ve got time to do the math. Remember: if you don’t talk or text too often, a shared data plan might actually end up costing you more monthly cash.

And now you know!