AT&T matches Verizon, unveils shared data plans

Similar to Verizon's, the "Mobile Share" plans let you share data with as many as 10 devices, including smartphones, messaging phones, laptops, and tablets. They'll be available in August.

AT&T launched its own "Mobile Share" plans today, matching Verizon Wireless' push to get more people to share their data plans with family members.

Mobile Share, like Verizon's Share Everything, provides a bucket of data that can be shared between as many as 10 devices. One of the devices has to be a smartphone, but other basic phones, tablets, and laptops can be added on top of that for an additional fee. The plans get unlimited voice and text messages.

Shared data plans, which act like a family plan of minutes and text messages to draw from, are expected to change how people view their data plans. AT&T and Verizon hope the plans will drive the adoption of new devices, although consumers will need to pay even more attention to the data they consume, since they can burn up the allotment for an entire family. The carriers also hope the family aspect of the plans will increase the loyalty of its customers.

The shared data plans have long been bandied about as a tool to get more people using data. In particular, the industry hopes such plans will drive the adoption of connected tablets, which have so far been slow. Most people opt to buy Wi-Fi only versions of tablets, or seldom use the cellular connection of their device because of cost.

The plans, like Verizon's, are somewhat complicated, but the price per gigabyte goes down as you increase the bucket and add users. The plans begin with a 1GB option that costs $40, but there's a $45 monthly fee to connect each smartphone. Options include a $70 4GB plan with a $40 smartphone fee, and a $90 6GB plan with a $35 fee. The higher end $120 10GB plan, $160 15GB plan, and $200 20GB plan all have a $30 smartphone fee.

If you go over the limit, each additional gigabyte is $15.

The plans launch in August.

Adding a basic phone to any plan costs $30, while laptops, Netbooks, and USB cards cost $20, and tablets and gaming devices cost $10.

The plans speak to the shift in the industry away from unlimited data and toward rigid tiers and more complex pricing structure. Beyond Sprint Nextel, all of the carriers now limit their customers' data consumption in some ways. Even for customers with a grandfathered unlimited plan, AT&T throttles, or slows down the connection, of customers who go over 3GB of data each month.

The unlimited text and voice minutes also speaks to the carriers' desire to lock consumers into a set price for services they using less frequently, preserving a set level of revenue.

AT&T said that customers can remain with their existing plans or upgrade to the new ones without extending their contract length. The plans will also be available to business customers.

Importantly, customers who upgrade their phones are not required to switch to a shared or tiered plan, avoiding some of the issues Verizon faced when it launched its plan and essentially killed its unlimited offering for many people.

"AT&T seems to have learned from Verizon's mistakes and is giving customers more options and a simpler charging structure," said Jan Dawson, an analyst at Ovum.

As with the Verizon plan, the shared data plans may not be the best deal for individuals, but could yield potential savings for a large family.

Updated at 7:17 a.m. PT: to include an analyst comment.

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