Help! These data share plans are too confusing (FAQ)

If you're confused about AT&T's and Verizon's new mobile data share plans, you're not alone. CNET's Marguerite Reardon explains the ins and outs of the plans in this FAQ.

AT&T has followed Verizon Wireless's lead and unveiled its own "share plan" for data services.

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The move toward shared data plans has left many wireless consumers scratching their heads in confusion. While Verizon has said it made these changes to simplify pricing, it's clear that consumers find these changes anything but easy to understand. AT&T's new pricing scheme, in some ways, is even more complicated than Verizon's plans.

To help consumers figure out what all the changes and whether or not they will be forced into plans they don't want, CNET has put together this FAQ to answer the most common questions. If your question hasn't been answered here, please send me an email at maggie dot reardon at cbsinteractive dot com. And I will add to this list of questions.

What's the new pricing for AT&T's share plan?
AT&T offers six tiers of data packages that range in price from $40 for 1GB of data to $200 for 20GB of data per month.

Depending on how much data you choose, you will pay either $45, $40, $35, or $30 to add a smartphone. People subscribing to the 1GB plan pay $45 for each smartphone on the plan. And people with a 10GB plan or more will pay $30 to add each additional smartphone.

Regardless of how much data you get as part of your package, you can add a basic phone for $30. A laptop, Netbook, or USB card will cost you another $20. And tablets will cost $10.

What's the new pricing for Verizon's share plan?
Verizon charges a flat $40 per smartphone regardless of how much data you purchase. A non-smartphone or basic feature phone costs $30 a month. And Mi-Fi, USB stick, Netbook or laptop is $20 a month. And you can connect a tablet for $10 a month.

As for data, Verizon charges $50 for 1GB; $60 for 2GB; $70 for 4G; $80 for 6GB; $90 for 8GB; and $100 for 10GB. If users want to add more data, Verizon charges an additional $10 for 2GB more each month.

This is confusing. How do these two plans compare head-to-head?
Here are two tables created by my colleague Roger Cheng, which compares the two plans for smartphone customers.

What are the overage charges if you go over your data limit?
AT&T and Verizon each charge a $15 fee for each gigabyte consumed on top of the limit. But as I explained above, Verizon does allow customers to buy an additional 2GB of data for $10. And customers can add this additional 2GB if it looks like they are approaching their limit.

What's included as part of these share plans?
Both AT&T and Verizon Wireless include unlimited talk and text messaging with these new share plans. And they also allow you to turn your smartphone into a Wi-Fi hotspot at no additional charge. This will allow you to share your single data plan with devices that may have Wi-Fi but no 3G or 4G radio.

If I'm already an AT&T or Verizon subscriber will I be forced to switch to one of these shared plans?
The short answer is no. AT&T and Verizon have each said they don't want to force existing customers to change their service plans. If you're happy with an individual plan or a family plan that you're on today, you can keep it as long as you like, even after your contract expires.

What if I am a new subscriber to either AT&T or Verizon, do I have to select one of these new shared plans?
If you are a new subscriber to Verizon Wireless then the only option you will have for service are Verizon's Share Everything plans. Verizon is no longer offering its individual or older family plans to new customers. But remember, if you're already a Verizon customer, this does not apply to you. You will still have access to Verizon's individual and family plans and you will not be forced to switch to a Share Everything plan.

What about AT&T? Will new subscribers be forced to purchase a Mobile Share plan?
No, new AT&T customers will still have the option to choose one of AT&T's existing individual tiered plans. This means that you can still purchase the 450 minutes of talk time, a text messaging option and a separate individual data plan. AT&T currently offers 300MB for $20 a month; 3GB for $30 a month; 5GB for $50, which also includes the option to share data with a mobile hotspot.

Existing AT&T customers will also get these same choices. And AT&T customers can even move back and forth between the plans. For example, if someone wants to sign up for a Mobile Share plan, but later decides he doesn't want that plan anymore, he can go back to a tiered individual plan.

Will I be able to keep my unlimited data plan if I had one of these plans already from either AT&T or Verizon Wireless?
When AT&T and Verizon got rid of unlimited data plans for new customers, they allowed existing unlimited data plan customers to keep those plans. Both carriers have said repeatedly that customers who had unlimited data before they changed their policy will be able to keep those plans indefinitely.

But in order to keep this plan with Verizon, there's a catch. When their contracts expire on Verizon, unlimited data plan users must pay full price or come with their own Verizon-ready smartphone in order to keep the unlimited plan. Verizon will not offer a new device at a subsidized price and allow people to keep the unlimited data plan.

Meanwhile, AT&T says it has no such restriction. You can keep your unlimited data plan as long a you like.

Will AT&T make me give up my subsidized upgrade if I renew my service and want to keep my unlimited data plan?
No, when you are eligible for an upgrade, you can upgrade to a new device and still get a subsidized price on that new device and still get to keep the unlimited data. But keep in mind that AT&T slows usage on unlimited plans if people exceed more than 3GB of data per month.

I don't own a smartphone and all I want is basic phone service, will I have to sign up for a share plan?
These new share plans are really designed for data users. So if you don't need data, you will not be forced to sign up for one of these new plans. Verizon will also not force basic phone customers into share plans.

Who are these share plans really for?
These share plans can offer good value to two kinds of consumers. The first type are customers who have one or more smartphones on family plans. These customers will now be able to get unlimited voice and text messaging and they'll also get a bucket of data to share among the other smartphone subscribers on the plan. This plan is really best suited for families where the individual smartphone users are moderate data users. It's also good for families where people talk a lot on the phone and text message.

The other type of user this benefits is someone who has a Wi-Fi-enabled tablet or a laptop that they'd like to connect to the Internet on occasion. Now smartphone users who can turn their devices into Wi-Fi hotspots will be able to provide connectivity to these Wi-Fi devices. And they'll be able to use the same bucket of data that they use for their smartphone at no additional cost. For many users, this is a good deal, since the average smartphone user subscribes to a data plan that has more capacity than they actually need.

Of course, users who share data with other people on a data plan or between multiple devices, need to be careful that they don't exceed their monthly limits. The carriers each provide tools on their website and as apps that can be downloaded on devices to help users manage their data. There are also third party apps, such as Onavo, which helps users keep track of their data usage.

Which subscribers would not benefit from these share plans?
These plans are not as economical for families who don't need the unlimited voice or text messaging services. And it could prove costly for families in which one or more people on the plan is a heavy data user. These individuals will likely pay more for data usage. But even before AT&T and Verizon introduced these new plans, heavy data users were being forced to pay more. The carriers eliminated their unlimited data plans more than a year ago. And since then, new subscribers have been forced into some kind of tiered offering that requires people to may for what they use.

How can I figure out which type of plan is best for me?
The best way to figure out which plan is better for you is to do the math. Look at your voice, text and data usage. As I mentioned before moderate data users who need unlimited voice and text will get the most value out of the share plans. But people who use a lot of data but don't need voice or text, may not benefit as much. Once you know what your usage is like, you can compare the different scenarios and price them out. You may find that one of the share plans costs less or the same as the plan on which you're currently subscribed.

Do you think other carriers will follow in AT&T and Verizon's footsteps?
Right now it sounds like T-Mobile is very much against the data share plans. The company put out this statement today about the plans:

"Unlike AT&T and Verizon, T-Mobile does not plan on introducing shared family data plans and believes consumers will not benefit from that model. AT&T and Verizon shared family plans are costly, complicated and punitive."

The company believes the plan is costly because it says that Verizon and AT&T are raising rates on data while promoting their plans as adding "value" because they offer unlimited voice and texting, two services that many people are using less often.

T-Mobile says that the share plans are complicated because it's difficult for customers to understand how much data they are using when they check Facebook, update Twitter, or share photos via Instagram. This makes it difficult to know when they are about to hit their limit.

And finally T-Mobile claims the plans are punitive because they make it more difficult for customers to manage overages.

When do these plans take effect?
Verizon's Share Everything plans started on June 28. AT&T hasn't set a specific date for when it's plans will take effect. But the company has said to expect them to be ready by late August.

 

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