It's time for universal data plans

If you've got a couple of cell phones, an iPad, or maybe a FIOS or U-Verse connection, you're probably paying for "data" several times over. It's time carriers charged us once for network access and quit ripping us off with multiple "data plans."

Molly Wood Former Executive Editor
Molly Wood was an executive editor at CNET, author of the Molly Rants blog, and host of the tech show, Always On. When she's not enraging fanboys of all stripes, she can be found offering tech opinions on CBS and elsewhere, and offering opinions on everything else to anyone who will listen.
Molly Wood
5 min read

AT&T announced this week that it will phase out unlimited data plans and start a metered approach, with tethering available for an extra cost. And although some elements of the new data plans will work for some customers, AT&T is moving in the opposite direction it should be going. I'm tired of multiple data plans, artificial caps, and arbitrary monthly usage charges. And I'm tired of paying the same companies multiple times for what is, essentially, the exact same service. That service? Data.

Between multiple cell phones, high-speed Internet connections, and even digital TV subscriptions, most households are now paying for data delivery at least three times over, and frequently paying the same provider twice. This is ridiculous, and it's time for some major consolidation. It's time for a universal data plan. I want to pay once (maybe twice) for data, I want that data to be unlimited, and I want to be able to use it in any fashion I choose.

I want to pay once (maybe twice) for data, I want that data to be unlimited, and I want to be able to use it in any fashion I choose.

Think about it. Let's say you have a Verizon smartphone, and you pay $30 a month for an unlimited data plan. Let's say you have a family plan--you're still required to pay for unlimited data plans on any data-using phones on that plan, too. Just that concept is insane if you break it down: You're paying multiple times for "unlimited" data? Isn't that like multiplying by zero? Either way, you lose.

Plus, you pay extra for texting--up to an astonishing $20 a month--and do you know how texts are delivered? Via the same data pipe that all your other data is coming through. Now, let's say you also have a MiFi mobile hot spot device or wireless card, since Verizon doesn't yet allow tethering. Yep. You pay for data on that, too, even if you've got a (mandatory!) data plan on a smartphone like the Droid or the Incredible.

It's all the same data, but a mobile broadband plan costs more than an "unlimited" smartphone data plan, and either way, it's still two plans. And let's get even crazier: What if you have Verizon FIOS Internet and TV? That's all just data, and that's a separate plan, too.

Now let's say you have AT&T, and you've got all the same opportunities to pay for data delivery over and over (this time with U-Verse instead of FIOS). Now, you can also pay an additional $20 monthly fee for the privilege of tethering your phone or iPad's network access to another device. You're already paying for the data transmission--this tethering fee is simply for the right to attach another device to AT&T's network. And that $20 doesn't even include an increase in your bandwidth cap--it's simply a usage fee. (Verizon will also charge a monthly fee for tethering.)

You're in a similar boat with T-Mobile or Sprint if you're paying for data on more than one device as a result of a family plan, or you have a wireless card. And with the new HTC Evo, Sprint will charge a $30 monthly fee for using the Evo as a mobile hot spot; but at least that fee includes an upgrade to a supposedly unlimited data plan. But "unlimited" is a lie if you have to pay for it over and over. You're paying for the right to connect a single device to a carrier's network, and it's time for that model to change.

Imagine if your ISP made you pay for a "data plan" on every computer you own. Imagine if the ISP also made you pay a separate monthly fee for, say, attaching a wireless router to your network. Or an Xbox. Or a TiVo. "Data" on a smartphone, an iPad, a Netbook, a Kindle, or any other future always-connected device is simply another word for "a network connection." And it's time that network connection stopped being tied to the device and started being tied to an individual or an account.

Make no mistake: Data plans are going to become a much bigger deal in the very near future, because a 3G or even 4G connection will be ubiquitous in the instant-on, always-connected devices of the future. The iPad is almost certainly driving part of AT&T's decision to drop unlimited data plans, and the second big factor is tethering.

Some of our Buzz Out Loud listeners suggested that AT&T is metering its data plans now because it doesn't want customers, once they're equipped with tethering, to just cancel their traditional ISP service and use AT&T's 3G data network for full-time Internet access. But you know what? That train's coming and it won't be stopped.

Like it or not, wireless is the future of bandwidth, and telecom carriers are becoming de facto ISPs. They know this, their networks are smaller, and they're hoping to avoid the traffic-shaping pickle ISPs say they're in by rolling out metered usage from the get-go. AT&T certainly isn't alone in trying to drop unlimited plans; Verizon has also said it plans to charge for data by usage.

Now, though, with the FCC breathing down carriers' necks about tiered usage plans, it's only a matter of time before regulators catch wind of just how many times we're being charged for the exact same thing. Everyone's usage is going to start to increase, and this parsing and nickle-and-dime-ing and "plus" and "pro" plans is all just a smoke screen. And, frankly, a rip-off.

Carriers need to keep beefing up those networks and start rolling out universal data plans that are device-agnostic, include either unlimited data or realistic caps that encompass our growing data needs, and that charge you one time for network access, period. That's how we get to a true wireless broadband future--one where there's no such thing as a "data plan," there's just a network, and we're all on it.