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Shared data plans: 'Radical change' likely to take off

The volume of phones, tablets, and other mobile devices sold with shared data plans will grow rapidly, predicts Infonetics Research. Not that U.S. carriers seem in any rush.

Those of you paying for multiple data plans per mobile device or per family member may get some relief down the road as shared data plans become more prevalent.

The number of mobile devices sold on shared data plans is projected to grow 89 percent per year over the next few years, hitting almost 187 million in 2015, says a new report from Infonetics Research and published by mobile networking company Tekelec.

Infonetics Research

Some carriers may be slow to enter this new arena because implementing a shared data plan is more challenging than it sounds. Such plans demand a more "customer-centric approach," according to Infonetics, requiring a "radical change from the way in which customers have been managed to this point." Carriers need to set up new types of policy administration and new ways to manage subscriber data, according to the report.

"Shared data plans are the logical progression from shared voice and text message plans, but are exponentially more difficult to administer," Doug Suriano, chief technology officer at Tekelec, said in a statement. "The operator's goal to provide a seamless and high-quality experience across all subscribers and devices requires new levels of network scalability and flexibility across multiple types of equipment."

This year, only around 2.4 percent of all mobile devices sold throughout the world will be on shared data plans, according to Infonetics. But by 2015, the figure could be as high as 15.4 percent. At that point, smartphones, tablets, and USB cards will account for nearly 90 percent of the devices sold under these types of plans.

Such plans are expected to initially take off in regions with heavy competition for 3G access, including North America, Western Europe, Japan, South Korea, and Australia, noted the report.

Shared data plans let you use a single plan for multiple devices or multiple family members. So instead of subscribing to separate data plans for a smartphone, a tablet, and a modem from the same carrier, you could opt for a single data plan pooled among all three devices, thereby paying one overall lower fee for the entire package. Family members could also share a single data plan amongst themselves just as they now share a pool of their voice minutes.

Beyond benefiting customers, shared data plans could also benefit the carriers. People who already pay for a data plan for their cell phones can be reluctant to buy another one for their tablets or 3G-enabled notebooks. A single cost-effective plan shared among all devices could ring up higher overall sales for the carriers.

"Smartphones and tablets are already highly desirable devices, and shared data plans will further accelerate demand and adoption as the costs of dual ownership decline," Richard Webb, Infonetics' directing analyst for microwave and small cells, said in a statement. "We believe shared data plans will become an integral weapon in the operator arsenal of packages designed to attract new subscribers and reduce churn."

Who offers shared plans?
Such plans have started to gain a foothold in Europe. France Telecom's Orange provider offers iPad owners in Austria the ability to share data with a phone, according to an article by AllThingsD's Ina Fried. Similar plans have also kicked off in the U.K., France, and Spain.

But carriers in U.S. have been slow compared with their European counterparts.

In June, AT&T Mobility CEO Ralph de la Vega said that his company was working on a shared data plan for customers with multiple devices, promising something soon. But an AT&T spokesperson told CNET yesterday that the company "has not announced any news related to shared data plans at this time."

In May, Verizon Wireless said it expects to offer shared family data plans in the future, according to Reuters. Verizon spokeswoman Brenda Raney confirmed to CNET that the company is looking into shared data plans and "it may be something we would consider but not at present."

T-Mobile doesn't currently provide any shared data plans. Sprint offers plans with unlimited data, such as its Everything Data Family option. In June, a memo reportedly leaked from Sprint and posted by tech enthusiast site Intomobile indicated that the company would soon roll out a data share plan. But so far, no such plan seems to exist.