This past week I had a chance to visit briefly with James Deaton, which is always a wonderful treat. (Not only is James a super nice guy, he’s also the smartest geek I know personally on our planet, and that’s saying quite a bit.) James mentioned he has been looking at the new “AT&T Mobile Share with Unlimited Talk & Text” plans for his family, since the plans offer some enticing new features. Under these plans, everyone in your family gets unlimited talk and text, and shares a specified amount of wireless data. Most notably, EVERY smartphone on your plan can use both tethering and “wifi hotspot” features to connect other devices to the Internet, including laptops and tablets. This is REALLY awesome, in my view, but there are some significant drawbacks depending on your current data plan status. In this post, I’ll explain how I analyzed our family’s current wireless bill charges and estimated what it would cost to switch over to AT&T Mobile Share. The answer for our particular situation (4 iPhones in the family with 2 on unlimited data plans) is a stubborn NO at this point for AT&T Mobile Share. If my kids were on AT&T’s service now for their iPhones, it would almost be a wash in terms of the monthly bill, but since they’re using unlocked iPhones on T-Mobile, it would cost us about $50 to $100 more per month depending on whether I wanted to keep my unlimited data plan or not. Here’s how I calculated those figures.

Mobile Share Plans from AT&T

Currently my wife and I both have iPhones on contracted plans with AT&T. We both have “grandfathered” UNLIMITED data plans, which is a huge benefit that I’m extremely reluctant to give up. I don’t have independent verification of this, but it seems to me AT&T is very keen to get as many people as possible switched OFF unlimited iPhone data plans. Here are some facts which appear to be “evidence” of this corporate motive:

  1. AT&T stopped offering unlimited iPhone data plans in mid 2010.
  2. AT&T started “throttling” unlimited data plan users in October of 2011. While AT&T initially seemed OK with unlimited data customers using over 5 GB of data per month, now people (myself included) are getting warning messages about ‘excessive data usage’ after only 2 GB of data used per month. (This really hacks me off, btw.)
  3. If I’d choose to pay for iPhone tethering or iPhone wireless hotspot functionality from AT&T, I’d lose my unlimited data plan and have to select a “quota-based” data plan. Unlimited data plans can’t “legally” (that’s per AT&T’s own contract terms written by their snaky lawyers) tether or act as a wifi hotspot. Jailbreakers can do these things on unlimited data plans via MyWi, but non-jailbreakers can’t with AT&T’s blessing.
  4. Per the official “FAQs about AT&T Mobile Share” site, “Only Mobile Share plans allow sharing of unlimited talk, text AND data, so if you want to share data across devices you will need to change to a Mobile Share plan.” This means people (like us) with unlimited data plans would LOSE that plan and become “quotaed” if we switch to Mobile Share.

We have two teenagers (technically one 14 year old and one 12 going on 14 year old) who have inherited iPhones. I have absolutely refused to put their iPhones on AT&T’s phone network, because AT&T REQUIRES that all iPhones on their network pay a minimum $30 per month per phone for their cheapest data plan in addition to their $10 per phone “add-a-line” fees. With our current AT&T FamilyTalk 850 plan ($60 a month) that means if I put my 2 kids’ iPhones on our bill, it would cost us $80 per month plus taxes ($10 + $30 + $10 + $30). Each phone would require a $10 “add-a-line” charge plus a $30 per month data plan.) Instead of paying those fees, I have my kids on T-Mobile using unlocked iPhones, on a $15 per month unlimited texting (pay-as-you-go) plan with 10¢ per minute talk. They don’t have mobile data with this plan, but that’s OK, because we don’t want to pay for it! They use wifi when they are at home (Oklahoma City Public Schools doesn’t yet provide student wifi guest access) and that’s good enough for their needs now.

This T-Mobile option for our kids works out to cost about $40 per month for both of their phones, approximately half of what it would cost to have them on AT&T. Once your iPhone is out of contract, AT&T will unlock it for you after you complete this online form. You have to restore your phone in iTunes, and then it’s unlocked: Ready for T-Mobile if desired. If you have an in-contract iPhone you want unlocked, there are now other options in addition to jailbreaking. For $30 some online retailers are now able to “remotely unlock” in-contract iPhones. This is good to know if you’re going to be traveling internationally with a now-locked AT&T iPhone. I haven’t tried that or used those services, but it’s interesting to know they are available. When I ordered my iPhone5 a few weeks ago, I filled out AT&T’s device unlock form and they directly unlocked my now out-of-contract iPhone4 without any hassle. Very slick, very nice.

Congratulations, your iPhone has been unlocked - iTunes

With AT&T Mobile Share, you pay a certain amount as a family and then another amount PER smartphone depending on how much monthly bandwidth you purchase.

Mobile Share Plans from AT&T

AT&T has created a very helpful bandwidth calculator for their Mobile Share plans, and I used it initially to figure out what it would cost if all 4 members of our family switched to Mobile Share and share 10 GB of data per month. It looks like it would cost around $250 to $260, depending on the add-on taxes and fees. That is about about $80 MORE than what we’re paying now for all 4 of our phones to be on AT&T and T-Mobile. In this estimate I guessed my wife would use 1 GB, each of our kids 2 GB each, and I’d use 5 GB per month.

Estimate for 4 iPhones

The main reason I ruled out switching to Mobile Share for MY data plan is that I don’t want to lose my unlimited data plan. I fear I’m trying to fight the tide with this, because AT&T seems VERY determined to get folks on this plan to switch by defining monthly bandwidth quotas to ever-shrinking amounts, but that’s my sentiment at this point. For this reason, I next calculated what it would cost if I maintained my iPhone independently of my wife and kids with my unlimited data plan (about $100 per month) and the three of them went with Mobile Share. My monthly data consumption varies between 3 GB and 5 GB per month now, but my wife only used 1 GB last month. I estimated my kids would use 2 GB each per month (probably a low estimate, but it was a guess) and that meant their best Mobile Share tier would be a shared 6 GB. This would cost (according to the AT&T calculator) about $200 to $210 per month, again depending on taxes/fees.

Estimate for 3 iPhones

Added together, that means we’d be paying about $100 per month more for them to all share data and have mobile hotspots, while I would keep my unlimited data plan. That’s not something we’re willing to do at this point.

So, as of TODAY (and I emphasize that because my opinion certainly could change) it looks like we’re better off sticking with our ‘old’ AT&T shared voice and data plans. Our kids don’t have data with this setup, but we do save some money.

The other wrinkle to this is that I really need a mobile hotspot for the presentations I share (generally each month now) in different parts of the United States. School as well as hotel wifi connections can be unreliable, overly filtered, and slow when lots of conference attendees are on at once. Mobile cellular hotspots have saved my life on more than one occasion in the past.

I investigated the different options at Best Buy tonight, and it definitely looks like Verizon’s “Jetpack 4G LTE” is the best deal. Whether you buy it outright or sign a 2 year contract, you pay $50 per month. The device online sells (sans contract) for $250, I think Best Buy was selling it for $300 without a contract. The cancellation fee is $175, however, so it seems you’re better off signing a contract even if you might not keep paying for the entire contract term. I went ahead and signed on the dotted line tonight for one (with a 2 year contract) but I have 14 days to change my mind and just pay the first month’s service and activation fees. LTE Internet speeds are BLAZINGLY fast (it’s not hype, I’m now a witness) so Verizon seemed like a clear choice today. AT&T only has one mobile hotspot option available now and their LTE coverage with it is reportedly very sparse for some reason. (The device’s fine print explains you’ll get “HSPA+ with enhanced backhaul” instead of LTE in many locations.) Sprint had a $35 per month hotspot, but it just has 3G speeds. (There were faster options but I was looking for CHEAP ones.)

That’s about the end of my cell phone “Mobile Share” and hotspot analysis for this afternoon and evening. Looking over the combined numbers again, it appears we might just about come out the same monthly cost-wise if we switched all 4 of our phones to “AT&T Mobile Share” instead of sticking with the convoluted combination of AT&T for my wife and I, T-Mobile for the kids, and Verizon for my hotspot. Either way I think we’re going to pay about $250 per month. The biggest question in making this decision is: Should I be stubborn and hang onto my unlimited iPhone data plan, or instead give up and start paying for quotaed data with Mobile Share? I know my kids would love getting data service on their iPhones. I REALLY wish there were cheaper options. I think it’s RIDICULOUS to pay more for cell phone service than we pay for a car payment. Sherman Nicodemus agrees. But such is life (apparently) for our family in 2012.

For now, I’m being stubborn and sticking with my unlimited AT&T iPhone data plan. Given the situation as I’ve outlined it here, do you think that’s a wise or foolish choice?

I wonder if anyone is filing a class-action lawsuit against AT&T, arguing that their addition of “throttling” to unlimited iPhone data plans constitutes an unlawful/unpermissible breach of contract? I doubt it, but I still wonder and hope…..

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On this day..

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  • What Thuh

    I like your artical. And answer to the title question: N O T H I N G good or a “deal” with at&terrible

  • http://www.facebook.com/ralph.randrup Ralph Randrup

    Hey Wesley I think we’re kind of in the same boat here. I, too, have been thinking of switching to the AT&T Mobile share plan to get Facetime over 3g/4g and the mobile hotspot features but like you I’m reluctant to let go of our unlimited plans. I have 2 Iphones (both unlimited) and a basic phone on my account which cost me a total of $170 a month. We never worry about minutes because we have tons of them and text messaging is not costly too since almost everyone we text has an iphone. Switching to the mobile share plan with the 6gb quota will cost me $20 more a month so I just don’t see the reason why switch plans. Is the Facetime feature and mobile hotspot worth the $20 extra a month? Right now I don’t think it is. I also calculated if we go down to the 4gb quota and even that will cost us $10 more per month. So like you, I think we’re sticking with our current plans until they change the pricing structure

  • http://wfryer.wpengine.com Wesley Fryer

    Yep, that’s been the debates at our house too, and I’ve actually flip-flopped a few times since I wrote this post. I finally decided to stick with our unlimited data plans and NOT go with sharing, but I have added an extra $50 per month with the Verizon hotspot. I used it extensively this week at EDUCAUSE in Denver and was very pleased with it.

    Since this is the first full month I’ve had LTE, I’m really not sure what that is going to look like in terms of my own mobile data consumption on my iPhone5. I’ve never gone over 5 GB as far as I know, but I’ve been close. With LTE speeds I’m thinking I’ll stream video more and will almost certainly use MORE rather than less data.

    I talked with another friend earlier this week who said AT&T was throttling him back to 3G speeds instead of LTE when he’s exceeded 5 GB. I’ve also read about people getting throttled at 2 GB, but haven’t met anyone who has been. So we’ll see how it goes. I figure if at some point we want to go with the shared plan we always can, but if we give up the unlimited data plans at this point we’ll lose them forever.

    I have no doubt that AT&T wants to try and get as many people as possible OFF the unlimited data plans. So that makes me think (as I have been) that unlimited data plans are “good deals” which shouldn’t be given up lightly.

  • http://www.facebook.com/erichileman Eric Hileman

    I’m in the same boat, fighting the tide and simply don’t want to give up my unlimited data plan.

    Also agree with regarding @jed, one of the smartest people on the planet and glad to call him friend.

  • http://www.facebook.com/gerry.malis Gerry Malis

    You’re comparing apples with oranges. Sure you save money now. Your kids use NO data. You even calculated with the new AT&T Mobile Share Plan that you would allot your kids 2 GB EACH of data. So, you get your kids wireless data access and 2 GB of data for each of them. And then you wonder why you would pay more? Am I wrong, or is this article a crock? I’m not defending AT&T in any manner (I too have the unlimited data plan for three iPhones and would love to be able to use my phone as a hotspot). But come on. You aren’t making a fair comparison.

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