AT&T: Way to spin a mobile data plan backstep! (OR: Why I’m going Android)

You may have heard that yesterday AT&T stopped offering unlimited mobile data plans.

Their spin, according to this press release: New Lower-Priced Wireless Data Plans to Make Mobile Internet More Affordable to More People

Hah! That’s smooth! But now, the real point: AT&T now offers only these pay-as-you-go data plan options for new or renewing mobile contracts:

  • 200 MB/month: $15/month, plus an extra $15 for each additional 200 MB
  • 2G/month: $25/month, plus an extra $10 for each additional 1G
  • Tethering service: $20 month

No more all you can eat. Which makes sense! AT&T’s network can’t really handle unlimited mobile broadband for a large swath of its smartphone and tablet users. No US mobile carrier can. That’s just begging for network congestion — which annoys everyone and is bad for business…

In my opinion, AT&T bit off way more than they could chew when they offered unlimited mobile data plans for iPhones.

I’ve enjoyed my iPhone for the past two years (my contract is up in July), but I can tell you this: AT&T’s 3G network has been spotty and unreliable nearly everywhere I’ve lived and traveled. And in the Bay Area, when you can get on it, AT&T’s 3G usually offers a negligible improvement in connection speed.

That’s why I leave 3G off over 95% of the time, and instead routinely crawl along AT&T’s less flashy but more ubiquitous and reliable Edge network. (You know, the one where you’re clinging to the edge of the internet by your fingertips.)

In fact, I wish I could customize the “enable 3G” button in my iPhone’s “settings” menu to read “Kill call quality and battery life.”

…But I digress…

Mobile broadband is hard to deliver

I’m not making excuses for how US mobile carriers work, but the more I learn about mobile network technology the more I’m amazed mobile broadband works at all.

It’ll be a helluva long time (if ever) before US mobile users can rely on ubiquitous cheap mobile broadband to the point that streaming an HD movie to your iPad while lounging at the beach is considered a poor man’s pastime. Believe me, if any carrier could pull that off cheaply and reliably, they’d arrange to serve you margaritas too.

But mobile broadband isn’t a cakewalk. Which means the growing proliferation of smartphones, tablets, tethered laptops, and even more data-intensive feature phones will probably substantially increase congestion across all US mobile networks. Which means we’ll all be sitting around in mobile traffic jams, waiting for pages to load and videos to stream.

Why unlimited mobile data plans are generally a bad idea

Unlimited mobile data plans sound tempting, but in reality they just encourage inefficiency all down the line — from phone manufacturers to carriers to users.

I wouldn’t be surprised if one reason why the iPhone is such a data hog compared to most other smartphones is because Apple figured that if they could strike an exclusive carrier deal, they could convince the carrier to offer an unlimited data plans. Which meant Apple could build a much fancier, more eye-catching, Cadillac-level data hog of a phone. Those unlimited plans made iPhones easier to sell to consumers and grew the overall smartphone market — but they also are unsustainable from a network perspective and thus bad for business.

The result: AT&T’s reputation for service has been getting thoroughly trashed. On top of that, AT&T now pulls what looks to many consumers like a bait and switch on mobile data plan pricing at about the same time they significantly hiked their early termination fee — all, coincidentally, just after the FCC announced it’s gathering public comments on wireless broadband performance.

People do talk to each other — and influence each other — about such matters. You’d think a company in the telecom business would understand that people talk.

I suspect that yanking unlimited data plans was probably a move of desperation rather than outright gouging by AT&T. However, this perfect storm will probably just make it harder than ever for consumers to trust AT&T enough to enter into a two-year mobile contract.

That’s a big problem for AT&T. Those two-year contracts are the cash cow of the mobile carrier business. When that kind of revenue stream gets less reliable, it gets harder for mobile carriers to make long-term capital investments — like, say, major improvements to their broadband network. Which eventually ends up hurting service for all AT&T mobile customers, even on the Edge network.

I wouldn’t be surprised if AT&T increases its top-end data plan cost significantly, probably in lots of little steps. Also, I bet they’ll introduce more pricing tiers. After all, there’s a LOT of room between 200 MB/month and 2G/month. For most people, even iPad users, 2G/month is the functional equivalent of unlimited data access. I think that removing the official “unlimited” option is just a baby step. And I think AT&T has no choice but to move toward a complete pay-as-you-go model.

Why I’ve decided to go Android this summer

My iPhone contract ends in July. I’m liking what I’m seeing about Android 2.2 and the Verizon Incredible and the Sprint EVO. So I want to demo both devices, check out network coverage in the Bay Area, and review their respective data plans. But I am going Android.

I’ve liked my iPhone. Truthfully, the experience of having a versatile smartphone, with mobile data access, has changed my life and work. But a smartphone is only as good as its carrier network, and I can only see AT&T’s cost and performance getting worse as time goes on.

Yes, it’ll be an adjustment, and I’m sure I’ll grumble about it. There will be a learning curve for the new mobile OS. Plus I’ll have to make some other big changes. Notably, I’ll have to move away from OmniFocus for task management — that tool syncs only via Apple’s MobileMe, and I need functional task management in my pocket, not just on my computer. Also, I may have to give up on Apple iCal as my main calendar if I can’t sync it reliably to an Android calendar.

Truthfully, those aspects of changing how I use my phone were the main things holding me back from going Android much earlier — despite AT&T’s high cost and ever-deteriorating service; and despite the iPhone’s abysmal battery life, notoriously poor call quality, tinny speaker, lack of Bluetooth keyboard support, and crappy camera.

But I will have to evaluate my likely Android data needs in order to choose an appropriate plan. I’m not sure how to do that just yet, and would appreciate Android users’ tips and experiences on that front. (Please comment below.) At the very least, I can evaluate how hard/expensive carriers for Android phones make it to change the plan you’re on, which will give me some flexibility.

Stay tuned for more on this adventure…

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4 thoughts on AT&T: Way to spin a mobile data plan backstep! (OR: Why I’m going Android)

  1. Yes, for many people the AT&T data plans will yield savings. Of course, as you upgrade to new phones, your data consumption may increase significantly, so keep an eye on that. The AT&T announcement does list ways to monitor your data usage — but I don’t know if that is per device only, or across a family plan.

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