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The Problem With Wireless Data Sharing Plans

It seems like they'll save you a ton of money. But they're largely designed to make money — for the carriers.

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You've probably noticed that over the last couple years, the biggest wireless carriers have killed unlimited, all-you-can-download-stream-or-upload data plans in favor of tiered plans, like three gigabytes for $30 a month at AT&T. It's a downgrade for some people, especially as things like streaming music with Spotify, uploading tons of Instagram photos and 1080p video, and Facebooking everything have gone more mainstream, eating up more and more data. Now AT&T and Verizon have a new gambit: The shared data plan.

Thing is, these plans aren't solely designed to be to save your money or to make your life easier. They're also built to protect lucrative sources of revenue for wireless companies that are on the decline as we use more and more data — voice and text messages.

AT&T announced its "Mobile Share" plans yesterday; at Verizon, who was first to launch shared data plans, a "Share Everything" plan is now the only choice you have if you're signing up for a new contract.

Since it's increasingly likely that you have more than one device that needs a wireless data plan — a smartphone and a tablet, or a phone and a wireless hotspot — or that you're sharing a plan with multiple people who need data, splitting a big, shared bucket of bytes sounds way more logical. Spending $60 on 6GB to split with your significant other (or whoever) would be easier, right?

But every shared plan on both carriers comes with unlimited texting and calling. There is no other option. This, despite the fact that we're talking on the phone less and less, and more and more of the talking that we're doing uses data-based VoIP (like Skype) or video chat instead of traditional wireless voice minutes. Meanwhile, data-based messaging services like iMessage, Facebook Messenger and Google Talk are cutting into traditional text messages, also threatening a huge source of wireless profits — to the extent that AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson says that services like iMessage make him "lie awake at night worrying" about how it's "disruptive to our messaging revenue stream." (How insanely profitable are SMS messages over standard data? They're just 160 bytes of data, or like 0.00016 cents per message if you go by AT&T's 3GB/$30 rate for individual data plans. Yet, AT&T charges 20 cents per message individually.)

But let's look at the plans themselves. Verizon's plans are as follows: 1GB for $50, 2GB for $60, 4GB for $70, 6GB for $80, 8GB for $90 and 10GB for $100. On top of that, you pay $40 for each smartphone, $30 for each "basic phone," $20 for wireless hotspots and $10 for tablets. On AT&T, 1GB is $40, 4GB is $70, 6GB is $90, 10GB is $120, 15GB is $160 and 20GB is $200. Each smartphone is $45 on the 1GB plan, $40 on the 4GB plan, $35 on the 6GB plan and $30 a pop on the rest of the plans.

So on AT&T and Verizon, a pair of smartphones sharing 6GB with unlimited talk/texting would run you $160 with a mobile sharing plan. An AT&T family plan with 550 minutes, 3GB per phone and unlimited messages would come out to $150. This math tilts in favor of a shared data plan, but that's in part because the rules of the game have been altered as well — around the time iMessage came out last year, AT&T started railroading people into unlimited messaging plans that run $20 a month; at Verizon, since you have get a Shared Everything plan — even if you're just getting a phone for your single, solitary self, you lonely bastard — you also have to get unlimited texting. (Worse still: If you've got an unlimited data plan on Verizon, the only way you can keep your old plan is by paying full price for your phone, meaning a lot of current customers will be on a Share Everything plan soon enough.)

Since unlimited data plans aren't coming back, and data is vital to more and more people — witness Verizon's record data revenues which now represent 43 percent of its service reveues, which should tell you everything — what we need are actually flexible data sharing plans. Like a plan for a smartphone and a tablet that splits 6GB a month, with 200 minutes and 200 text messages. Or a plan with 10GB a month and zero minutes and 500 text messages. Or yes, 2GB a month with unlimited texting and calling. Everybody needs something different — there's no reason that plans can't be built to support that, unchained from legacy driven profit engines. (And with rollover data! If I don't use all of my 3GB this month, why I can't I use it next month, just like voice minutes?)

If there's hope for any of that, it's probably with a smaller, sprightlier carrier, like Sprint, who continues to wave the flag of unlimited data for as long as the state of its network will let it. But as Sprint was so fond of pointing out during the failed AT&T/T-Mobile merger, the combined market share and profit power of Verizon and AT&T means there's not very much hope at all.