A Detailed Break-Down of Mobile Shared Data Plans

Mobile data plans have significantly evolved over the last few years, especially in the US. When smartphones initially hit the scene, they were much more expensive and mostly incapable of using significant amounts of data due to numerous inherent limitations of the devices and available content. Wireless carriers knew this and attempted to entice consumers by making data plans as attractive as possible. Hence, the $30 unlimited plan was born. With Windows Mobile and early BlackBerry products, mobile data was used for little more than checking e-mail. Early mobile Web browsers weren't capable of loading most sites cleanly, and things like Twitter and Facebook weren't even around. Photo / video sharing via social networks wasn't a thing yet either.

Things have since changed. While the demand for voice minutes has diminish so much that carriers are giving them away for free, data has not followed a similar path. Data was once given away in unlimited buckets, with carriers assuming that users would never be able to use enough to have a material impact on their networks. That obviously did not turn out to be case, however. The iPhone arrived. Android was born. RIM enhanced the Blackberry's capabilities. And Windows Mobile transformed into the much more capable Windows Phone OS. Suddenly, data was in much higher demand, and the supply was limited. Unlimited plans became a hot commodity, and it didn't take long for carriers to realize that they weren't sustainable, at least in the short term. Instead, users were forced into tiered data plans in some instances, but there was still one more card to be played: shared data plans.

For many, shared data plans seem like a win-win, in theory. After all, families that owned two tablets, three phones and perhaps a WWAN-enabled notebook were paying through the nose for data. Why couldn't one buy a single pool of data and use it on all of their devices? After all, that's what happens at home. Consumers purchase a broadband connection, and then they use a router to allow all wired and Wi-Fi enabled devices to share that single connection. Seems pretty simple, right? In the mobile world though, it's most certainly not that easy to understand. There are lots of complexities when it comes to selecting the best data plan, with all four of the major U.S. carriers offering something a little different. Let's try to distill it down a bit.

Laying it all out-

T-Mobile USA offers nationwide 3G coverage in an "unlimited" plan, but you'll get throttled once you use up 2GB in a month. Sprint touts "unlimited" data, but if you cruise past 5GB, you'll probably get a naughty letter. That leaves Verizon Wireless and AT&T, the two largest carriers in America. And coincidentally, the two that offer true mobile data shared plans. If you've been interested to learn more about which carrier offers more data for less, here's a breakdown of what you'll get.

On Verizon and AT&T, you start with a "base rate." It's important to note that this base includes unlimited talking and texting (including picture and video messaging). It also includes tethering on any smartphones on the plan. So, in a way, that makes things really simple. Text and talk all you want, and you won't get charged extra. But the simplicity ends there.

AT&T Mobile Data Share example

The base fee for AT&T is $40 per month, while Verizon is $50 per month. Each of these includes 1GB of total data for everyone on the plan to share. For each smartphone added to the account, you'll get hit with a $45 fee per month on AT&T, whereas Verizon charges only $40. In other words, two smartphones on a 1GB Verizon plan would cost $50 (base) + $40 (Smartphone #1) + $40 (Smartphone #2) = $130 pre month before taxes and fees. On AT&T, you'd pay $40 (base) + $45 (Smartphone #1) + $45 (Smartphone #2) = $130. Funny how that works, isn't it? The U.S. government cries foul on some monopolistic activities, but despite having two different carrier options for shared plans, it's almost as if they worked this out ahead of time to give you no real choice at all. You pay the same regardless of which carrier you choose at the 1GB base level.

The reality is, however, that 1GB per month is probably too small a plan for most families. Heck, even most couples will use over 1GB. Both carriers charge a $15 fee for going over your limit, with that $15 buying you an extra gigabyte of data. Let's compare the next largest plans.

On AT&T, the 1GB plan leaps straight to a 4GB plan, which runs $70 (base) per month, while each smartphone on the plan adds $40 each. Verizon offers a middle ground, with a 2GB base plan costing $60 per month with each smartphone adding $40. On the Verizon side, its 4GB monthly plan runs the exact same as AT&T: $70 (base) + $40 per smartphone.

What about heavy users?

For those with top-tier data needs (above 6GB), here's the breakdown. AT&T charges $90 (6GB), $120 (10GB), $160 (15GB) and $200 (20GB) for the base rates. Verizon, meanwhile, charges $80 (6GB), $90 (8GB) and $100 (10GB) for its upper-level plans. For both carriers, basic / dumbphones cost $30 per month to be added to any base, while laptops / hotspots cost $20 per device. Tablets and gaming devices, like the PS Vita that runs on AT&T's network, are $10 each.

Obviously, you won't be able to determine which carriers offers you the best deal overall without knowing how much data you'll need, and how many devices will be on the plan. The truth of the matter is that neither carrier offers what we'd consider a great deal though. In most scenarios, the older data plans were ultimately cheaper. The real killer is the per-device charge in addition to the pool of data. Charging upwards of $40 per smartphone eliminates any potential savings from paying for a shared data pool. No surprise -- the carriers are here to make money, and while a shared data pool sounds like a consumer-friendly effort, the prices tacked onto them are decidedly unfriendly.
As an example, I currently have a nationwide talk plan on AT&T that offers 450 minutes per month, unlimited nights and weekends, a $30/month unlimited data plan and a per-use texting plan given how frequently I use iMessage. My bill is right around $100/month, and for many who have corporate or other discounts, it can be even lower. AT&T's new plans are trickier; 1GB of data surely isn't enough for me, so I'm forced to pay for the leap to 4GB. With that, I'm at $110/month before taxes and fees. Yes, I'm only paying a small amount more for unlimited talk and text, but the truth is those two things aren't valuable to me. Even if AT&T told me I could have unlimited talk and text with my current plan for just $2 more per month, I'd decline.

Careful before you switch-

Before leaping away from your grandfathered mobile plan, think carefully about the costs involved in shared data. What we've found is that most folks with two or fewer people on their plan will still be better off sticking to older plans, unless they truly place a high value on unlimited voice minutes.

At the end of the day, there really aren't any great options currently. Why can't consumers choose a shared data plan with limited texts and voice minutes? (Answer: because both carriers know that they'd likely lose revenue if consumers opted for smaller text and voice allotments.) Just don't expect any of these new shared plans to actually save you money. In a lot of cases, they'll actually cost you a bit more.

AT&T's Shared Data calculator is here, while Verizon's is here.