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AT&T’s Mobile Share Plans May Cut Costs

When I first heard that Verizon Wireless and AT&T had shared-data plans up their sleeves, I had a moment of misplaced hope. Oh, goodie! I thought. Now I can consolidate the uneven usage on two lines into one and save money with a more consistent bill! Then I saw the plans, which have a base fee plus a per-smartphone fee, and additional fees for other devices. My back-of-envelope calculations made it seem a bad deal.

But I was too hasty in my assessment. With a new iPhone due to be announced shortly, according to the invitation sent out by Apple, and my wife, Lynn, working with a dying iPhone 4 that’s increasingly freaking out, we needed to review our options before committing to a new iPhone.

We initially considered Virgin Mobile’s iPhone offer, in which you pay full freight upfront on an iPhone 4 ($549.99, 8 GB) or 4S ($649.99, 16 GB) and then attach a no-contract Beyond Talk plan. For $30 per month, it includes 300 minutes of voice calls, and $40 takes that to 1200 minutes. The plan offers unlimited text messages. The data plan is billed as “unlimited,” but it works at full EVDO rates (on Sprint’s 3G CDMA network) for only the first 2.5 GB of usage each month. After that, it throttles down to dialup modem rates.

Given that we now pay effectively $35 per month for a second line with just 300 MB of data usage, the Virgin deal at either $30 or $40 per month seemed to be a steal, as it includes Personal Hotspot and tethering. But it means maintaining two separate plans, relying on Sprint’s network in Seattle, and investing a lot of money up front.

So I gave AT&T’s Mobile Share plans a second look, and realized I hadn’t made a fair comparison the first time around. We currently pay $95 for our first line (which has a 3 GB data plan) and $35 for the second. This $130 per month includes a long-grandfathered package of 200 text messages for each line at $5 per month, 850 voice minutes with rollover minutes, and nighttime and weekend free calling, among other included services.

Mobile Share works differently, with a base price for a set of shared data along with unlimited text messages and voice usage, and then a fee per smartphone, tablet, laptop, and “featurephone” (i.e., dumb phone). The starting price is $40 per month for 1 GB of pooled data (which enables Personal Hotspot on all devices now and FaceTime over mobile broadband with iOS 6). Each smartphone adds $45 per month.

With our current setup, that’s the same $130 per month we pay for 3 GB on one phone and 300 MB on another without pooling, and without Personal Hotspot. I have the 3 GB plan on my phone because I was hitting the 300 MB limit so often, I risked accidentally paying an extra $20 on those months with a 300 MB plan. Lynn’s usage skirts 300 MB some months, too, and she had a $20 fee applied for barely crossing it last month. We also sometimes exhaust our 200 text messages, and pay a few dollars a month there. I also have to enable Personal Hotspot for a few days or a week when traveling if Wi-Fi isn’t available or reliable. All in all, we pay between $5 and $30 per month for usage fees beyond our current level.

In the Mobile Share plan, overages cost $15 per GB, higher than the $10 per GB in the regular plans with 3 GB service. But that’s a much smaller risk, and we’re unlikely to exceed it. Lynn may set up an office outside the home and need tethering, at which point we could jump to a 4 GB plan for just $150 per month ($70 base plus $40 per phone). AT&T offers increments up to 20 GB ($200 base plus $30 per phone).

The advantage, too, is that I can add or subtract an iPad for $10 per month without setting up a new account or dealing with partially used data plans or other fees. That flexibility is part of what sells me after some recent trips in which we wound up having to juggle laptops, phones, and a tablet to get the right mix of connectivity for work and entertainment.

Verizon Wireless’s plans are nearly identical. The starting point of 1 GB costs a base of $50 per month plus $40 per smartphone (the same $130 in our case), with $15 per GB overage fees. Monthly fees for other devices are identical to AT&T’s. But Verizon is more attractive for people who need large amounts of data, since the Verizon plans are cheaper than AT&T at higher-usage tiers. Its top-tier plan is 10 GB for $100 plus $40 per smartphone), but subscribers may increase that in units of 2 GB for $10 per month each.

These shared plans won’t work for many users, especially in scenarios in which two or more smartphone users have vastly different usage habits: one sips, the other gulps. If you’re grandfathered into cheaper data plans or messaging plans at AT&T and Verizon, you also likely won’t want to shift from a family plan. But for our (at present) two-person setup, we figure that we’ll trim our bill by $200 to $300 per year while having less anxiety about conserving data use as the billing cycle reaches a close each month.

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