Unlimited smartphone data plans were never sustainable. As data use outstrips voice, as smartphones get ever more capable, and as the Internet introduces more data-intensive applications, it became clear that wireless carriers could simply not afford unlimited plans. High-def video streaming from Netflix and Hulu are on the way, and two-way video chat is already here (on the HTC Evo 4G), for example.
So tiered data plans were a given. Verizon explained the "buckets" tactic the company plans to take with the rollout of its 4G network next year, in which customers purchase a set amount of data in chunks. But it's AT&T that's the first to announce a tiered data service. Formerly, they offered a $30 unlimited data plan, and if you're already on that, you're welcome to keep it. But some may actually want to drop it to move to a lower tier.
AT&T's data plans now include two tiers, plus an add-on feature, and, thankfully, there are several safeguards to ensure that customers don't go wildly over their allotted data. These customers will receive warning texts and emails after they hit 65%, 90%, and 100% of their monthly allotment, and if they go over, they'll simply pay a small amount to buy another "bucket" of data.
The first tier, called DataPlus, includes 200MB of data for $15 per month. That's actually good news for, say, BlackBerry users, whose phones are great for email but not so great for data-intensive tasks like web video. If these users exceed that 200MB, they'll be charged another $15 for another 200MB. AT&T, interestingly, estimates that 65% of its smartphone customers use less than 200MB of data per month.
The second tier, DataPro, bumps the limit to 2GB, for $25 per month. If a DataPro customer goes over the limit, they'll have to buy extra "buckets" of data at $10 per 1GB of extra data. Tethering is only available for DataPro users, and it'll cost $20 per month.
As far as the iPad goes, existing iPad owners can keep their $30 per month unlimited data plan or switch to a new $25 per month, 2GB plan, like DataPro except without a contract. New iPad users have to use the 2GB plan.
As loath as I am to praise a wireless carrier, these tiers are actually not the death knell of data we all thought they'd be. For some, it'll mean a lower bill, and for practically everyone, it won't make much difference.
But that won't change the fact that it's the power users who will be affected—and it's the power users that are the most vocal about changes of this sort. Though current AT&T users can stick to their unlimited plans, a new user who wants to use 5GB of data per month is going to find themselves with a very pricey plan.
Of course, I expect both tiers will increase their allotment as time goes by—let's just hope it keeps up with smartphone features.