In a widely expected move AT&T has announced changes to its mobile broadband data plans.

The two biggest changes include removing an ‘unlimited’ option for mobile data usage and including ‘tethering’ for the smartphones, which allows users to use smartphones like the iPhone as a mobile broadband modem for other devices, including laptops and netbooks.

For mobile broadband access, AT&T now offers two plans and the tethering option, outlined below:

  • DataPlus – Provides 200 megabytes (MB) of data – for example, enough to send/receive 1,000 emails (no attachments), plus send/receive 150 emails with attachments, plus view 400 Web pages, plus post 50 photos on social media sites, plus watch 20 minutes of streaming video – for just $15 per month.**  This plan, which can save customers up to 50 percent off their wireless data charges, is designed for people who primarily like to surf the web, send email and use social networking apps. If customers exceed 200 MB in a monthly billing cycle, they will receive an additional 200 MB of data usage for $15 for use in the cycle.
  • DataPro – Provides 2 gigabytes (GB) of data – for example, enough to send/receive 10,000 emails (no attachments), plus send/receive 1,500 emails with attachments, plus view 4,000 Web pages, plus post 500 photos to social media sites, plus watch 200 minutes of streaming video – for $25 per month.**  Should a customer exceed 2 GB during a billing cycle, they will receive an additional 1 GB of data for $10 for use in the cycle.
  • Tethering – Smartphone customers – including iPhone customers – who choose the DataPro plan have the option to add tethering for an additional $20 per month.  Tethering lets customers use their smartphones as a modem to provide a broadband connection for laptop computers, netbooks or other computing devices. Tethering for iPhones will be available when Apple releases iPhone OS 4 this summer.

AT&T says 98% of its current mobile broadband customers use less than 2 GB of total data per month, and 65% use less than 200 MB. Both plans include access to AT&T’s 20,000 location Wi-Fi footprint. AT&T also lowered the mobile broadband subscription for the Apple iPad to $25/month for 2 GB of data, down from $30.

To help customers manage the new data caps, AT&T will send users free text messages when they hit 65%, 90%, and 100% of their plan’s limit. Some smartphone customers, including iPhone users, can download an app for additional usage monitoring.

AT&T will not force existing customers to migrate over to the new plans, unless they choose the tethering option. All new customers will have to select new plans.

The move is sure to rile up ‘stop the cap’ advocates who think carriers are looking for additional ways to squeeze dollars out of customers and view usage caps as unfair and not necessary. Carriers of course, beg to differ.  AT&T has struggled with network performance, due in some part to the exclusivity of the iPhone and its bandwidth hungry apps.

AT&T’s move is not expected to be a go-it-alone stance. Verizon has already hinted they intend some form of usage billing for their upcoming 4G network. From my vantage point, the new plans don’t seem unreasonable (although I’m not a big fan of charging $20/month for tethering), given carriers need to balance network performance with data usage patterns, while still making money. It will certainly negatively affect a select minority group of users. But then again, that’s the point.

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