The big news from yesterday, as you can find on many of the internet’s top news sites, revolved around AT&T’s new data plans. These came as no surprise. AT&T had been saying for years that they loathe the one-tier, unlimited pricing models. The timing is also convenient, as AT&T just got the iPad and, according to recent rumors, will lose iPhone exclusivity. In any case, the new plans have a simple theme: slightly cheaper pricing for considerably less data. As expected, AT&T has justified these new deals by playing “bandwidth hogs” against the regular consumer. Like most issues, however, this type of oversimplification never gets to the root of the issue. RIM expressed similar sentiments, and they’re equally oversimplified. Here’s RIM’s statement, via Al Sacco:
“RIM welcomes this news since these new pricing plans will translate to savings for BlackBerry customers due to the industry-leading efficiency of the BlackBerry platform. Thanks to RIM’s longstanding focus on wireless data efficiency and investment in related technologies and infrastructure, the BlackBerry platform is significantly more efficient than other mobile platforms and this leads to a major advantage for users with tiered pricing plans.”
On the surface, yes, this makes sense. If RIM’s platform compresses data more efficiently than other platforms, then users can get by with a lower level of data usage. Yet, given the layout of these plans, that probably won’t much matter. There is plenty of separation between these tiers, and the overage charges are something you just won’t want to deal with. AT&T has chosen to market this plan as an across-the-board cheaper alternative to its previous unlimited plans. Instead of paying $30 per month, BlackBerry users will pay $25 per month, but instead of unlimited service they will get 2GB of service. This, apparently, will only affect two percent of its smartphone users, and admittedly a good chunk of them are iPhone users. The big plan for BlackBerry users, apparently, is the $15 plan, which covers 200MB of data. According to AT&T, 65 percent of its smartphone users fall below this mark. So how do BlackBerry users lose? In the past, I’ve expressed a desire for a plan like this. So why am I hemming and hawing now? Because of how AT&T plans to charge for data. Yes, you get 200MB for $15, and if that were the end of it we’d be in great shape. The problem comes with overages. Remember, 200MB of data, even filtered through BlackBerry’s touted servers, is not a lot. A heavy email user, who receives emails with attachments, might go over this level rather easily. But even for the lighter user, overages can become a problem. If someone with the 200MB plan goes over, she has until the end of her billing cycle to bump that up to the $25 2GB plan. If she does not? She gets charged another $15 per 200MB, meaning someone who uses 201MB of data will pay $30 for that month. Or, in other words, the same price that AT&T used to charge for unlimited. Even if she does get to her account before the end of the billing cycle and ups the level to the 2GB plan, she’s still paying $25 for that 201MB. That hardly sounds fair. For those on the 2GB plan, an overage won’t mean as steep a penalty. AT&T is selling 1GB bump-ups for $10 each. Again, this means that if you use even a slice more than 2GB, you end up paying more than what AT&T previously charged for unlimited data. Also take note that the add-on data costs less than the initial batch. You’re paying a lot more for that initial 2GB. Like most issues, this one is not black and white. Yes, it might save light users $15 per month, and that’s a good thing. But it also might complicate matters and end up costing those users just as much as before. All the while, AT&T has basically cut off innovators by forcing them to pay enormous rates for previously available data. Someone who uses 5GB per month, usually someone who creates something rather than merely consuming, will pay $55 per month. If this helps you, kudos. But watch out. There’s plenty of room for error in these tiers, and if you make a mistake it could end up costing you. Update: I’m disappointed I missed this point earlier. AT&T’s tactic here is to play the supposed data hogs against lighter users. It claims that 98 percent of its users consume 2GB or less per month. So are the other 2 percent consuming so much, so egregiously much, that they’re the ones causing network issues? I highly doubt that. If AT&T were clever, what it would do is make subtle network upgrades in the highest traffic areas. New York City, for example, where they face numerous complaints about service levels. They could then pass off the service improvement to the new data pricing, rather than the subtle network improvements. Because, really, if they maintain the same network I don’t think we’ll see much improvement in service.