Nearly half of AT&T subscribers would pay less by switching to a metered plan

Consumer Reports News: March 15, 2012 03:08 PM

Are you a longtime AT&T subscriber who accesses the Web only occasionally from your phone, but have kept your unlimited data plan, assuming it will save you money? You might want to check that assumption: Close to half of AT&T customers with unlimited plans could save $10 a month by switching to a metered plan, according to data obtained by Consumer Reports.

The usage data, provided to us by Validas, a company that tracks wireless data coverage, shows that about 48 percent of AT&T unlimited-plan subscribers, who pay $30 a month for their data service, use no more than 300 megabytes of data a month, on average. AT&T's 300MB-a-month data plan costs $20 a month. So subscribers who use little data could save more than $100 a year by switching to it.

You can check your data usage on your AT&T phone via the myAT&T app on the phone's desktop. You'll first need to create an online ID and password to access information about your account. An AT&T rep also told me that the company texts warnings to the phone when the data plan is at 65, 90, and 100 per cent of its allocation for the month. But there's no sure way to know that those warnings work reliably, and Verizon, for one, has admitted in the past to problems with its warning system.

If you discover that you risk going over the 300MB limit, you can upgrade your plan (via the myAT&T website, app, phone, or chat) to the 3GB level for the month, for which you're charged an extra $10. If you don't implement an upgrade, an AT&T rep told me, an additional 300MB in data capacity would be added to your account, and you'd be billed a hefty $20 for the extra capacity.

If the company actually dings you for the $20, we suggest calling and asking for the $10 upgrade to 3GB instead; in the past, we have found wireless companies are often amenable to such adjustments. And you can return your service to its usual 300MB allocation the next month, if you want.

For some people, the effort of tracking usage and changing plans when needed may be more trouble than it's worth to save a mere $10 a month. Fair enough. But if you want to minimize your smart-phone bill, it's worth checking on your usage for a few months, at least, to see whether you might save.

It's true that if you forgo your unlimited plan, you will very likely lose your grandfathered status and be unable to get it back again. But consider that AT&T's unlimited plans have, by design, become less alluring, at least for now: AT&T has announced that it will slow (or "throttle") data speeds for unlimited customers who exceed 3GB a month, a data tier that costs the same ($30 a month) as the unlimited plans.

That decision has spurred customer anger, including a petition calling for AT&T's data-throttling to end and a successful small-claims suit by a customer whose data usage was throttled. There's no guarantee, then, that AT&T will stick to its throttling plan in the long run. But, assuming it does, data service beyond 3GB on an unlimited plan will likely be compromised. And chances are that you use less than 3GB a month, anyway, since 95 per cent of AT&T unlimited-data subscribers consume less than 2GB a month.

2011 smart-phone data usage for AT&T unlimited subscribers
Data used Percent of customers
0MB to 50MB
50MB to 100MB
100MB to 200MB
200MB to 300MB
30MB0 to 400MB
400MB to 500MB
500MB to 600MB
600MB to 700MB
700MB to 800MB
800MB to 900MB
900MB to 1GB
1GB to 1.5GB
1.5GB to 2GB
2GB to 5GB
5GB plus
Data courtesy of Validas

Paul Reynolds

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