The new iPad and tiered LTE data plans are a bad combination

Taylor Martin
 from  Concord, NC
| Published: March 21, 2012

There were a lot of happy people when Apple announced that the new iPad would come with 4G LTE connectivity in tow. Instead of sticking to slow 3G or resorting to only Wi-Fi, new iPad users can now join their Android tablet-using comrades with access to super fast mobile data speeds. But those speeds don't come without a price, and a big one at that.

From the time carriers started moving away from unlimited to tiered data plans, pricing on data has been, more or less, viewed as unnecessarily expensive, especially if you're a heavy user. If you use 10GB on average per month (which is fairly easy to do with all of the different streaming media options available today) and are not on an unlimited data plan, you could be looking at paying upwards of $100 per month for data alone.

The most notable feature of the new iPad is its display. Apple bumped the iPad's resolution from 1,024 by 768 pixels to 2,048 by 1,536 pixels. For those doing the math at home, that's four times the pixels and one million more pixels than the 1080p big screen television in your living room. Aside from beautiful graphics and visuals, the Retina Display on the new iPad means that application file sizes are going to be huge – up to five times larger than their predecessors. Not only that, but video can now be streamed in HD quality.

And this is exactly why, in the words of Sean Hollister of The Verge, the "new iPad is a beautiful reminder of how stupid data plans are."

There's no doubt that Apple's new iPad is a great device, or that any other high-end tablet is, for that matter. But Hollister sums it up perfectly by saying, "… I’d never, ever recommend you buy an LTE tablet, or any other integrated cellular device that doesn't make calls. Why? The powers that be have colluded to place arbitrary restrictions on your data which don't make any sense."

Hollister goes on to explain how you can't make a FaceTime call on the new iPad over LTE. However, by connecting one iPad to a hotspot hosted by an LTE-enabled smartphone or even another third-generation iPad, you can make and receive FaceTime calls without a hitch. In short, Hollister argues that wireless providers shouldn't be concerned about what we use our data for, what devices we use to consume the data we already pay for or how exactly we consume that data. Nor should they be concerned over how much data we actually consume per month. And instead of placing inexplicable restrictions on the data we use, carriers should "simply charge for the actual amount of data actually used — basic supply and demand — and let users throttle themselves."

While I agree with Hollister in that carriers shouldn't care about how we use the data we pay for (I've tossed that yellow flag a time or two before), that's not the biggest issue with the iPad and data plans.

Yesterday evening, and article was published on The Wall Street Journal titled Video Speed Trap Lurks in New iPad. Despite the title being a bit misleading (the issue is not within the iPad itself, but within the structure of data plans), the subject is spot-on. It tells a few tales of three new iPad owners who have already felt the hardships of small data caps and overage fees just a few days after buying their new iPad. One owner, Brandon Wells, bought his iPad on Friday and watched just two hours of March Madness games on Saturday. Those two hours of video cut through his 2GB data plan like butter. Wells' father, Steve Wells, chewed through his 2GB data plan by Saturday evening as well. "All the advantages of the iPad device are completely neutralized by the two gigabyte data limit," said Steve Wells, and I couldn't agree more. Cindy Bryant and Albert Park were two other individuals who used the majority of their iPad's data plans over the weekend.

There are, of course, larger plans available to data users, and there is always the option of hopping on a Wi-Fi network when possible. But data isn't cheap and, for many, even the largest data plans available are not going to be enough. More importantly, though, managing and anticipating your data usage can be a bit tricky. Unlike text messaging or voice calls, data consumption is much more difficult to quantify on the fly.

On Verizon, tablet users are offered 1GB, 2GB, 5GB and 10GB data plans for $20, $30, $50 and $80, respectively, per month. On AT&T, customers have the option of either a 3GB or 5GB plan for $30 or $50 per month, respectively. And if you purchase a tablet sans contract, you can also pay AT&T $14.99 per month for a 250MB data plan.

Yesterday, my stepfather came to me asking for advice on what he should do about getting an iPad. He asked if he should buy the LTE iPad on Verizon or AT&T, and if there was anything he should be concerned about with either. My immediate response was for him to avoid getting the LTE iPad and opt to pay $20 per month to enable the 2GB hotspot feature on his ThunderBolt. Like Hollister explains, this alleviates any restrictions the data plan would place as the iPad would receive the LTE signal as Wi-Fi. But he would also be stuck with a maximum of 2GB (plus overages). Based on the type of user he is (or would be, in this case), there isn't a single option I want to recommend to him.

And, frankly, I would have a hard time recommending any LTE data plans to any potential iPad or tablet owner, simply because the data can disappear so quickly – even for light users – with such a device. For myself, I wouldn't feel comfortable buying a data plan smaller than 20GB for a tablet, and that would be somewhere north of $160 per month if a plan that large even existed. (Trust me, you won't find me paying anywhere near that either, considering I've been paying $30 per month for "unlimited data" for about six years now.)

If nothing else, Verizon and AT&T should implement a throttling feature – much like how T-Mobile deals with tiered data – for tablets instead of overage fees, considering most of these users are probably already paying for another data plan, if not a whole family of data plans. But that's about as likely to happen as them bringing back unlimited data. No matter how you look at it, data users are getting screwed at every turn. And paying for a second data plan for a device that can eat through gigabytes in a matter of hours is absurd.