When I signed up for service with AT&T last week, I succumbed to doing two things I never imagined I would. I agreed to pay for a tiered data plan (with an overage fee instead of throttling) and I agreed to pay for the hotspot feature so I could use my cell phone for Internet access on my computer when Wi-Fi is either unreliable or otherwise unavailable.
I remember pointing my finger and laughing at my friend after he signed up for a $15 per month data plan with AT&T for a mere 200MB. He still has the same data plan today and has to use his data sparingly. If he goes over his 200MB limit, he will have to pay another $15 for an additional 200MB.
At the time, AT&T had just started phasing out unlimited data and pushing their new tiered plans. I was (and still am, for that matter) on a grandfathered, unlimited data plan with Verizon Wireless. Unlike my friend, I can use data on my Verizon line as I please, without the fear of ever having to pay any type of overage fee. The worst that can happen is that I could get throttled if I'm in the top five percent of Verizon data users, which would slow down my data speeds for the remainder of the billing cycle and the entire following month. But that's a small price to pay for not facing $10 per gigabyte over an already overpriced, low-gigabyte data plan.
I'm not that big of a jerk; my friend and I always laugh at each other's misfortunes. We just have that kind of friendship. (Okay, maybe I am a jerk.) But I wasn't really laughing at him. I was laughing at his data plan and how ridiculous it was. It's an insult to a smartphone user. Come on, 200MB is nothing. I can chew through that in a couple hours without even trying. I was also laughing at how right I was just a few months before when I told him he should go ahead and buy a smartphone before anything changes. (At the time I had suggested he get a smartphone, tiered data was a laughing matter, a silly rumor that none of us imagined would come true quite so soon.)
I remember bragging about my unlimited data plan and how I could actually leave my data connection on all the time, about how I was grandfathered and how I didn't have to worry about tiered data ... yet.
And here I am, just two years later signing my name on the dotted line for new service, a new number and a new device that's powered by one of those awful data plans with an illogically low cap. I'm constantly monitoring my usage, trying to see just how much I'm using, averaging how much I am using per day and hopelessly trying to project what my monthly total will be.
Only after signing up for a tiered plan have I realized that there is no decent way to plan for how much data I will use in a month. After just six days, I have used 688MB of my 5GB plan. That's only about 13.5 percent of my monthly allowance or an average of 115MB per day. Over 30 days, that would equal roughly 3.5GB. But who's to say I won't need more at some point? I have 25 days left in my billing period. On my day trip to New York for the HTC/Sprint press event, I used over 2GB without even thinking about it. That could happen again at any point.
However, that's only half of the story. A mere 3GB of data each month was never going to be enough. I'm a data-hungry consumer. In order to get more than 3GB of data, though, I had to purchase the 5GB plan, which enables hotspot feature, for $20 more per month.
As I have explained in the past, having to pay for a hotspot feature is not something I am exactly happy about. Bits are bits; one way or another, they're going to get used and your carrier shouldn't care how you use them. Customers should be allowed to use hotspot without paying $20 more per month. It's the principle of paying for the hotspot function that really gets under my skin, even if it's just an included feature in the plan I was going to purchase anyway.
The point is, we shouldn't even be dealing with data caps to begin with. As Sean Hollister of The Verge explained after the new iPad launch, carriers should "simply charge for the actual amount of data actually used — basic supply and demand — and let users throttle themselves."
While I would still be worried about how much data I use each month, it wouldn't be as looming as it is now. Instead, it would be a control thing – something I'm in charge of instead of AT&T – and I tend to deal with that more easily. Something about having a limit – even if that limit is flexible and I am simply charged a flat overage for each gigabyte – is unnerving. Paranoia is quickly setting in.
It's not exactly easy to adjust from the way T-Mobile handles their tiered data to AT&T's overage method. I used to reach and suprpass my cap on T-Mobile all the time, only to be throttled for a couple days until the billing cycle ended. Even with 87 percent of my data allotment left, I have pointlessly watched my usage like a hawk since I woke up this morning. I've done it every day this week and will probably continue to for the remainder of the month. Even though I have alerts set up within my phone's settings and on my account, I will continue to worry and watch, helplessly, as I approach my cap.
Here's to hoping tiered data is not here to stay and will eventually be replaced with a much better way of data billing. I wouldn't waste my time hoping for unlimited plans to come back in the next decade. But with more LTE networks being built and rapidly expanding, we can at least hope for competition to bring prices down and larger caps. Maybe we'll see some notable promotions for tiered plans this year. Rollover bytes would be nice. (One can dream, right?)
Until then, I will keep biting my nails as I watch my usage steadily climb every month.
How do you feel about tiered data, ladies and gents? Do you stress over it every day? Or, unlike me, do you just go about your business and not give second thought to your usage? How have you coped with not having unlimited data?