Will you trade unlimited for shared family data?

Taylor Martin
 from Concord, NC
Published: May 9, 2012

”Data demand will outpace capacity by 2014 if we don't make more spectrum available.”

Those are the words that came out of Verizon Wireless President and CEO Dan Mead’s mouth during the CTIA roundtable. And it's The exact same picture that AT&T and other providers are painting. Mobile data is in higher demand than ever before, available spectrum is waning and they all are trying to curb consumer data usage in the least abrasive way possible. (Or so they say ...)

The transition from truly unlimited data to ominous and constricting tiered data plans has been a rocky one. It has caused a disturbance in the airwaves and upset a load of loyal customers. Tiered data comes at the expense of consumer comfort and satisfaction, and at no compromise for the carriers. They're widely accepted as overpriced, especially for families that have one, two or more smartphone lines. And the caps just don't scale high enough for power users.

Worst of all, numbers have shown just how ineffective tiered data plans have been. In August of 2011, Validas, a firm that analyzes wireless bills, reported that despite data caps, wireless data usage had gone up significantly. In February, Validas confirmed that tiered data plans have done little to relieve the stress in wireless networks. After analyzing more than 55,000 cell phone bills, they found that there is virtually no difference in usage between the top five percent of tiered data and unlimited data users.

I've talked about possible compromises that carriers could make to meet consumers in the middle, like various data promotions similar to those offered for minute plans: rollover data, unlimited data in off-peak hours, voluntary throttling, etc. While those are mostly wishful thinking, there are actually a couple perks that Verizon Wireless and AT&T are working on.

Verizon, specifically, will soon offer drip-casting, which isn’t all that different from unlimited data in off-peak hours, except it will only work with certain services. And both AT&T and Verizon have plans to offer family shared data in the near future. Verizon has spoken about family shared data on multiple occasions now, and yesterday, AT&T CEO Ralph de la Vega confirmed suspicions of family shared data on their network at CTIA, claiming they are coming soon.

What we actually know about family shared data is very little. Families with more than one smartphone will be able to use data from a single pool rather than paying for individual data plans, much like unlimited family text messaging versus smaller, individual texting plans. Shared data will also be tiered, and at least on Verizon, there will be a $9.99 per month fee for additional lines on the shared plan. (i.e.: A 10GB data plan might be $80 for the first two lines, but it will require $9.99 per additional line per month.) Whether or not the monthly fee will add additional gigabytes to the allotment is unknown.

Barring wireless providers don't completely botch the pricing structure, family shared data plans could be extremely beneficial to families with multiple smartphones. The only real reservations I would have with switching my own family to a shared plan is the size of the cap, the overage rates and not knowing how much data the other people on my family plan use per month. (They're not used to watching their usage as we all have had unlimited data since the Alltel days.) That, and there's no turning back. If we switched to a shared plan and it didn't work out the way we planned, our grandfathered unlimited data plans would be gone forever. For me, that's just too much of a risk.

Currently, we pay $120 for four data plans. Even if we could manage to get a shared 10GB plan for $100, the $20 savings per month ( or $240 per year) wouldn't be worth the comfort of still having truly unlimited data. Unless the savings are upwards of $50 per month (which I highly doubt would be possible), I would have a difficult time convincing myself and my family that shared data is worth it.

However, Dima Aryeh, a writer for our network site DroidDog, feels differently. Following the confirmation of AT&T family data plans from de la Vega yesterday, Aryeh tweeted, ”I would be willing to give up unlimited data for a shared family data plan.” He goes on to explain that he and his parents are light data users and says, "It'd be perfect. Cheaper. I wouldn't care that I lost unlimited, it'd be cheaper."

Aryeh and his family is in the target demographic for family data, but how much cheaper do family data plans have to be to be "worth it"? Of course, the answer to that is entirely subjective. For me, the savings would have to be substantial – over $50 per month – and the plans would have to be a respectable size. Four smartphone users sharing 5GB for a total of $50 wouldn't be. Neither would four users on a 10GB plan for $100.

It's all about the pricing and tier sizes. But I'm willing to wage that neither are going to be enticing enough to loosen my grip on my $30 per month unlimited plan. What say you, folks? Will you give up your grandfathered unlimited data plan for cheaper, family data? How much will you have to save to consider switching to family data?