Why must we wait for data-only smartphone plans?

Taylor Martin
 from  Concord, NC
| June 4, 2012

When you walk into a carrier store and purchase a phone, you also purchase a rate plan to go with said phone. If the phone is of the smartphone type, you must also pick a data plan. And if you plan on text messaging with your friends and family some, rather than paying per message, you're better off buying a messaging plan, too.

This is the sales model the mobile industry has been using for decades. Pick your calling plan, then choose between any mandatory packages and any additional features you may want.

But times are changing. In light of data-centric smartphones, voice calls and minutes are becoming less and less important. "AT&T has been recording a decline in the average number of minutes used per month," says Peter Svensson of the Associated Press. However, wireless providers have yet to reflect these trends. Rate plans are still the same – they cost the same, offer the same amount of minutes and are still the foundation of your entire account.

Some, such as myself, rarely use more than 100 minutes per month; yet everyone still has to purchase a minute plan. I use an average of about 60 to 80 minutes each month, but the smallest available minute plan is 450 minutes for $39.99. To be completely honest, on my secondary line, I would much rather not have a calling plan at all. 

And I've explained many times in the past just how absurd pricing on carrier text messaging is. With so many free alternatives, such as Google Voice or Instant Messaging which use data instead of your allotted carrier SMS, it's insane that anyone would actually pay for such a service. Doing the math, roughly 2,000 messages (sent and received) via Google Voice would actually only account for about $0.02 on their bill. Compare that with either $10, $20 or $30 per month for a text messaging plan, and it's fairly apparent how overpriced text messaging really is.

On Friday at an investor conference, however, AT&T's Randall Stephenson said he expects there will be data-only plans within the next two years. Of course, Stephenson didn't say whether AT&T would have such plans, but he figures this is the way things are headed and "someone in the industry will likely offer one," says Svensson. Such a plan would count minutes used and sent or received text messages as different forms of data, all pulling from the same pool.

Svensson explains that the reason carriers have yet to update calling and texting plans are because that is still where they make the majority of their revenue and as Svensson explains, "phone companies charge each other to connect calls to phone numbers". Such a transition would call for a major restructuring. The only way a data-only plan would work for carriers is if they charged more for data. In essence, it wouldn't be all that different – price-wise – for the consumer. But it might save a few headaches when it comes to overages and managing your usage.

When I think of data-only plans, though, various services pulling from a single allotment isn't what I have in mind. When I think data-only, I think more along the lines of what is offered to tablet users: literally, just data. And that's what I want for my secondary smartphone. Just data. Why must I pay for minutes that I will never use? Why can I not have just a data plan?

If, say, I didn't have to pay $40 per month for minutes that I will never use (I have a primary line with a few thousand minutes that also rarely get used), I would spend that $40 each month on something else, such as more data (through overages since I have already purchased the largest data plan offered).

The question that there is no real answer to, though, is: if I can have a data-only plan with a tablet, and tablets are essentially just scaled-up smartphones, why can't I also have one with a smartphone? At the end of the day, it is just a technicality that earns the providers substantially more revenue.

Nonetheless, for someone who has switched to Google Voice for all my text messaging and rarely makes voice calls to begin with, this is one of the changes I hope for in the coming months or … years. It's unlikely, but I'm still hopeful. And, if nothing else, the data-only plans Stephenson mentioned would at least be a nice alternative.

How do you feel about your current rate plan, ladies and gents? Do you wish you could drop your minute plan to a lower amount? Would you, like me, go data-only if you could? Or do you like the idea of text messages, minutes and data all being counted in the same pool?