AT&T's new data plans: What you need to know

AT&T announced on Wednesday that it would rejigger its smartphone data plan offerings as of next week: June 7, to be precise. Given all the changes, the Macworld staff assembled this list of frequently asked questions to help you navigate the new options available to you.

What are my options as a new iPhone customer?

If you’re signing up for a iPhone as a brand new customer—and at this point, we’d recommend waiting until after the WWDC keynote to make any decisions—then you can opt for either the 200MB DataPlus plan for $15 per month or the 2GB DataPro plan for $25. If you want tethering, you’ll have to sign up for the DataPro plan, and tethering will cost you an additional $20 every month. Either way, however, you’ll also get access to AT&T’s nationwide network of 20,000 Wi-Fi hotspots in locations such as many Starbucks and airports.

What happens if I go over my limit?

That depends on which plan you’re using. If you exceed 200MB on the $15-per-month plan, you’ll be charged another $15 for an additional block of 200MB of data. If you exceed 2GB on the $25 per month plan, you’ll have to pay an additional $10 for another 1GB of data.

How do I know which plan is right for me?

AT&T provides some guidelines on which plan you might want to choose, based on your usage habits. The provider says that 200MB is enough to send and receive 1000 e-mail messages without attachments, send and receive 150 messages with attachments, view 400 Web pages, post 50 photos on social media sites, and watch 20 minutes of streaming video.

On the other hand, the 2GB plan would be enough for sending and receiving 1500 e-mail messages with attachments, viewing 4000 Web pages, posting 500 photos to social media sites, and watching 200 minutes of streaming video.

If you’re a current iPhone or iPad owner, the best way to figure out which plan you’ll want is to check your previous data usage.

Okay, smart guy, how do I check my previous data usage?

Assuming you’ve already got an iPhone or iPad, log in to your AT&T account on the company’s Website and click on Usage & Recent Activity under My Account. Under the My Wireless Usage section, click on the View Past Data Usage. You’ll get a graph of your recent data usage in megabytes on a month-by-month basis, which you can filter by date. If you regularly exceed 200MB, you will probably want to consider the 2GB plan. If you’re one of the few that blows past 2GB, you’ll want to stay on your unlimited plan for as long as possible.

AT&T also provides a data calculator to help you figure out how much data you consume based on how often you use certain features such as streaming video and music, sending e-mails with attachments, downloading apps and media, and more.

How do I keep track of my data usage once I sign up for a new data plan?

You’ve got several options there. You can, of course, check your current usage on AT&T’s site, as well as using your iPhone’s Settings app (under Settings -> General -> Usage). In addition, AT&T will send you a series of text messages when you hit 65 percent, 90 percent, and 100 percent of your monthly data cap—much as it does with current data plans for the iPad. You can also use AT&T’s myWireless Mobile app to track your usage, or call *DATA# from your phone to get a free text message detailing your current usage.

This all sounds like a lot of hassle. I already have an unlimited data plan on my iPhone (or iPad); can I keep it?

Indeed, AT&T says you’re free to keep your current plan, or you can switch to one of the new plans at any time without paying a penalty or signing a contract extension. However, if you do switch off the unlimited plan, you will never be able to switch back to it.

What if I upgrade to a new iPhone? Will AT&T force me to switch to one of the new contracts?

We assumed that would be the case, but MacRumors points to AT&T’s Facebook page, where the company clearly states, quite emphatically, that “current customers with unlimited plans will not be required to switch to the new plans - even when you upgrade to a new phone!”

Okay, so if I keep my unlimited plan, can I add tethering?

Unfortunately, no. If you want tethering, you’ll have to switch to the new $25 DataPro plan. Neither the current plans nor the $15 DataPlus plan are eligible for the tethering option.

How does tethering impact my data plan?

The DataPro plan’s 2GB data limit is for all data transferred, regardless of whether it’s being used by your phone or a tethered device such as your laptop.

As the owner of a Wi-Fi + 3G iPad, how does this affect me?

Essentially, AT&T has standardized the data plans between the iPhone and the iPad. You’ll get the same choice of plans for your iPad—$15 per month for 200MB or $25 per month for 2GB—as for your iPhone. If you’re currently signed up for one of the current iPad data plans, you can hold onto it—a good idea if you regularly use over 2GB of data each month on the iPad—or switch to one of the new plans. (The new plans will still allow you to to cancel or switch between them at any time.)

I already own a 3G-capable iPad but I haven’t activated the 3G service yet. If I don’t do that before June 7, will I still be able to get one of the current plans, or will I be forced to sign up for one of the new plans?

Good question, and one that we’ve asked AT&T. We’ll let you know as soon as we find out.

If I’ve got a 3G-capable iPad and I’m using the $30 unlimited plan, do I need to keep that plan continuously active in order to maintain my eligibility for it?

Another good question that we’ve asked AT&T. Given that both Apple and AT&T pitched the iPad with 3G by touting a no-contract, use-it-when-you-need it, unlimited data plan, we hope that anyone who purchased an iPad before today’s announcement will be able to take advantage of that plan any time they want. We’ll see.

I’ve got an iPhone and a 3G-equipped iPad. Why wouldn’t I just spend $25 for the DataPro plan for my iPhone and then tether my iPad for $20 more? Isn’t that cheaper than paying for two separate data plans?

That is indeed a clever idea, but one eager user already asked Steve Jobs this question directly, and his answer was probably not what you were hoping for. Jezper Söderlund sent an e-mail to Jobs in March, asking if an iPhone and iPad could be tethered together to share one single data plan. After all, it makes sense since they’re essentially using the same OS, right? Unfortunately, Jobs shot down our collective hopes with a curt “No.”

Now, if this policy has changed (and that is a possibility—after all, the current iPad data plans are going the way of the dodo after a little over a month), one reason would be the hassle of having to configure tethering each time you want to get a 3G data connection on your iPad. But assuming that’s an acceptable hassle for you, keep in mind that with a tethering plan, all your devices share a single monthly data allowance. Consider this table of your options if you’ve got both devices (again, assuming AT&T even allows iPad-to-iPhone tethering):

iPhone iPad Monthly Data Total cost
DataPro tethering 2GB (shared) $45
DataPlus DataPlus 200MB + 200MB $30
DataPro DataPlus 2GB + 200MB $40
DataPlus DataPro 200MB + 2GB $40
DataPro DataPro 2GB + 2GB $50

In other words, the only situation in which DataPro with tethering might be appealing if you own both an iPhone and an iPad is if you know you’ll need more than 200MB of monthly data for each device and you’re confident you won’t exceed 2GB of data transfer between the two (as well as any other devices, such as a laptop, you might want to tether). If your monthly data usage fits between those specific criteria, DataPro with tethering is $5 cheaper, each month, than getting a DataPro plan for each of the two devices. Of course, if you end up going over 2GB in any month, you’ll pay another $10 for the privilege.

[Macworld senior editor Dan Frakes, senior associate editor Dan Moren, and associate editor David Chartier contributed to this report.]

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