AT&T introduced a mobile calling plan Wednesday that allows unlimited free voice calls to any wireless network in the U.S.
However, to be eligible for the new plan, Unlimited Mobile to Any Mobile, customers must still purchase one of five qualifying mobile voice plans that charge for mobile calls to or from a landline phone.
Calling plans range from $39.99 a month to $109.99 a month, in addition to an unlimited messaging plan for $20 a month per individual or $30 a month per family.
AT&T's free mobile calling plan is similar to that offered by Sprint Nextel, although Sprint combines unlimited calling to any mobile phone in the U.S. with unlimited texting and unlimited data for $69.99 a month, with some added data charges for certain smartphones.
Data pricing is not affected by the new AT&T program, an AT&T spokeswoman said. Also, voice calls from a mobile phone to a landline phone or a landline to a mobile phone are still charged in the traditional way, which is why there are still five calling plans that offer a set amount of minutes for a monthly fee, she said. Any minutes over the maximum are charged 45 cents per minute.
The five qualifying voice plans that are eligible for the new Mobile to Any Mobile Unlimited program start at $39.99 for the AT&T Nation 450 plan, which offers 450 minutes of calling to or from a landline phone. With $20 per month of unlimited messaging, that plan would cost $59.99.
At the upper end, the AT&T FamilyTalk Nation 2100 plan costs $109.99 a month for 2100 minutes calling to or from a landline phone, making the total $139.99 with the unlimited messaging required.
Phillip Redman, an analyst at Gartner who follows carrier billing, said the new AT&T plan is another recognition by the carriers that voice traffic is diminishing while data traffic is increasing.
As a result, the revenue from voice traffic becomes less important to carriers, who still must find a way to convert users to data and messaging plans. "This seems like a great plan to move people onto text plans and increase that revenue," he said. "Too bad there isn't an offer for business users."
Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates noted that the new AT&T plan "certainly isn't something for nothing."
"Yes, there are strings attached," he said. Gold agrees that tying the free mobile calls to texting is a way to find revenues from the trend toward increased text messaging.
AT&T Mobility's Chief Marketing Officer, David Christopher, said the Mobile to Any Mobile plan keeps customers connected "without the hassle of watching minutes."
He said that when the new plan is combined with Rollover Minutes, a benefit that allows AT&T customers to keep their unused minutes for all domestic calls including landline numbers, "it's clear that AT&T offers the most flexibility in the industry."
Customers who already have an unlimited messaging plan must still activate Mobile to Any Mobile online at www.att.com/anymobile, which is not an active Web site until Thursday.
Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His e-mail address is email@example.com.