FAQ: Which carrier's shared data plan is better?

AT&T's Mobile Share plan launches Aug. 23; How does it compare to Verizon's Share Everything?

Which shared data plans are better -- those from AT&T's Mobile Share, which arrives on Aug. 23, or Verizon Wireless's Share Everything plans that debuted in June?

If you look at cost alone, your price will be somewhat lower with AT&T -- if you use more shared data with more smartphones. But, as with almost everything involving the wireless carriers, any apples-to-apples comparison is complicated.

That's one reason AT&T has a new online planning tool to help users figure out their options. Verizon has one, too.

We've taken a look at both plans and offer some suggestions that should help users who are trying to decide on a shared data plan.

Is price everything? No. AT&T's shared plan is voluntary and Verizon's plan is mandatory for new and upgrading customers. Given those basics, a new customer who's not interested in shared data might want to head to AT&T and one of its existing plans.

Help me get started. What's the point of shared data? Work groups and consumers, including families with children who need smartphones, have long urged the carriers to allow them to share data between users. If a worker mostly wants to make phone calls or send texts -- and only wants to use a small amount of data -- it could be beneficial to add him or her into a pool with other workers who might have different needs, such as browsing the Web or using the Internet to read emails or access proprietary apps. Same goes for families. Many small workgroups and families don't want to have a data plan for every device they use, the carriers say.

What about voice and text? Both AT&T's and Verizon's plans offer unlimited domestic voice and texting.

And there's a cost per device? Yes. AT&T charges less for each smartphone than Verizon does as the amount of shared data purchased each month increases. AT&T starts at $45 per smartphone per month for the 1GB of shared data plan. That charge per smartphone drops to $30 with the 20GB shared data plan. Verizon keeps the cost for each smartphone constant at $40 each, no matter how much shared data is purchased.

But how do the actual costs for buckets of data compare? Each carrier has six tiers of data amounts that can be sharing with up to 10 wireless devices. But AT&T has set up two larger tiers of data than Verizon, offering 15GB for $160 and 20GB for $200 a month. Verizon tops out at 10GB of shared data for $100 month, with a charge of $15 for each 1GB beyond that.

So I really should use the planning tools to figure out how these plans apply to me? Yes, again. To give an example of the variability between plans you'll see that sharing 10GB of data with 10 different smartphones would cost $420 per month before fees and taxes on AT&T. That same plan would cost $500 a month at Verizon.

By contrast, 1GB of data shared with just two smartphones would cost $130 a month for both carriers.

Who really gets hurt with these plans? The biggest losers with shared data plans seem to be those lonely single smartphone users who use plenty of data but don't care much about free voice or texting. Under Verizon's plan, which is mandatory, a single new smartphone customer would pay a minimum of $40 for the smartphone and $50 a month for 1GB of data and unlimited voice and text -- a total of $90 per month. With AT&T that comparable solo cost would be $95 under Mobile Share.

Just for fun, how does the single-user AT&T Mobile Share plan cost of $95 per month compare with an individual plan? The closest comparable individual plan for a smartphone from AT&T would cost $70 for unlimited voice, plus $20 more for 300MB of data per month or $30 for 3GB of data per month. (There's no 1GB data plan for an individual with AT&T.) Unlimited texting would cost another $20 per month. That individual plan for a smartphone from AT&T would require a minimum monthly payment of $120, actually offering less data than what the Mobile Share plan would cost with unlimited voice and data.

Who else loses? Verizon customers on unlimited data plans hit the roof when Share Everything was announced in June and don't seem to have calmed down in recent weeks. Unlimited data customers are now being were told by Verizon that they are not required to move to Share Everything, but if they do, the unlimited data will not be retained on their line.

The only way to keep unlimited data is by choosing to upgrade by paying full retail price for an unlocked phone (possibly more than $500) or by using an older phone. As an alternative to picking a Share Everything Plan, unlimited customers will be allowed to pick a standalone data plan for $30 for 2GB, Verizon said. Share Everything charges $60 for 2GB, but also offers free voice and texting.

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 email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

See more by Matt Hamblen on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2012 IDG Communications, Inc.

7 inconvenient truths about the hybrid work trend
Shop Tech Products at Amazon