Decoding the new AT&T iPhone data plans

Unlimited data ends June 7, or does it?

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I don't want to go over. How do I check data usage? You can call *DATA# from your iPhone to receive a text message that spells out your data usage for the current billing cycle.

You can also download the free AT&T myWireless Mobile app from the iTunes App Store; the app provides an up-to-date tally of calling minutes and data consumed in the current cycle.

AT&T will also text your iPhone when you've consumed 65%, 90% and 100% of your monthly allotment.

I have an iPad 3G, too. Do I need to pay attention to the new capped plans? You'd better.

Plenty of people are beefing about what they see as a bait-and-switch. When Apple introduced the iPad last January, CEO Steve Jobs made a point to tout the unlimited $30-a-month data plan for the 3G model and that fact that there was no contract commitment. You'd be able to pay for data on a month-by-month basis, dropping it when you didn't need it, picking it back up when you did.

That flexibility gets a serious leg cramp next Monday.

Here's why. If you're now on the iPad 3G's $30 all-you-can-eat data plan, and drop it at any time, you can't go back: The next time you want data, your choices will be between $15 for 200MB and $25 for 2GB. No more unlimited data for you.

That means you have to keep paying the $30 -- and have the account set to auto-renew -- to remain on the unlimited plan.

From where we sit, that's the same thing as if you were locked into a long-term contract. Maybe it's worse, since it's infinite.

We're light eaters in my house. Can we share one data plan among several iPhones? You cannot.

The data plans are per-line only, AT&T confirmed. Adding another iPhone to your existing family plan costs a minimum of $25 per month. But look on the bright side: That's $15 less than before. (The $15 cost savings, naturally, comes from the $15 difference between the current $30 unlimited plan and the $15 200MB deal that kicks in Monday.)

How much does tethering cost? $20 a month on top of the $25 monthly fee for the 2GB plan. (Tethering isn't offered with the $15 plan.)

This doesn't apply to iPhone owners -- this is the first time we've been offered tethering -- but if you've been paying the $30 per month for tethering another make of smartphone, you're grandfathered. So why pay $10 more a month? Because the old $30 tethering deal included an additional 5GB of data.

The new $20 plan -- which replaces the $30-with-more-data deal -- doesn't come with any data allotment.

Can I tether my iPhone to my iPad? Negative.

Even though the iPad and iPhone both support Bluetooth, iPhone-to-iPad tethering isn't available. When asked why, an AT&T spokeswoman said, "That's a device question. I recommend you ask Apple."

Apple did not reply to our question. Shocker.

It's possible that everyone is keeping mum because iPhone-to-iPad tethering will be switched on in iPhone OS 4, which should hit the iPhone next week and the iPad sometime this fall. We're hopeful.

Gregg Keizer covers Microsoft, security issues, Apple, Web browsers and general technology breaking news for Computerworld. Follow Gregg on Twitter at @gkeizer or subscribe to Gregg's RSS feed . His e-mail address is gkeizer@ix.netcom.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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