The deal with data

When Verizon announced last week that it would do away with cumbersome long-term cellphone contracts, the company also unveiled another big change: the end of unlimited data plans.  This follows other major carriers, like AT&T, who have also been phasing out unlimited data plans in favor of tiered data packages to best fit customer usage patterns.

Before you grab your pitchfork and head to the nearest AT&T store, let’s explain why this could actually be a money-saver for you.

Most people are paying for way more data than they need.  According to mobile measurement company Mobidia, U.S. wireless customers on average consumed about 1.8 GB of data each month in 2014  for activities such as checking email, streaming music, surfing the web, and posting on social media sites.  If you’re only using this small amount, it doesn’t make sense to pay for a bloated “unlimited” data plan.

Besides, “unlimited” doesn’t always mean “unlimited.”  Carriers can still throttle speeds for users who exceed a certain data amount each month. Ostensibly, this is to prevent abuse of unlimited data (especially from users who “tether” other devices to their smartphone data plan) and create a better user experience for all subscribers.  And while the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) fined AT&T $100 million in June, it wasn’t for throttling, per se, but for not adequately disclosing to customers on grandfathered unlimited plans that speeds could be slowed.

In the end, it probably won’t be a terrible thing to pay for the exact amount of data you will use.  The only downside is that you now need to more accurately gauge your usage. All of the major national cellphone carriers have “data calculators” to help you make this decision (see here, here, here, or here.) You can also check out the chart below for help:

data chart

To get an idea of what the major national cellphone providers are charging for data packages, read the list below.  Keep in mind that the prices below do not include extra line charges, taxes, startup fees, monthly fees, or phone-leasing costs—so this should not be the only factor you consider when choosing a provider.   Also keep in mind that rates change frequently and other stipulations may apply (for example, how many lines you are allowed to have for each package).

The short story: You’ll still need to do your homework to figure out your family’s best needs.  In the mean time, you can use the information below as a starting point to shop for the best deal.

AT&T 

AT&T no longer offers unlimited plans to new customers.  All plans include unlimited talk and text.  Customers choose one of the following shared data buckets to split among phone lines.

300 MB… $20/month

2 GB… $30/month

5 GB… $50/month

15 GB…$100/month

20 GB…$140/month

Overages: $20 per 300 MB over on 300 MB plan; $15 for 1 GB over on all other plans.

Verizon

Verizon no longer offers unlimited plans to new customers.  All plans include unlimited talk and text.  As with AT&T, customers on the plan share data across their phone lines at these costs:

1 GB …$30/month

3 GB…$45/month

6 GB…$60/month

12 GB…$80/month

18 GB… $80/month

20 GB… $120/month

Overages: $15 for each 1 GB over on all plans.

Sprint: 

Unlike AT&T and Verizon, Sprint does still offer unlimited data plans ($60/month for non-contract plans, $85/month for 2-year contract plans).  However, Sprint’s family plans also include buckets of data that are shared among all cellphones on the plan:

1 GB …$20/month

2 GB…$25/month

4 GB…$40/month

8 GB…$70/month

10 GB… $100/month

40 GB… $120/month

Overages: $15 for each 1 GB over.

T-Mobile

T-Mobile is slightly unique in that all its plans offer unlimited data at the slower 2G speed, along with unlimited talk and text. To attain faster 4G LTE speeds, you pay a certain amount for data per month. Unlike AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon offers, T-Mobile plans do not require you to share a bucket of data, but instead charge you different costs for the data on each phone line.

For the first line…

1 GB…$50/month

3 GB…$60/month

5 GB…$70/month

Unlimited 4G LTE data… $80/month

For a second line, you will pay an additional:

1 GB…$30/month

3 GB…$40/month

5 GB…$50/month

Unlimited 4G LTE data… $60/month

For lines 3-10, you pay an additional:

1 GB…$10/month

3 GB…$20/month

5 GB…$30/month

Unlimited 4G LTE data… $40/month

No overages.

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