It’s Time for Shared Data Plans in Households

Earlier this week at the D9 conference, AT&T (s t) CEO¬†Ralph de la Vega hinted at offering shared data plans in the future. That could mean one of two things: either a customer would buy an amount of data that could be used across multiple network devices, or such data could be spread across devices used by different family members. I suspect AT&T is considering the former scenario, at least initially, and that would certainly help multiple device owners. One plan would cover your smartphone, tablet and MiFi use, for example. But I’m hoping that at some point soon, AT&T — or any carrier, really — creates a shared data plan for families because collectively, a family can be overpaying for mobile broadband.
I just happened to be looking at my family’s data plan usage because my son lost his iPhone (s aapl). He knows he should have enabled the “Find My iPhone” function, so we won’t go there right now. He’s thinking of switching over to T-Mobile for a Sidekick 4G, since he really liked the review unit he helped me review in April. So I went to check his data usage to pick an appropriate data plan with T-Mobile, in case we do make the switch. That’s when the potential benefits of a family data plan hit me, since we have three iPhone users in the house. Here’s a six-month look at the data usage on the three accounts:

Clearly, we have one data user that’s above the average if you consider that, per AT&T, 65 percent of smartphone owners use around 250 MB of monthly data while 98 percent use less than 2 GB. We also have one very low data user: my wife, and it’s mainly because she works at home and primarily uses a Wi-Fi connection on her phone. Essentially, we’re all over the map when you consider that the lowest data plan is 200 MB and the next step up jumps to 2 GB. The individual data use variance can swing widely from one month to the next and from one family member to another. But what happens when this data usage is combined?

Now the heavy data user is offset by the family members who aren’t using as much network bandwidth. With the individual plans, we have my wife signed up for 200 MB of data, which works well since she uses the least. Both kids are on the 2 GB plan because 200 MB is never enough for one and occasionally not enough for the other. A shared data plan for families could fit well in this¬†situation, depending on the plan limits and pricing, of course. In my case, even accounting for growth, the family could easily share a 2 GB plan; instead, we’re paying for two 2 GB plans and one with 200 MB.

Based on AT&T currently offering 200 MB and 2 GB plans, the scenario is clearly one of over-subscription. Once you move past the base plan, you have access to a plan that has ten times more data to use, which is a big jump, albeit for a modest $10 more per month. A shared data plan for families could still allow AT&T to hedge against high amounts of growing data use, but give households a way to better manage data use variance among multiple family members.

I suspect AT&T will first offer a shared plan for individuals so multiple devices on a single account can share a bucket of data. But my hope is that family data plans come soon, to all carriers, just like we have for family voice and messaging plans.