AT&T’s new shared data plans: Can you split a measly 300 MB of data?

AT&T(s t) this week will introduce a new tier to its Mobile Share plans that will probably baffle most GigaOM readers: a 300MB shared data option. When you’re done laughing I’ll explain why this might actually be a valuable plan to many people.
Most of you probably want bigger shared data buckets, not smaller ones, and I’ll bet a 300 MB bucket isn’t even enough to meet your individual smartphone’s needs, much less the needs of multiple devices. According to Chetan Sharma Consulting, the average smartphone’s data appetite is more than 1 GB a month at many of the big carriers — and shared plans are only encouraging our mobile data voraciousness.
AT&T flagship store logo Why would AT&T introduce such a measly shared bucket of megabytes? Well, that 1 GB is an average, and like every average it’s composed of a broad spectrum of users. At one end you have people like Om Malik, who can eat through 5 GBs on his iPhone in less than two weeks. At the other end is my wife, who until we switched carriers in January was on a 200 MB monthly plan and never even got close to hitting her cap.
My wife isn’t a Luddite. She used her Android phone quite extensively every day to check email, update Facebook(s fb), surf the web and download and read e-books for her daily commute. What she doesn’t use are bandwidth-intensive apps like video streaming or picture sharing services. Apart from Facebook, she’s not hyperconnected to a social network. And mainly she’s using her phone as a leisure tool, not as the centerpiece of her professional career.
And I guarantee you my wife isn’t an exception or an extreme, just as Om isn’t an extreme at the high-end of the mobile consumption scale. While there are people milking every last megabyte they can out of unlimited plans, there also are people who own smartphones that have never downloaded an app from iTunes(s aapl) or Google Play(s goog). You probably know many of them. They could be your parents, grandparents and maybe even your spouse.

The other mobile consumer

Smartphones are proliferating far beyond the tech-savvy into the hands of mobile data neophytes thanks to cheap smartphone deals and hand-me-down devices. And those people simply don’t need 2GB or 3GB data plans. The trend among U.S. carriers, however, is to eliminate smaller-bucket data plans as options. That’s a raw deal for many low-volume data users because it forces them to buy more data than they could conceivably consume in a single month.
Many smartphonesAT&T’s new plan goes into effect Friday, the same day as its new Next upgrade program. Granted if you’re looking solely for the cheapest price for a small bucket of megabytes, you should probably look elsewhere than AT&T. It’s charging $20 for 300 MB a month on Mobile Share, but the way the program works, the less data you buy the more you pay for the core service. That means you pay for $50 to connect each smartphone to the 300 MB plan, as opposed to $40 for a higher data tier.
But the new tier winds up being a much better deal for low-volume data users than AT&T’s current contract plans. AT&T’s cheapest individual smartphone plan (300 MB, 450 minutes and unlimited SMS) runs $80 a month. Registering just a single smartphone on the new Mobile Share tier will cost you $70 a month and give you unlimited voice to boot. Now if you have a family of super-sparse data users, you can start attaching multiple devices to that plan. Two smartphones connected to the 300-MB plan would cost $120 a month.
The real advantage, however, might be for people who still haven’t graduated to the smartphone. Given feature phone limitations, it’s not unreasonable to hang four of the handsets off a single 300 MB plan, and that bill would run you just $140 a month, basically $35 per device.
I’m not going to rush out and buy this plan, and you’re probably not either. But there is a big segment of mobile consumers out there still coming to terms with the mobile data revolution we’ve long since embraced. These plans could definitely be cheaper, but at least AT&T is giving those consumers options — rather than ignoring them entirely.
Empty tank image courtesy of Shutterstock user Niyazz; Smartphones image courtesy of Shutterstock user Reno Martin