Get ready to bank your MBs: T-Mobile’s Data Stash goes live Jan 1

Starting tomorrow, many T-Mobile customers will start seeing a new item show up on their bills: a bank of unused megabytes or gigabytes that customers can save up for a data-intensive day.

[company]T-Mobile[/company]’s Data Stash rollover program goes into effect on New Year’s Day, and customers should start seeing their respective stashes appear in their online accounts within 24 hours of their first billing cycle in January, T-Mobile confirmed. T-Mobile is seeding all of these accounts with 10 GBs of free data, and after that data is used up any unused megabytes or gigabytes from your monthly plan will start accruing in the stash (For some inexplicable reason, T-Mobile won’t rollover any new data until that 10 GB is entirely consumed).

Announced earlier this month as part of T-Mobile’s “Uncarrier” strategy to shake up the U.S. wireless industry, Data Stash represents the first time a major U.S. carrier has let customers keep their unused portion of their monthly data buckets at the end of the billing cycle. Traditionally carriers have taken a better-safe-than-sorry approach to marketing data plans, often selling consumers more data than they need so they can avoid paying overage fees on any given month.

The Paramount Theater in Seattle played host to T-Mobile's Uncarrier 5.0 event in June.

Data Stash is definitely a move toward more consumer-friendly data pricing models, though in my opinion T-Mo could have gone further. If T-Mobile really wanted to truly level the terrain for the consumers it should have started selling data by the gigabyte. Once you use up your first gigabyte, you purchase another and so forth – similar to the way we buy gasoline. Some small virtual carriers like Karma are exploring those kinds of metered data models, but it’s safe to say not even the progressive of the major carriers is willing to take that step yet.

But give credit to T-Mobile: Data Stash will is a big step in the right direction, and it’s available at no extra charge. So do you stand to benefit from having a data stash? It depends on how you use data, and in general heavier smartphone data users will benefit from Stash a lot more than lighter users. Almost everyone with a T-Mobile tablet plan, however, will find Data Stash useful.

Who gets a stash and who doesn’t

First off, it’s important to note that the program is only available to T-Mobile’s postpaid customers on a 3 GB or 5 GB Simple Choice individual plans, so you have to buy a lot of monthly data in order to save it. Stash does little good for you if you’re on an unlimited plan, it goes without saying. And if you’re on T-Mo’s 1 GB or 500 MB plan or are a prepaid customer, your unused 4G data will expire at the end of your billing cycle just as it always has.

According to T-Mobile SVP of Marketing Andrew Sherrard, though, about 80 percent of T-Mobile’s postpaid customers are on 3 GB or greater data plan, so a good part of T-Mo’s customer base will benefit.

piggy bank

There’s also another way of looking at the figure, however: it could be a good deal of T-Mobile’s customers are over-subscribing to data each month because the next rung below the 3 GB tier is a 1 GB plan. Meanwhile the average smartphone data consumption in the U.S. is about 2.2 GBs per month, according to Chetan Sharma Consulting. T-Mobile has been doing the same thing it accuses its competitors of doing: selling customers more data than they need each month.

The big advantage of having a rollover plan is that lets you prepare for the typical month of data usage instead of always preparing for the worst-case scenario. Take my own data consumption: I lean heavily on Wi-Fi (and, sadly, rarely leave the home/office) so my data use is well under 2 GBs each month. But when I travel for work or pleasure my data usage spikes as my Wi-Fi connection gives way to cellular and I rely on my smartphone’s connection more for work and entertainment. I need a 2 GB plan or greater plan for those few months I’m spending more than a few days away from my neighborhood, and more often than not 2 GBs isn’t enough.

“Averages are really dangerous,” Sherrard pointed out. Your monthly average means nothing that one week you’re spending at a work retreat or that summer every four years when the World Cup is on and you’re streaming games every lunch break, Sherrard said. Data Stash is perfect for those types of situations, Sherrard said.

If you’re looking forward to Data Stash as a means of saving you money, you’ll probably be disappointed. While there are some people who may be able to downgrade from 5 GB to a 3 GB plan by banking gigabytes, it’s not possible to use Data Stash to downgrade to a 1 GB plan. Most people will find themselves subscribing to the same data buckets they always have. And if you have a 1 GB plan today, you would actually have to pay more money to take advantage of the program.

The advantage, however, will come when those worst-case scenarios present themselves: When Italy is paying France in the semifinal and you have to sneak out of the office to watch it in the bushes or when you’re enduring a long layover at the airport and decide to stream Lord of the Rings. These aren’t scenarios a 3 GB or even a 5 GB plan could normally handle without the help of a few stored up gigabytes in the bank.

The one big caveat is you have to use up your stored data within a year of accruing it. So any unused data banked next month will need to be consumed by January of 2016 and so forth. 

Now let’s talk tablets

For tablets, Data Stash kicks in at the 1 GB tier, which means anyone with a paid data plan (T-Mobile’s free 200 MB bare bones plan doesn’t count) can use it. That’s a pretty important point because most people aren’t using mobile data on tablets the way they use it on smartphones, at least not yet.

tablet usage generic

Because tablets consume much more bandwidth than the typical smartphone and the costs of data are still high, we tend to restrict our slates to pools of Wi-Fi and use 4G cellular as a backup. I don’t think Data Stash will change that basic pattern, but it is far better suited to deal with the tablet’s extremes. For instance, you could go two months without connecting your tablet to the cellular network and then one day consume 3 GBs in a single sitting. Even if you’re on the most basic 1 GB plan, you’re still prepared for that scenario.

In short, Data Stash could go further. This program isn’t going to revolutionize the way you buy data or slash your monthly phone bill by $20. But it will come in awfully handy at the times when you need a hefty chunk of data the most.

This post was update at 4:45 PM PT to clarify that rollover data will only kick in after customers use up their initial 10 GBs of free stash data.