Do shared iPhone data plans help consumers?

With AT&T announcing its shared data plan, it joins Verizon with a new model aiming to get consumers to pay for a shared bucket of data, voice and texting among multiple devices on a family account. The companies argue that it will save money in the long run, and for some, it just might.

But should you and your account sharers leap on the shared-data plan? If you've been holding onto a grandfathered unlimited-data plan and holding off on a mobile hotspot option, maybe it's time to give shared data a look.

There's a number of use-case scenarios among TUAW staff. Some of us, such as Kelly Hodgkins, have already made the leap despite the change hitting her family in the wallet. Others are at the point where it could go one way or another.

Here's now it breaks down for each of us.

Megan Lavey-Heaton

When my husband Mike (better known to the TUAW talkcast/TV crowd as LinuxScouser) moved to the U.S. in November, we made the leap to Verizon so he could get his dream phone, a Galaxy Nexus. I upgraded to the iPhone 4S at that time. Our current plan is the low-tier family plan with 700 shared voice minutes for $50. Each of us pay $10 for 1,000 text messages, $9.99 for line access and $30 for data plans.

I currently have 2 GB of data, but thanks to a special that Verizon was running at the time, Mike has 4 GB for the price of 2 GB. We both use less than 1 GB a month, though I have used more of my allotment when traveling. On the shared data plans, I ran it through with Mike and I sharing a combined 4 GB per month. 2 GB was too little, but we agreed 6 GB was too much.

Here's how it turned out. Note, this is before taxes and any incidental fees, which vary by location and usage:

Pros: We would gain mobile tethering, which neither of us have right now. This means Mike and I could use our data allotment to tether our Wi-Fi-only tablets. We wouldn't have to worry about texting limits.

Cons: We'd be losing 2 GB of data per month, but we weren't using it anyhow.

Current plan (Verizon): $149.98
Verizon shared-data plan: $150
AT&T shared-data plan: $150

Verdict: We'd only spend two more cents a month by switching to the shared-data plan. Shared data plans would cost exactly the same whether it's AT&T or Verizon. We most likely will be moving to the shared-data plan, not so much for the savings but to take advantage of the potential of using the phones as a mobile hotspot.

Kelly Hodgkins

My husband and I were on a Family Share plan with Verizon Wireless. We had the base plan that offered 700 minutes and unlimited texting for $80. Our primary line had a basic phone without data. We had two additional smartphones which cost us an extra $80 a month ($40 for each smart phone). The fourth and final line was a MiFi device which was costing us $35 for 3 GB of data. All told our monthly bill was around $200 each month with taxes.

When we switched to the Shared Data plan, we dropped the MiFi completely now that mobile hotspot is included in the new plan. We chose the 6 GB data bucket for $80 each month, which is more than enough based on our previous usage. We average about 3-4 GB per month with the two smartphones and MiFi. We added two smartphones for $40 each and one basic phone for $30. We now pay just under $200 a month for the plan.

Switching to Shared data didn't save us any money, but the flexibility of being able to use mobile hotspot when we are out is worth the switch. The MiFi was a great device, but we only had the one device and I never seemed to have it when I needed it. Now, I have a mobile hotspot and can use it with my MacBook Pro whenever I want.

One other bonus is the ability to add a tablet for $10 a month. I just sold my 64 GB iPad 3 and swapped it for a 32 GB LTE version. I can easily add the iPad inexpensively and use it without worrying about the mobile hotpsot draining my iPhone's battery. In the end, we are paying a few dollars more and get mobile hotspot and a 4G tablet on our line. Yes, we lost unlimited data, but we weren't taking advantage of it anyway. For the record, I didn't even look at AT&T as the carrier does not offer service where I live.

Steve Sande

Bionic Barb (TUAW TV Live viewers will recognize the name) and I have an iPhone 4S, an iPhone 4, and two 3rd-generation iPads between us. My lovely spouse is on a grandfathered AT&T unlimited data plan on the iPad, although she never uses more than 2 GB of data a month. All of the devices except my iPad are on AT&T; that iPad is on Verizon because they actually have a 4G LTE network in place in Denver. One good thing about that Verizon plan is that it also includes "free" mobile hotspot service as well.

iPhone AT&T --> Nationwide 450 with Rollover, DataPro 4GB $85 per month
iPad Verizon -- $30 per month

iPhone AT&T --> Nationwide 450 with Rollover, Unlimited Messaging, DataPro 2GB $85 per month
iPad AT&T -- $30 per month

TOTAL: $225 per month before taxes

With shared data plans

$80 for 6 GB data plan
$80 for two iPhones
$20 for two iPads
$180 per month (before taxes)

$90 for 6 GB data plan
$70 for two iPhones
$20 for two iPads
$180 per month (before taxes)

The winner for us would be to go with all Verizon services since most of our usage is in Denver and they are the only carrier at present with a true 4G LTE network in town, but there's one very big fly in the ointment with that -- we'd need to get two new iPhones and one new iPad. Chances are pretty good that we'd also get nailed with early termination fees for the iPhones, so this one's out of the question, at least for a while.

If we go with the AT&T shared plan we'd save about $45 per month or $540 a year. That's excellent and the only thing I'd have to do is sell the Verizon iPad and get an AT&T model. Even if we went with the 10 GB shared data bucket we'd still save $25 per month ($300 per year).

The winner in our case is AT&T, but only because we're tied to them for the iPhone service.

Kelly Guimont

Kelly G. reports that she and her husband have two AT&T phones with the grandfathered unlimited data plan and 700 minutes of shared talk time, which costs them $160. Data usage for them tops off around 4 GB. Her husband wants 6 GB under a shared data plan, just in case the ability to tether causes them to use more data.

With Verizon and AT&T both, it would be the same $160 they're paying now to move to a shared data plan with 6 GB of data. They would also gain unlimited minutes and tethering.

"If I were to give up unlimited data on AT&T I would definitely be getting a new iPhone," Kelly said. "I'm not under contract now so the 'switching' cost to Verizon would be the same two iPhones that would get upgraded on AT&T."

Outside the U.S.

Our overseas team members tossed in their phone plans to illustrate just how different the pricing structures are.

Chris Rawson lives in New Zealand. His iPhone 4S and iPad are on Telecom NZ. He pays NZ$60 per month for 60 minutes of talk time, 1 GB data and around 200 texts. He pays an additional $25 for 500 MB data for his iPad. His wife, on Vodafone, pays $40 a month for 60 minutes of talk time and 250 MB of data. They pay $125 a month in New Zealand dollars for everything, which is around $100 in U.S. dollars.

Michael Grothaus and Richard Gaywood are in the UK and are subscribers on Three with non-subsidized iPhones. The plan each of them has includes 2,000 minutes that can be used for any network and 5,000 minutes for calls among Three subscribers. The plan also includes 5,000 texts and unlimited data for £25, which is around $39. The plans cost about £5-10 more under contract, depending on if you have an iPhone 4 or iPhone 4S.

Rich adds, "The subsidized plans have a minimum term of two years, while the unsubsidized one can be cancelled at any time. Although Three is probably the best value of all the UK operators, the others all offer fairly similar deals. Oh, and that 'unlimited' data? It's genuinely, totally unlimited."