5 Lingering Questions About Shared Data Plans

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Brian Snyder / Reuters

The end of unlimited smartphone data is coming. AT&T and Verizon, the two largest U.S. wireless carriers, already throttle data speeds for unlimited users who consume the most data, and starting this summer, Verizon won’t let these users keep their plans unless they pay full price (read: $600 and up) for their next phones.

The impetus for Verizon’s policy change is the upcoming launch of shared data plans, which will allow subscribers to connect multiple phones, tablets and hotspots to a single bucket of data. AT&T will soon launch shared data plans as well, and although the carrier hasn’t said whether it’ll kick out unlimited users, don’t be surprised if AT&T follows Verizon’s lead.

(MORE: There’s a Good Chance You’re Overpaying for Data on Your Phone)

The demise of all-you-can-eat data might not be all bad news. Shared data plans could be money savers by letting families draw from one data pool, and by letting power users connect several devices without buying a separate plan for each one. Or at least that’s how it’ll work in theory. AT&T and Verizon haven’t said much about how their shared data plans will work, leaving some big questions to linger:

How Much Will Each Device Cost to Connect?

We can at least expect AT&T and Verizon to charge activation fees for new devices. The bigger question is whether they’ll impose a monthly surcharge on each connected device, like the $10 per line Verizon charges for each phone on a family plan. It’s easy money if they do, but it would also discourage people from connecting lots of devices, consuming more data and buying bigger plans.

What Happens to Tethering?

All the major wireless carriers charge extra per month if you want to use your smartphone as a modem for other devices, such as laptops. Their logic is that a tethered phone is no different than a standalone hotspot, which requires a separate data plan. So what happens when these devices no longer require their own plans? Does smartphone tethering become included with every phone, or do carriers find a new way to justify charging extra for it?

(MORE: Why Verizon Dropped Its Unlimited Data Plan (And What You Can Do About It))

Will Rollover Data Ever Happen?

Rollover voice minutes were once a hallmark feature for AT&T (and Cingular before it), but they’re impractical while unlimited data plans linger. Perhaps, as carriers move toward tiered plans, we’ll see rollover data emerge as a way to stand out. I wouldn’t be the first one to call for it, though I’m not so optimistic.

What Will the Minimums Be?

Verizon’s existing family plans allow as little as 700 minutes per month, which at $70 is less money and fewer minutes than two individual plans. So how low will carriers let users go on data, and for how much money?

What If It Backfires?

When AT&T and Verizon stopped offering unlimited data to new customers, they loved to point out how it was no big deal because most people don’t use much data in the first place. What happens when a family of stingy data users gets together and starts saving serious money? It’s hard to imagine carriers giving up the lucrative $30 per month they can currently make on each smartphone. It’ll be interesting to see how they stack the plans in their favor.

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