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AT&T Unveils Shared Wireless Data Plans

By Thomas Gryta AT&T Inc. (T) unveiled the details of its long-awaited new wireless data plan structure, which allows customers to share data among multiple users and devices, but users won't be required to adopt the new options. The plans come about a month after rival Verizon Wireless, a joint venture of Verizon Communications Inc. (VZ) and Vodafone Group Plc (VOD VOD.LN), unveiled similar plans. The plans from both telecom giants shifts the focus to customers' data usage and diminishes the role of voice minutes and texts, once the basis for most wireless bills. AT&T stressed key differences in its plans, including no requirements for new customers to adopt a shared-data plan. Instead, they can choose one of AT&T's existing plans. In addtion, all current AT&T customers can keep their existing phone plans and still upgrade their devices with a subsidized price, even if they still have unlimited data. In contrast, Verizon Wireless only will allow customers to keep their unlimited data plans if they buy an unsubsidized phone, which often costs hundreds of dollars more than a phone subsidized by the carrier. Also, new Verizon subscribers are required to sign-up for a shared data plan. Like Verizon, the AT&T plans will provide unlimited voice and messaging services with its shared data plans, while also offering a block of data for a flat cost, plus a fee for each device that will draw on that data. Depending on how you structure the plans, the AT&T plans can be cheaper or more expensive than Verizon's options. AT&T's plans will be available in late August. Under the AT&T plan, the cost of adding a smartphone decreases as a customer buys more data. For example, a customer getting 1 gigabyte of data would pay $45 per smartphone, but that price drops to $30 per smartphone for any plan getting 10 gigabytes or more. The data prices start at $40 for a bucket of 1 gigabyte and include $120 for 10 gigabytes and $200 for 20 gigabytes. The carriers's plans encourage increased data use by making it easier to add devices, such as tablets. Fees for adding other devices to share the bucket of data are $30 for basic phones, $20 for laptops and $10 for tablets. Under the plans from both carriers, there is no additional charge to turn applicable devices into a mobile hotspot. The move is an example of carriers providing buckets of data that can be used for multiple products and further transitioning away from prior plans that once offered data on an unlimited basis. AT&T stopped offering unlimited data to new customers in 2010, but about 40% of its subscribers remain on unlimited accounts. Despite the unlimited option, AT&T throttles, or slows, users when they use 3 gigabytes of data in a month. That limit rises to 5 gigabytes for users with a smartphone that runs on the next-generation LTE network. Sprint Nextel Corp (S) continues to offer unlimited data for customers on its network. T-Mobile offers an unlimited plan but also throttles users at certain usage limits. T-Mobile has questioned the usefulness of multiple consumers drawing from one data bucket. Write to Thomas Gryta at thomas.gryta@dowjones.com Subscribe to WSJ: http://online.wsj.com?mod=djnwires

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