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AT&T to ax unlimited data plans on iPhone Monday

But you can have tethering. For another $20

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If you're in the US and want an iPhone or other AT&T-provided smartphone with an unlimited data plan, get off your duff and sign up before Monday, June 7 — that's when AT&T will switch to capped data-service plans.

June 7 is also the day that Steve Jobs is expected to unveil the next-generation iPhone.

In addition to killing off unlimited data plans, Big Phone will also — finally — provide support for internet tethering, a feature that broad swaths of the rest of the world and a wide range of other phones, smart or otherwise, have enjoyed for some time, and which iPhone owners have been waiting for since the iPhone 3GS was released a year ago.

Tethering won't be free, however — how does an additional $20 per month sound? And it'll be available only if you subscribe to the higher level of the two capped-data plans to which AT&T is transitioning.

Wednesday's AT&T announcement outlined the two plans:

  • DataPlus caps at 200MB per month, costs $15 per month, and if you go over your 200MB limit you'll be given another 200MB and charged another $15.
  • DataPro caps at 2GB per month, costs $25 per month, and if you go over your 2GB limit you'll be given another 1GB and charged another $10.

And, no, you can't roll over data capacity from one month to the next. And no, iPhone owners won't be able to immediately use tethering — they'll need to wait until iPhone OS 4.0 is released this summer. And no, Big Phone gave no indication what the word "Plus" in DataPlus might mean.

The new policy affects iPad Wi-Fi and 3G owners as well. If you already own your "magical and revolutionary" Cupertinian tablet, you can choose to keep your current $29.99 unlimited plan or switch to the DataPro plan. If you buy a 3G iPad beginning next Monday, DataPro is your only way to go.

The same choice will be offered to current iPhone and other smartphone owners: you can keep your current unlimited plan or switch to either the DataPlus or DataPro plan. If you choose to keep your current plan, AT&T thankfully doesn't demand a contract extension.

No matter which plan you choose, you'll be warned when you're approaching your cap by a (free) text message when you reach 65, 90, and 100 per cent of your allotment. You'll also be sent an email if AT&T knows where to reach you. Alternatively, users of iPhones and "other select devices" can use the AT&T myWireless Mobile to check their status, dial *DATA# for info, or check out their usage level online.

These changes are, of course, being instituted by Big Phone to better serve you, its beloved customer: "We're breaking free from the traditional 'one-size-fits-all' pricing model and making the mobile Internet more affordable to a greater number of people," said Ralph de la Vega, president and CEO of AT&T Mobility and Consumer Markets.

Ah, corporate altruism. But there's something murky going on here. According to AT&T, 65 per cent of their smartphone customers use under 200MB per month, and 98 per cent under 2GB. And yet Big Phone is not only cutting their rates, but its also adding the expense of what we presume is an automated text and email notification system

But if only 2 per cent of their customers ever use more than the $25-per-month 2GB, why is AT&T they cutting everyone down to $15 or $25? It's unlikely that it's merely, as de la Vega says, to "give more people the opportunity to experience [the] benefits" of mobility. The last time we checked, corporations were not in the business of providing "opportunity" other than the opportunity to increase shareholder value and quarterly profits.

Perhaps AT&T has kept a close eye on data growth, and sees that that 2 per cent could swiftly double, quadruple, quintuple, and more, and it wants to send a strong signal that "pay as you go" is the new norm, and that unlimited one-price access is history.

Or perhaps the real reason to sweeten the wireless-data deal for — currently — 98 per cent of its customers is that AT&T sees the spectre of the loss of its wireless exclusivity deal with Apple on the horizon, and it wants to show Cupertino that it's working to entice more iPhone purchases.

After all, when Steve Jobs was asked about AT&T at Tuesday's D: All Thing Digital interview, he replied that although he though Big Phone had made some progress in its risible service quality, "I do think they have some issues."

More to the point, when asked if there would be an advantage to having more than one US carrier for the iPhone, he tossed de la Vega a unmistakable challenge. "There might be," he said. ®

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