By: Gigaom
July 19, 2012 at 05:00 AM EDT
Explaining AT&T and Verizons’ complex shared-data plans
Confused by how AT&T’s new shared-data planswork? Well, we’ve put together a primer to show you how they work and compare them to Verizon’s similar pricing structure. Ultimately, shared data might not be for you, but hopefully this guide will help clear up the confusion.

Confused by how AT&T’s new shared-data plans work? Well, we’ve put together a primer to show you how they work and compare them to Verizon’s similar pricing structure. Ultimately, shared data might not be for you, but hopefully this guide will help clear up the confusion.

Verizon’s plans went into effect last month, and they are mandatory for all new customers. Current subscribers on Verizon’s individual tiered data plans can keep their rates for the time being, but customers grandfathered into Verizon’s old unlimited plans will have a tough choice to make when they upgrade to their next devices: They can either pay full retail cost for the phone or chose between a shared or tiered individual plan.

AT&T’s shared plans will take effect in late August, though it hasn’t revealed an exact date. AT&T’s will be purely optional for new and existing customers.

First, you need to select a data bucket. The following prices are for shared data between any number of devices either directly connected to the carriers network or tethered via Wi-Fi or cable. For instance if you buy a 6 GB bucket, all of your devices will draw from the monthly 6 GB pool. If you go over that allotment both carriers charge $15 for every additional gigabyte.

Now that you’ve got your data, select the number and types of devices you and your family will use. The reason for the different rates for smartphones, modems, tablets and feature phones is due to the fact that both AT&T and Verizon bundle in unlimited SMS and voice with each device. Feature phones make lots of phone calls and send lots of text messages while tablets do not. Why both carriers are discriminating between the all-data connectivity of a modem versus a tablet is beyond me, but they do.

All of these prices are per device so if you have both a tablet and a feature phone, your monthly device connection fee will be $40, the total of the $10 slate fee and the $30 phone fee. If it’s four smartphones, Verizon will charge you $160. As you’ve probably noticed, AT&T’s smartphone fees are variable, depending on the size of the shared data bucket you buy. That brings us to our next chart.

AT&T charges less to connect smartphones if you invest in more data. That may seem like it gives AT&T a big advantage over Verizon, but in most cases Big Red charges lower rates for the data itself. Whether you save money on one carrier versus the other depends on which combination of devices and plan you sign up for.

Take the individual user with a single smartphone that wants to use his phone as a mobile hotspot. A moderate user just looking for basic connectivity could sign up for an AT&T 1 GB plan and pay $95 a month, while the same plan on Verizon would cost $100. However, if that same single-smartphone customer committed to 4 GBs, the carriers would offer the same price point, $110 a month. And if he bumped up usage to 10 GB a month, Verizon comes out on top charging $140 versus AT&T’s $150.

When you start adding more devices to the plan, the numbers get more complicated. An AT&T plan with four smartphones costs $240 compared to Verizon’s price of $260. But if that same data plan connected two smartphones and two tablets, you’d pay the same rate on both carriers, $200.

It’s not a hard and fast rule, but in general if you’re looking to connect more smartphones, AT&T comes out on top, but if maxing out data usage or connecting a lot of non-smartphone devices is important to you, Verizon’s plans fare better.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user Mark Strozier

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