Editor’s note: Conspiracy theorists, start your engines. Just a few days after we noticed AT&T’s switch to make its smartphone customers pay $45 a month for a 4 GB data plan AT&T announced a further change that would mirror Verizon’s plan and now require a $50, 5 GB plan to use that mobile hotspot feature on your phone. All the analysis from the original post below still holds. More on this topic soon.
I haven’t paid attention to the AT&T 4G LTE site for a few months, so I was surprised by a new twist in AT&T’s top-network data plans. If you want to use the snazzy portable Wi-Fi hotspot feature found in almost every new top of the line smartphone, you’ll have to throw down on the “DataPro 4GB” plan, a $45 per month data plan which includes 4 GB of downloadable data and access to the hotspot feature. Don’t want to buy the big plan? Then you aren’t going to be able to use the hotspot feature, according to an AT&T rep I just had an online chat with.
On one hand, I think this pricing is pretty smart, especially for AT&T. If you are planning on using the mobile hotspot you are probably a Type-A geek who knows why you would want to use one and as such are ready to siphon down data to your laptop, your iPad or even a friend’s or business partner’s PC as well. So you were probably already headed to the highest data plan AT&T offers, which is the 4 GB one. Not having to pay an extra fee or buy a separate data plan for the hotspot, which Verizon used to require, is a welcome relief and part of the double-discount price check that we predicted all the major carriers were bound to go through with their new 4G networks this year.
On the other hand, it hurts AT&T to turn off the hotspot functionality for customers who choose the lower data plans because it makes AT&T seem like it is trying to shove you into the top tier of plans even though you may only need the hotspot functionality on a sporadic basis, like when traveling. Another downer is that if you are buying one of AT&T’s three 4G LTE capable smartphones, you will only get the super souped up LTE speeds in 26 markets for the time being. At AT&T’s recent developer summit in Las Vegas there was talk of some LTE-capable Windows phones from Nokia coming later this year, but no talk about network expansion. For that reason we are sticking with the calls we made in our recent 4G LTE Market Report for January, 2012, in which we say smart things like “Verizon will keep and extend its LTE lead over AT&T and Sprint in 2012.” Want more smart analysis? Buy the report. It’s worth the $1.99 downloaded from the site, or $2.99 on Kindle or at the iTunes store.
For what it’s worth, a brief test of AT&T’s LTE network in Las Vegas during the CES show last week saw us with smokin’ fast download speeds, even inside the convention center and even in new hotel rooms with silvered windows, the kind of architecture that sometimes brings Clearwire’s WiMAX network to its knees. Thanks to the AT&T folks who were kind enough to lend us a mobile hotspot to kick the tires on the LTE network. In a marked departure from AT&T’s struggles with 3G, it appears Ma Bell has pounded a few 5-hour energy drinks while putting up its LTE network. Privately we were told that performance was one reason why AT&T’s rollout of LTE is more conservative than Verizon’s aggressive LTE push, which showed some strain in December. We’ll be watching closely through the start of 2012 to see if AT&T can outperform Verizon on the LTE front.
We still don’t expect the LTE phones from any carrier to sell well, though, since they are still priced at a premium or at basically the same price as the iPhone 4s. As our report says, 2012 is really a race to see who can build out a network wide enough to handle the iPhone 5 and its expected LTE chip. Need more info now? Buy the report!
UPDATE: Looks like Verizon has introduced new data plans that mirror AT&T’s hotspot decision — aren’t you glad we have “competition” in the wireless market? Verizon’s seem to offer a bit more data for a bit more money but the bottom line looks the same — if you want to use the mobile hotspot feature you are gonna pay the piper. Will circle back tomorrow to see if this is just for new phones or if old plans are going to be put under these new “hotspot caps” as well.