On a recent family road trip, I paused for just a moment when my daughter started watching a show on Netflix on an iPhone in the back seat, using the cellular connection.

How much data will this consume? Are we getting close to our monthly limit? Maybe she should be reading a book instead?

Credit: Shutterstock
Photo Credit: Shutterstock

Yes, this is mobile life on a meter.

Last year, I gave up my unlimited data plan and switched instead to AT&T’s shared family data plan — opting for cost savings and more features in the short run, and risking the possibility that, over time, the explosion in data-hungry devices will make me regret my decision to let go of my grandfathered status.

Commenting on my post at the time, readers called me everything from stupid to short-sighted to a shill for AT&T. But I was simply being pragmatic and taking a calculated long-term risk with a very noticeable short-term reward — specifically, a reduction of more than $35/month in my bill.

And more than a year later, I have zero regrets.

Yes, there are times, such as the brief moment on that road trip, when I think about how much data my family is using. And one time in the past year, we did actually exceed our 4GB monthly limit. We forgot to connect a new smartphone to our home wireless network, which meant it was defaulting to the cellular network and consuming data that normally wouldn’t have counted against our limit. We also happened to be without an Internet connection in the office for a few days, which also contributed to the overage.

But other than that, we’ve never gotten near the limit. And this is important: even with the extra $30 charge for going over the limit, my bill that month was slightly less than what I was paying every month under my previous unlimited plan.

Bottom line, even with that charge, I’ve saved about $400 over the past year, just as I expected when I made the shift. In addition, I’m no longer paying $25/month to use a prepaid USB laptop stick from another carrier, because tethering (using my phone as a mobile hotspot) is included with the shared data plan.

This decision is not one-size-fits-all, and my choice may not be the right one for you. We have two smartphones on our shared data plan, and depending on how much data you use, shifting from your existing unlimited plan may not save you money. And maybe you don’t need tethering. My best advice is to look closely at your actual data usage before making a decision.

My colleague John Cook, for one, is holding tight to his unlimited data plan. As you can imagine, we’ve had some good debates about this. I understand his reasoning: he doesn’t want to think about his usage, even for a moment. And someday he may need all that data.

But in addition to paying hundreds of dollars a year more than he should to AT&T, he can’t tether his phone to his computer. When we were without Internet in the office, I politely suggested he siphon a connection from someone else rather than pushing me further toward or over my limit.

John may get the last laugh someday, when he’s blissfully streaming unlimited data to his smartwatch, smartglasses and, no doubt, his butt. Until then, I’m happy to pocket the savings and enjoy better features.

And yes, my daughter should be reading a book rather than watching Netflix anyway.

Smartphone image via Shutterstock.

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  • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

    I made a (data) decision opposite to yours, Todd, but for the same (cost) reason. Last week I left Verizon Wireless after 13 years and switched to T-Mobile. To stay with Verizon and upgrade my failing HTC Droid Incredible 2, I would have had to forfeit my grandfathered unlimited data plan (which Verizon says only applies to its 3G network). I didn’t like Verizon’s newest plans. And Verizon didn’t have the Google Nexus 5, which I wanted.

    I switched to T-Mobile. It wasn’t the no-contract part that appealed. It was the fact they still had an unlimited data option, and I could use my phone for data and web overseas without additional charges. Plus, I was able to save money on my monthly bill as well, even with paying off the Nexus 5 over 24 months.

    We’ll see if I feel as smart after a year.

    • Rajko

      But how is T-Mobile’s coverage? I’m in the same boat with Verizon (I’m at 13 years with them also), I’ve thought about switching to T-Mobile or Sprint, but Verizon’s coverage, as much as I dislike them, is pretty outstanding.

      • http://www.intrinsicstrategy.com/ FrankCatalano

        So far, in the Seattle, area, I’ve found it equivalent to Verizon (and even better at my home than Verizon). T-Mobile posts a comparison map from RootMetrics on its own website (on RootMetrics site here http://www.rootmetrics.com/check-coverage/). What will be telling is when I’m in New York soon, which is a traditional Verizon stronghold.

      • Willie D

        A lot of people think T-Mobile has horrible coverage. In fact, most of these people are misinformed. T-Mobile, in almost every major city performs well. Outside the major cities, they have been upgrading their network to cover more and more areas than before. While the network may not be as large as Verizon, or offer non-roaming coverage in places like North and South Dakota, Montana and Wyoming, one really has to think, “Should I be paying Verizon more, simply because they have coverage in areas I am unlikely to travel?” – the major word here is “unlikely” – While I travel to the Sierra Nevada, Cascades and Siskiyou on occasion I had a fear that without analog (years ago) or some form of native coverage, I may be stranded, I found that 9 out of 10 times in those travels, I did not break down, get stranded, or lost nor did I need coverage. The 1 time it actually happened there was not only service, but enough people around in the sticks I got the help I needed to get on my way immediately. I saw no need to pay a larger company for coverage in places I simply never needed it. Id rather pay a smaller bill, have excellent coverage where I do work and play and live, and use roaming when I am not in major areas. WiFi-Calling also helps.

    • Velogiraptor

      I’ve been seriously considering this myself.

      VZ isn’t getting all the good phones anymore, and my data service is actually fairly poor in the Renton and West Seattle areas. I’ve been thinking about switching, but worried about coverage when I travel and when I’m a bit more remote. (Like on St. Helens or Rainier.)

  • iJonL

    There’s not much difference, I have the unlimited family plan still and the greedy little buggers of AT&T throttle you at 3GB anyway. How about a refund for all the months we were under 1GB?

  • Barry JeepDad

    So did you daughter not get to watch Netflix? If so, it sounds like you are modifying behavior to make the limited plan work for you.

    • Pitcher23

      I don’t think he is modifying his daughters behavior to make his limited plan work for him. I believe he is having her adapt to the new family budget. It’s no different then anyone telling their kids they can’t do something they used to do or buy something they really want, so the family could save some money.

      • Velogiraptor

        Not to pick knits, but you just said they’re modifying behavior. Adapting to new limits is exactly that.

        • Pitcher23

          You’re right. I just got the impression that the previous poster was implying he was doing something wrong in trying to save some money by ending a feature he felt he didn’t need.

  • jrista

    I too switched from an unlimited plan to a limited plan a year ago. When I decided to finally upgrade from my HTC WP7 device to a Lumia 920, AT&T did not leave me the option of grandfathering in my unlimited plan. I ended up taking their maximum 5GB/mo data plan, along with an increase in minutes, network sharing (tethering), and an increase in my text messages, for a few dollars less than I was paying before.

    I have made it a habit to plug my phone into WiFi wherever it is available. A year on, in the places I regularly use my phone, all of the WiFi networks are remembered by the phone, and connect automatically. My average monthly data plan usage is between 2-2.5GB, with only a couple months topping 3.2GB. I have never exceeded the 5GB limit, even when watching YouTube and Netflix. I could scale back my data plan to 2.5GB, and I would probably be fine. The overage cost for every 10GB is $10, which in the long run would probably still save me money in the event that I actually did go over my limit.

    Overall, while I don’t necessarily like the potential limit hanging over my head, with WiFi access becoming nearly ubiquitous…between all my friends and family having an access point, and free access points cropping up all over the Denver metro area…I rarely ever actually use my phone’s data plan. The very vast majority of my data transfer is through free wireless access points. My phone use has dropped recently as well, and the majority of what use it gets is to test mobile web sites or apps I develop, which requires minimal data usage.

    If AT&T becomes more restrictive with it’s data than it is now, then that would probably give me more cause for concern. Data usage, especially as better quality video finds it’s way onto the net via NetFlix, Vimeo, and other sites, and with video being the primary cause of data consumption on my phone, one would expect that data plan offerings eventually increase the limit, rather than decrease them, to keep up with the trend. An inverse relationship between the cost of data in a smartphone plan, and the gradual increase in average usage, would make me look to a company like T-mobile for unlimited data again.

  • Willie D

    Its real easy to limit your cellular use if you are only using your smartphone as a phone, and have no life and work and sit at home on WiFi all day. For those of us that move about the city, and travel, like me, unlimited data is important, not only because we pay for it and use it, but if the carrier offers it, why should pay for their data, un-burden their network and burden myself, as well as my ISP at home to use Wifi. Its like saying “I pay for internet at home for my computer and whatever else, fine. I pay for internet on the phone specifically, if I wanted to run off WiFi, then I want the cell company to waive the requirement for having to get data plans to use a device I want” – its silly that companies require you to have data for a smartphone, if they only want you to offload at home and burden your ISP AND pay twice for internet. No thanks. Thats like Comcast saying “Oh, you want an HDTV at home, well you MUST get HD Cable, if you dont, we wont service you”

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