AT&T brings back an unlimited data plan, but only for TV subscribers

When the iPhone first launched in 2007, AT&T offered unlimited data plans. Pricing wise, it wasn't too bad. Here's the original 2007 Apple press release:

All iPhone monthly service plans are available for individuals and families and are based on a new two-year service agreement with AT&T. Individual plans are priced at $59.99 for 450 minutes, $79.99 for 900 minutes and $99.99 for 1,350 minutes. All plans include unlimited data (email and web), Visual Voicemail, 200 SMS text messages, roll over minutes and unlimited mobile-to-mobile and a one-time activation fee of $36.

In 2010, AT&T stopped offering unlimited data plans to new customers. While some users have been able to keep their old plans, it's not been something people can get back on. Until now, that is.

Roger Cheng at CNET:

The Dallas telecom giant said Monday that its DirecTV and U-Verse subscribers can sign up for unlimited wireless data. A single line costs $100 a month, with $40 for each additional line. Enrollment starts Tuesday.

In some ways, the new plan seems like a good deal. In others, it's more expensive. Back in the 'old days', AT&T charged differently depending on how many minutes you wanted each month. Now, data is the big money maker. Offering unlimited minutes on a plan doesn't matter since everyone uses data hungry apps for communication.

What's interesting about this new plan is the requirement: it is only available to DirecTV and U-Verse subscribers. Cheng suspects this is a move by AT&T to get more users on their TV services. I took this a different direction, though. I doubt AT&T wants users to watch all of their movies and shows over the mobile network. Thus, by forcing users to have a TV subscription, they're hoping users will watch most of their larger videos on their TVs.

Clearly, this plan is not for everyone. There are a few things to consider before making the jump for this.

First, if you don't already have a TV subscription and don't need one, you may find that cost a little high. While it is only $10 per month ($20, minus a $10 discount for having both cellular and TV service), the price climbs to $50 per month after the first year. 

Second, there are limitations on what you can do with the unlimited plan. In particular, users of the new plan have the same restrictions as those on grandfathered plans. That means if you like to tether your phone to other devices, you're out of luck. The only devices that can access the unlimited data pool are those that are paid on the account.

Lastly, do you really need an unlimited plan? If you're constantly using 10 or 15 GB (or more) a month on your own, then perhaps the plan is right for you. But if you're not, it may cost more to use this plan. I'll use my current situation as an example. Our family shares 15 GB of data. The data cost is $100, with each of our 4 iPhones costing $15 each to access it. Our monthly bill is $160 (and a few bucks for tax). However, if we were on the unlimited plan, it would cost us $60 for the data, plus $40 for each line. (This is where the earlier quoted '$100 for a single line' comes from). That would be $220. (AT&T's site says that the fourth line is free after bill credit, but that credit isn't applied until after 2 bill cycles). That doesn't take into account having to pay for a TV service each month, either. And given that we are more than comfortable with our current data limits, switching to an unlimited plan with no tethering is a loss rather than a gain to us.

You have to give AT&T some credit for bringing this back, even if it is just a temporary offer. Likely, this was done under pressure from other carriers, notably Sprint and T-Mobile, that are already offering some forms of unlimited data access. What AT&T is offering will work for some customers. Likely, because of the TV bundle requirements, they're hoping to target people that must have a TV service, letting the rest go to other carriers that can meet their unlimited mobile needs.  Whether this makes a dent in the number of TV subscribers or those coming from other carriers, though, will remain to be seen.