AT&T Kills Unlimited Wireless Data

Unlimited, all-you-can-eat wireless data was a beautiful thing for Apple devices on AT&T, delivering streams of Pandora, YouTube videos, a million tweets, and hundreds of web pages without worry. And now it’s dead.

AT&T’s new, completely restructured mobile data plans for both iPhones and iPads have officially launched the era of pay-per-byte data, which we’ve known was coming. We just hoped it would take a little longer. It’s the anti-Christmas.

AT&T is likely just the first, since carriers rarely do anything alone (like when everybody launched unlimited voice calling in lockstep), and Verizon’s CTO has rumbled that plans with “as much data as you can consume is the big issue that has to change.” And so it is.

If you look at the costs per megabyte, you can see how, despite the fact AT&T is pitching the availability of lower priced plans as a value move, you actually are paying more for less.

Under AT&T’s old iPhone and smartphone plans, $30/month bought you truly unlimited data. With their new plans for smartphones, arriving June 7 (not coincidentally, the day of Steve Jobs’ WWDC keynote) the confusingly named DataPlus offers 200MB of data for $15 a month, while DataPro gives you 2GB for $25. With DataPlus, if you run over 200MB you get another 200MB for $15. But, AT&T tells us that if you’re running over the 200MB limit, you can actually switch to the beefier 2GB DataPro completely pain-free (no ETFs or any of that business), and then switch back to the skinnier plan “over time.” With DataPro, if you run over 2GB, you get another 1GB of data for $10, ad infinitum. So, if you use 5GB of data, you’re looking at a $55 bill for data.

Tethering for the iPhone is here, finally! Hurray! Right? Wrong. First, consider that the old, non-iPhone tethering option offered you 5GB of tethering data for an extra $30 a month. The new plan charges you $20 extra to use the same 2GB pool of data for tethering. You are not buying extra data. You are simply paying extra to use it for tethering.

Let’s review: AT&T is charging you an additional twenty dollars a month based purely on how you use your data. This is bullshit, plain and simple.

Why does it matter how you use that 2GB? Why does it cost extra to use it in a slightly different manner, if you’re paying for it all the same?

It’s asburdity—especially when you consider the basic math. Under the old plan, you paid $60 a month for unlimited data, plus 5GB worth of tethering. Under the new plan, you will pay $45 for 2GB of data, total.

When you break out the dollar-per-byte value, showing just how much data you get per dollar, it becomes clear how outrageous the new pricing schemes are, whatever AT&T murmurs about how much data 98 percent of users actually consume.

The new plans apply to the iPad as well. Meaning the no-contract $30 unlimited data plan, the plan both Apple and AT&T pitched so hard, assuring us that we would never have to worry about data or contracts, is no more. If that $30-whenever-you-want-it unlimited data was a part of your calculus in buying the 3G iPad—it was part of mine—you’ve effectively been baited-and-switched. They promised one thing, and in just two months, it’s gone. I suppose that’s the downside of not having a contract with a multi-billion dollar corporation—you’re free to ditch them, but they’re free to screw you in return.

There is a way out, though it’s really more like a way in, since it requires you to dive more securely into the vice grip of AT&T. If you already have an unlimited smartphone data plan and you renew your contract after June 7, as long as you don’t change your plan, you can keep on keepin’ on with your unlimited plan. In other words, you can get a new smartphone, but keep the same plan—then you’re grandfathered in with unlimited data. Same deal with the iPad: If you start an unlimited data plan before June 7, and let it keep automatically renewing, you’ll keep unlimited data.

If you add the $20 tethering option after June 7, though, you move to the new plans (which obviously screws iPhone owners interested in tethering). If you don’t already have an unlimited smartphone data plan, and buy one after June 7, you’ll get one of the new plans. If you come to AT&T after June 7, you’ll get one of the new plans. If you start a new iPad 3G data plan after June 7, you’ll get one of the new plans. (Here’s a bit more on various scenarios and what’ll happen with different configurations.)

So, what’ll be? Tie yourself up more tightly with AT&T to preserve your data privileges, or join this brave new world, where you pay for every byte you eat? Any hopes you could’ve possibly had for unlimited 4G, you might as well shred them now. It’s true, for most people (98 percent of users, says AT&T), 2GB a month might be fine—I’ve only used 1GB on my iPad 3G, even after streaming a ton of movies with the intent of killing my battery. And I’m not opposed to metered internet, per se. But I am opposed to higher costs per megabyte, BS charges for tethering, and broken iPad promises. And there’s a principle at stake here, dammit.