AT&T's cheaper new Mobile Share Value plan has been getting a lot of attention lately, thanks in part to a mildly humorous commercial. (Yes, the one where the guy rudely asks an employee if he can speak to the manager, and then finds out that he's already talking to her.) What's all the fuss about? If you're willing to pay full price for a smartphone or participate in a monthly installment plan for the hardware, you can pay as little as $45 for 300MB of data and unlimited talk and texts. But unless you don't leave the house or, you know, use your phone for stuff, it's not the deal it seems.
According to AT&T's own data calculator, you'll be right at the 300MB limit after sending and receiving 100 emails, streaming music for 1 hour, surfing the Web for 7 hours, posting to social networks 60 times with photos (twice per day), streaming an hour of standard-def video and downloading five apps, games or songs. That seems like a decent amount of activity, but not when you consider it's for an entire month.
Of course, 300MB is light usage by its very definition, but let's look at the data another way. A single hour of streaming HD video equals 320MB, or over the limit for this plan. Like to listen to Pandora for an hour each day? That's 920MB by itself.
Granted, you can save $25 per month versus contract plans on AT&T for the same amount of data, but let's take a look at how much you get on competing no-contract carriers.
Virgin Mobile's plans start at just $35 per month for unlimited messaging and data, although you only get 300 minutes at this tier. For $55 per month, you can get unlimited everything. Just keep in mind that only 2.5GB is high-speed data. On AT&T, going up to just 1GB of data costs $70 per month.
Meanwhile, MetroPCS charges $40 per month for 500MB — 200MB more than AT&T. And stepping up to $50 per month, or just $5 more than AT&T's cheapest plan, gets you a whopping 2.5GB. Granted, MetroPCS' network isn't nearly as robust as AT&T's, but it's hard to argue with the overall value.
AT&T's biggest competitor right now is T-Mobile, which ditched contracts entirely in 2013. The carrier charges $50 per month for 500MB. That's not a lot of data, either, but at least it's 200MB more than AT&T for just $5 more. The better deal on T-Mobile is its 2.5GB plan for $60 per month. On AT&T, a 2GB Mobile Share plan will run you $80 per month, or $20 more than T-Mobile.
Here's the bottom line: Don't opt for any plan with less than 1GB of data, unless you use your smartphone away from Wi-Fi very sparingly. If you really like what AT&T's network has to offer — the LTE coverage is excellent in most markets — be ready to spend more. Otherwise, shop around for a cheaper no-contract carrier.