Can AT&T really add a pricey data plan onto your wireless bill?

Can AT&T really add a pricey data plan onto your wireless bill?

Summary: If you're an AT&T Wireless customer, you might not have a data plan today. And if you want to keep things that way, I suggest you avoid playing around with new phones using your existing SIM card.

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If you're an AT&T Wireless customer, you might not have a data plan today. And if you want to keep things that way, I suggest you avoid playing around with new phones using your existing SIM card. Based on some odd messages and a lengthy AT&T Customer Care session this morning, I predict that some Windows Phone users are about to get a shock. It's all part of the mobile carriers' plan to ratchet up their profits by jacking up your monthly bill, a business model that is key to their continued growth, as I explained last week.

The good news is that switching from an iPhone to a Windows Phone should have no effect on your existing data plan. With thousands of Microsoft employees about to get their new, free Windows Phone devices, there are plenty of people in that category.

A little background: AT&T requires you to have a data plan if you activate or upgrade to a smartphone. That policy has been in effect since September 6, 2009. In June of this year, the company revamped its data plan pricing, eliminating unlimited data plans for new customers. Longtime customers like me, who previously had unlimited data plans with an iPhone or another smartphone, can keep the unlimited plan as long as they remain customers but lose the option completely if they switch to a lower-priced usage-limited plan.

As more people switch from feature phones to connected devices, they're about to see a big increase in their monthly bill, sometimes without their own knowledge. As soon as they start using data, AT&T will sign them up for a monthly data plan, automatically.

I got a preview of what those users will see, very early this morning. Sometime after my first cup of coffee but before I was fully awake, my phone chirped to let me know I had just received a text message. It was from AT&T, it assured me it was free, and it was very odd. Here's the full text:

Did you know a data plan is required for your Smartphone? We have added an appropriate data & msging plan. Learn more @ att.com/smartphoneplans. [emphasis added]

When I saw that tweet, I thought back to several casual conversations I had with Microsoft employees last week about the new Windows Phone devices they're about to receive. At least one was concerned that he was going to lose his unlimited iPhone data plan when he switched.

About 10 seconds after I had that thought, an e-mail message popped into my inbox. It was from AT&T Customer Care for Wireless. Here's what it read:

Dear Valued Customer,

We hope you are enjoying your Smartphone! We appreciate and value your business and want to be sure you are aware of a change we've made to your account to ensure you have the best possible experience with data on your Smartphone.

Smartphones are made for data consumption-surfing the web, social networking, email and more. That's why we require an eligible Smartphone data plan in conjunction with our Smartphones. This ensures that customers with data intensive devices are not unpleasantly surprised with high data pay-per-use charges.

For whatever reason, our records indicate your Smartphone does not have an eligible data plan. We have added an appropriate Smartphone data plan for your device. We've also added a messaging package to match the messaging plan included in your previous data and messaging bundle. [emphasis added]

If you would like to select another Smartphone plan or messaging plan or have questions, please call 1-800-331-0500 (or 611 from your wireless phone) or visit att.com/smartphoneplans.

Thank you for being an AT&T customer. We look forward to continuing to provide you with a great Smartphone experience.

Sincerely,

AT&T

My wife, I discovered later, got the same text message. Now, this is completely baffling in our case. We have been AT&T Wireless customers since back when they were Cingular. It might not be quite a full decade, but it's close. We have had wireless data plans for our AT&T/Cingular accounts for about as long as they have been offered. Despite the truly crappy signal coverage in our home and my office, we have remained AT&T Wireless customers for the more than five years we have lived in our current home, locked in first by contracts with early termination fees and then, more recently by my wife's sheer love of her iPhone and the lack of a suitable alternative device from Verizon.

The point is, I shouldn't have gotten this message at all. And after more than an hour of digging through the tremendously confusing AT&T Billing site and speaking with a senior Customer Care agent I determined that nothing in our already overpriced account had been changed.

So why did I get that message? Because I recently moved my SIM card to a new device, the HTC Surround running Windows Phone 7 that I wrote about last week. I've done that at least five times this year as I switched between smart devices on the AT&T network: an iPhone, a couple of Windows Mobile devices, and two Windows Phone 7 devices. (My unsatisfying experiment with a Droid was on Verizon.) As the Customer Care representative explained, AT&T these days is paying much more attention to the devices that connect to is network than before. He assured me that I would get that same inaccurate sequence of messages again if I moved the SIM card to another device. If I had been on a no-data plan, my rates would have gone up substantially and immediately.

I confirmed that the official policy allows you to keep an existing unlimited data plan even if you switch smartphones. In my case, I have the original $20 iPhone data plan (that same data plan is now $10 a month more). I was assured that my data charges will not change when I replace my iPhone with a new device.

The customer service representative made it very clear that he was not describing AT&T policy but rather "looking at the details of my account to see what was going on." But the implication was equally clear: if you play around with a new integrated device (aka Smartphone), AT&T is watching.

Update 17-Nov: In the Talkback section, commenter Day2die confirms that trying to use an unsubsidized smartphone without a data plan (for example, buying a secondhand iPhone and using Wi-Fi for apps and phone for voice only) simply is not allowed by AT&T:

I can assure you that this has happened to me. I bought my iPhone 3G unsubsidized and has been using it on AT&T's network wthout a data plan since 2008. Earlier this year, I got the same message from AT&T saying that it added a data plan to my bill. I canceled the data but was dismayed that AT&T added the data plan back on the following day. AT&T told me that there is no way I would be able to get away with using a smartphone without a data plan since it uses IMEI to track my smartphone usage.

I have strong Wi-Fi in most places and do not need a data plan. I am currently stucked using a feature phone. So my question to you, Ed, is that is there any carrier or anyway for me to buy a smartphone unsubsidized and use it without a data plan?

If anyone at AT&T wants to respond, on or off the record, please get in touch.

Topics: Wi-Fi, Hardware, AT&T, Software, Smartphones, Operating Systems, Networking, Mobility, Microsoft, Windows

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86 comments
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  • RE: Can AT&T really add a pricey data plan onto your wireless bill?

    Ugh. I've been scared off of smartphones for a long time due to the data plan and had considered picking one up without the data plan and just using wifi.

    Sounds like that option is a no go.
    SlithyTove
    • Sprint has great pricing

      @SlithyTove

      We have two phones, unlimited EVERYTHING, $69+$49 ...
      I have been getting the bill every month, and, it is exactly what they said it would be $69 (1st phone) + $49 (2nd phone).
      BrentRBrian
      • Att and Verizon wul nickie and dime you

        T mobile and Sprint won't.

        Having been an Att customer for a couple of years. I quickly found out that they willl always overcharge you, and then you have to make your calls to rectify their mistake which they initially deny. So paid my early termination fee and never looked back. Now getting to three right person was always a hassle and their customer support only exists during business hours, so good luck with their run around.

        An old GF had Verizon, they would sometimes over charge her. Though Verizon would quickly rectify the issue and offer compensation. Their customer service was great. Still, my last then paid over fifty more dollars than I at Tmobile.

        For the past five years I've been a Tmob customer and my other half switched from Att to Sprint. Neither of us have paid a cent more than what we consumed. Would I ever use att again? Not even if they paid the bill! My other half can't believe that her bill came down over one hundred dollars or more and has better service.
        Uralbas
      • RE: Can AT&T really add a pricey data plan onto your wireless bill?

        @BrentRBrian
        AT&T did the exact same thing to us. We goit the text message and called. No you can't have an unlimited data plan you have to have one of thenew plans we were told. Finally had to go back to the orginal store to get the problem fixed. But you can bet they managed to get extra money out people who did not follow up.
        evansed1
    • RE: Can AT&T really add a pricey data plan onto your wireless bill?

      @SlithyTove <br><br>The answer is simple, get a "feature phone". The may not have the "cool" factor, but they have pretty good cameras, music players and most of all you will not need a data plan.<br><br>One warning, I had to actually call and have my wireless carrier turn off messaging. They will tell you that it is not possible at first, but if you complain loud and long enough they will do it. <br><br>Now, I do not need to even have the added $5 to $10 for the messaging plan either. I just pay my monthly amount for minutes to make voice calls and I am saving a bundle.<br><br>I may purchase an iTouch, iPad or a tablet of some kind, but will only if I can just have WIFI. The only other connected device I want will be the GPS device that comes with my new car.<br><br>No txt/data plans. Smart phones are fun, but for the unwary, they can also be a trap.
      daniel.pereznet
    • RE: Can AT&amp;T really add a pricey data plan onto your wireless bill?

      @SlithyTove Scarier still is, at least in Verizon Wireless' case, the ever-dwindling offerings of non-smart phones. When I went to replace my parents' phone, VZW had very little to pick from. One way or another, all the carriers want you in their most profitable service plan, your needs (and wallet) be damned.
      ejhonda
    • AT&T can not force people to buy anythign!

      I think this demand a class action suit. AT&T and others can not force the customer to buy anything if there is no subsidize going on. Soon the feature phones will be disapeared and wirelines too. What if the iPhone is your only phone and you need 911? Is anyone going to complain to FCC?
      Robert Chen
  • RE: Can AT&amp;T really add a pricey data plan onto your wireless bill?

    While I can understand this for a subsidized phone (and account), once that is no longer the case (ie you have paid off your subsidy)... why should they be allowed to add a data plan if you do not use data? This seems wrong to me...
    prdamrican
    • RE: Can AT&amp;T really add a pricey data plan onto your wireless bill?

      @prdmarican Welcome to an oligopoly in a capitalist society. Hope I'm not straying too far from the thread, but this is the same "free market" that's going to "save" us from Obamacare. Yeah, right.
      kevin_a
  • RE: Can AT&amp;T really add a pricey data plan onto your wireless bill?

    I'd be interested to see the numbers of how many others (me included) are using WiFi and non-data plan phone service.

    Montana sucks for wireless coverage (VZ) but like it was stated, if you buy a new smart phone most carriers force a data plan on you, regardless whether you actually use it or not. Suspect that's what they are counting on... duh!
    mrc55
  • RE: Can AT&amp;T really add a pricey data plan onto your wireless bill?

    I guess I'm not seeing the problem here or I am mis-understanding what is going on. What you have essentially explained is that playing around with your SIM card from smart-phone to smart-phone triggers an automatic alert, but that if you already HAD smart-phone service it shouldn't ACTUALLY change.<br><br>So if you previously had a feature phone plan, and you throw a data sucking smart phone on there isn't this EXACTLY what you'd want to avoid a nasty per KB or MB surprise?<br><br>I guess the more important question relates to what exactly a phone is capable of reporting back to the tower about ITSELF once active with a SIM card. I suppose that if for whatever reason you are using an out of contract iPhone (or whatever) with Wi-Fi only, all you'd need to do is just ensure that 3G data is turned completely off. But if the phone is able to report its whereabouts and "tell" ATT its a smart device, and they arbitrarily add a data plan, I can sort of see the issue. Which makes me wonder if they "detect" a smart-phone because something suddenly started requesting data where there was no data before, or because the phone identifies itself as such (in which case I can see a market for jailbroken phone software that masquerades as a feature phone).<br><br>Still, assuming that your smart device won't start sucking down data off the cell network one day seems kind of risky, and a little cheap.
    Playdrv4me
    • You have identified the issue

      @Playdrv4me

      "But if the phone is able to report its whereabouts and "tell" ATT its a smart device, and they arbitrarily add a data plan, I can sort of see the issue."

      Yes, if you activate or connect a smartphone to the AT&T network, they add a data plan to your account.
      Ed Bott
      • RE: Can AT&amp;T really add a pricey data plan onto your wireless bill?

        @Ed Bott <br><br>Got it. So, I alluded to this point a little after I edited my first message, but with CDMA systems the ESN, which functions almost like the "VIN" of the phone, instantly tells the carrier what it is. I'd have to wonder if there's a way, through software, to make the tower believe you are still using a feature phone on GSM.<br><br>I have very little working knowledge of GSM systems, so that might not even be possible. With ATT above all the carriers it just seems like you constantly have to look over your shoulder and watch what you're doing.
        Playdrv4me
      • RE: Can AT&amp;T really add a pricey data plan onto your wireless bill?

        @Ed Bott
        This policy is hardly unique to AT&T, all wireless carriers have it, and the first carrier to introduce the policy is Verizon.

        The reason for the policy is that before there was a data plan requirement, people would request no data plan and then run up data pay per use charges of thousands of dollars....which the carriers then had to credit....therefore the eminently reasonable policy that if you want a phone with data capacity you need a data plan so they don't have to credit you thousands of dollars in data charges was adopted.
        Doctor Demento
      • RE: Can AT&amp;T really add a pricey data plan onto your wireless bill?

        @ Doctor Demento

        I don't understand your consternation. With Sprint, if you don't have a data plan, (and even if you do) the first time you go to access any data, the phone will pop up a message telling you that you are about to access data and will be charged accordingly (to whether or not you have a data plan) and asks you if you wish to continue. If you have a data plan, tell the phone to never ask again and say that yes you want to continue. If you don't have a data plan, the choice to continue is yours, bearing in mind that it's going to cost the proverbial arm and leg to access said data. No money has to be "credited" to anyone, because they said "yes".
        Your comment sounds like "the phone company has to credit people their money, because they were too stupid to realize that 900 numbers have a per minute charge."
        It's really all quite simple - have an unlimited data plan for "x" dollars per month, or have no plan and pay "z" dollars per time you access data.
        reziol
      • RE: Can AT&amp;T really add a pricey data plan onto your wireless bill?

        @Ed Bott
        But Ed, can they legally do this if we connect at a "free" wifi spot. Isn't that the reason we buy a smartphone off e-bay,etc. Is it in the contract that no one read ?
        Way back when messaging came on I would get unsolicted msgs and be charged. I told them I don't do messaging and since I had no control over an incoming msg's I wanted it turned off. I was told they could not turn it off. I told them I would not pay any charges they put on my bill for this reason (in writing). Somehow the messages didn't didn't seems to come anymore.
        Why doesn't the FCC protect the customers? Do an article on this subject please.
        KPE
    • RE: Can AT&amp;T really add a pricey data plan onto your wireless bill?

      @Playdrv4me

      Hey birdbrain, did you read the post? It's not in Swahili. Maybe you are missing 3 fries short of a happy meal.
      sackbut
      • RE: Can AT&amp;T really add a pricey data plan onto your wireless bill?

        @sackbut <br><br>Cool story, Brah.
        Playdrv4me
    • RE: Can AT&amp;T really add a pricey data plan onto your wireless bill?

      @Playdrv4me
      a regular plan is around 35 to 50 USD
      by the time you add data ( which costs At&t a fraction of a cent at their cost so its all profit) then you are looking at almost 100 usd for the user

      thats the point, At&t and others are making millions off these plans, they want to only have smart phones for now on and are moving to that. We are letting it happen
      DRFP
  • RE: Can AT&amp;T really add a pricey data plan onto your wireless bill?

    I can assure you that this has happened to me. I bought my iPhone 3G unsubsidized and has been using it on AT&T's network wthout a data plan since 2008. Earlier this year, I got the same message from AT&T saying that it added a data plan to my bill. I canceled the data but was dismayed that AT&T added the data plan back on the following day. AT&T told me that there is no way I would be able to get away with using a smartphone without a data plan since it uses IMEI to track my smartphone usage.<br><br>I have strong Wi-Fi in most places and do not need a data plan. I am currently stucked using a feature phone. So my question to you, Ed, is that is there any carrier or anyway for me to buy a smartphone unsubsidized and use it without a data plan?
    illegaloperation