Some carriers dropping unlimited data plans

CNJ photo illustration: Kevin Wilson Cell phone companies are moving towards a trend of tiered pricing for heavy data users.

Kevin Wilson

Data: It’s the new roaming.

Verizon Wireless, the nation’s largest wireless carrier, dropped its unlimited data plan for new smartphone customers starting Thursday. New customers must now choose between limited data plans that give users between 2 and 10 gigabytes of data each month.

Unlimited text messaging and picture messaging have been an industry standard for the last few years. But the explosion of phone applications and the data they require, has companies worried about losing money on unlimited data plans.

Verizon joined AT&T and T-Mobile in setting data limits. Sprint Nextel currently offers unlimited data.

Plateau Wireless, based in Clovis, offers unlimited data plans for $30 a month, and allows up to three add-ons for $10 per month.

Joel Drahman, chief operating officer of Plateau Wireless, said the company can offer unlimited data so cheaply because it doesn’t have as many users to take their capacity.

“(National carriers) simply load up their networks with many high-data users,” Drahman said. “That day certainly may come, but we don’t see that right now. But in urban areas, it’s a real problem.”

According to a survey by the Federal Communications Commission, 30 million Americans have experienced “bill shock,” describing customer surprise when a bill has a significant increase. Of those respondents, 84 percent said their cell phone carrier did not contact them before they exceeded service limits and one-fourth said their bill increased by more than $100.

Sen. Tom Udall, D-N.M., is touting a “Cell Phone Bill Shock Act” in Congress. If approved, it would require wireless providers to alert customers before they exceed data use limits, and receive customer consent before charges are issued for services not included in monthly plans.

“As wireless companies build faster networks and drop their unlimited data plans, bill shock problems will only get worse,” Udall said in a statement.

Drahman said there could be a day when data could be an issue, and the company would be ready to comply with such legislation if the need arose.

Data wasn’t a problem when people just made calls and had to weigh 10-cent charges for every text message. Now with the right apps, phones can act as GPS devices, photo uploaders and radio broadcasters.

“I don’t think anybody saw it,” Drahman said. “It’s really been incredible. If you think about how voice grew, that was exponential. And that’s nothing compared to data. And it’s just getting started. Look what the iPad is doing.”

Plateau offers phones using Google’s Android operating systems. Tech-savvy phone users have been able to “jailbreak” an iPhone from AT&T and couple it with a Plateau account. Drahman said the company wants to offer the iPhone and iPad when they become affordable for a company of Plateau’s size — but regarding jailbreaking, “We don’t do it and we don’t support that.”