Carriers and subscribers have their eyes on the dollars and cents of multi-device data plans such as those set to launch at Verizon Wireless later this month, but for both sides, the new types of deals will also take some adjustment.
The "family" plans Verizon announced on Tuesday are different from any previous offerings, including existing family plans in which several users share voice minutes. They are designed for one or a group of subscribers to connect as many as 10 devices to the network using one limited pool of data, with unlimited voice and text. The subscription is associated with a person or family rather than a device, and it can encompass tablets, laptops, USB modems and other devices as well as phones.
That approach should make sense for users or families who shift their Internet use among devices. It brings consumers' relationship with a mobile operator closer to the home broadband model, in which Internet access is available to use however they choose rather than tied to a separate plan and bill for every device. Each of those devices has to be able to get on Verizon's network and there are monthly per-device charges, but it could make consumers more comfortable with putting various devices on the cellular network.
However, all this has implications both for back-end systems at carriers and for consumers' own management of their mobile use. "The concept is not completely foreign to operators, but doing it in data is a bit tricky," said analyst Chetan Sharma of Chetan Sharma Consulting.
A tricky part for both carriers and users is that it's possible for one user or device to burn up a data allotment much more quickly than a pool of voice minutes, "In a family, say, of four, one person can ruin the whole data plan," he said. "It does require users to be more conscious of what they're doing."
That means the right notification systems have to be in place to keep users posted on how much data they have left, he said. That might involve constantly sending updates to every person and device on the plan or just notifying the main subscriber in the family. The system could get more complicated still if a carrier wants to provide data-use tallies for individual users and devices. Some users in the plan, such as parents, may also want to get updates about how much others are using.
It could also be tricky to apply special policies to different family members under the same plan, said Joanne Steinberg, director of strategic marketing at mobile carrier management vendor Tekelec. For example, parents might want to restrict the kinds of apps that a child can use on his or her phone. Those policies are per user, not per account.
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