Are wireless carriers preparing to increase data fees?

As users migrate away from voice services, critics bet that carriers are setting the stage for higher data rates

Talk is cheap, at least if you consider how AT&T and Verizon Wireless have recently chopped the price of unlimited nationwide voice calling plans from $100 to $70 a month. But there's concern among critics that these price drops are part of a secret plan to increase data access rates later, given the shift in cellular usage from voice to data for which the iPhone is the poster child.

AT&T Mobility CEO Ralph de la Vega has for months been suggesting that the heaviest users of wireless data might face higher fees under some sort of metering approach. In December, de la Vega said "there's got to be some pricing scheme that addresses the [heavy] users." AT&T's spokesman said Tuesday there has not been any more movement on such a data pricing plan.

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Already, data users are exposed to extraordinary charges if they use more than 5GB per month, paying from $200 to $500 more per 1GB of data above the 5GB limit. And AT&T just added a new fee on users of a category of phones called Quick Messaging Devices; they must now pay a minimum of $20 a month on top of voice plans for some combination of texting and data plans. The previous minimum on such users was $5 a month for 200 text messages, according to AT&T.

With the cheaper unlimited voice plans, "the carriers are just trying to win political points and goodwill to use on gouging people more on data plans later," said Chris Riley, policy counsel for Free Press, a nonprofit consumer advocacy group that favors Net neutrality reforms. "They are under a lot of scrutiny by the Federal Communications Commission, but people are still paying a lot of money for voice and data plans."

Because very few users need unlimited voice plans, Riley also asserted that the reductions are somewhat meaningless. And because both plans were reduced exactly by the same amount at the same time, he added, "It's not a sign of price competition in the industry, but of trying to drive users to heavier usage brackets." A spokesman for another nonprofit consumer advocacy, Public Citizen, echoed that view: "This [voice plan reduction] appears simply to be a shift to the reality that much of the traffic will be data, rather than voice, traffic."

An AT&T spokesman said the unlimited voice calling reduction had "nothing whatsoever" to do with data rates eventually going up. A Verizon spokeswoman declined to respond to the Free Press criticism.

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Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld, an InfoWorld affiliate. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen, send e-mail to mhamblen@computerworld.com or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed.

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