January 12, 2011, 1:23 PM — Years ago cell phone companies began offering "family plans" that provided a common bucket of voice minutes for use by anybody in the family who owned a cell phone. Now, in 2011, many voice devices have been replaced by data devices--little computers, such as smartphones and tablet PCs, that require data connections. In response, wireless carriers are currently thinking hard about offering a new type of "family plan," a data-service (Internet-access) plan that covers a family of devices, allowing users to purchase a single bucket of bits for sharing among devices of their choosing.
In theory, under such a family plan a consumer or business customer would be able to purchase one plan and use any mix of compatible devices on it. If, for instance, you had a smartphone, a tablet, and a laptop or netbook, you could conceivably log in from any of those devices and have your network activity count toward a single billable total, instead of having to purchase a separate plan for each device, as is now the case.
While a family plan would probably make sense for most wireless-data users (since according to carriers most users don't come close to approaching the data-download limits of current cellular data plans), carriers may be reluctant to implement such plans for several reasons.
At the top of that list may be the cost of extra back-end duties associated with ensuring proper billing and security for a multiple-device billing scheme. But carriers may also be wary of a strategy that pushes users toward the higher end of data-plan usage, especially as more devices that can easily consume more bandwidth hit the marketplace.
However, some kind of combined billing scheme may be necessary to persuade more customers to purchase multiple devices, since three $60-per-month contracts would be hard to justify for many users' communications budgets.
Carriers Not Yet Willing to Commit
Although no major U.S. wireless carrier has yet committed to the family-plan idea for data contracts, all the big players say they are considering such pricing tiers, and may introduce them as early as this year. The carriers say they want to collect more information about how customers might wish to combine a stack of devices, such as a smartphone, a tablet computer, and a netbook or laptop.