They spend hours watching video on their phones, downloading songs, browsing the Web, sending photos to friends and generally using mobile devices as full-fledged computers. They are the data hogs.
On Wednesday, AT&T pulled away the trough. And other wireless carriers could do the same.
AT&T said it would no longer offer an unlimited data plan to new users of iPhones and other smartphones. The decision, industry analysts said, could signal a shift away from an era in which U.S. wireless carriers sought to attract customers with simple, all-you-can-eat pricing plans for data.
The trouble for AT&T was that a fraction of users — fewer than 2 percent — made such heavy use of the network that they slowed it down for everyone else.
Starting Monday, AT&T will offer tiered pricing. People will pay based on what they use, which the company says is fairer to everyone.
Instead of paying $30 a month for unlimited data, new customers will be given the option of paying $15 a month for 200 megabytes, or $25 for 2 gigabytes. AT&T estimates that the more expensive plan will cover 1,000 minutes of video, 400 song downloads or a million one-page e-mail messages. Those who want to keep their existing unlimited plans can do so.
Industry analysts said AT&T’s move could have ripple effects on other wireless carriers and, eventually, a growing segment of the population that has begun gorging on data using their phones.
“The free lunch for the ultra-heavy data user has been taken off the menu,” said Roger Entner, a telecommunications industry analyst with the Nielsen Co. “The new generation of heavy users is going to pay according to what they use.”
With a new generation of advanced phones, mobile data use has exploded. In April this year, 57.1 million mobile subscribers in the United States had unlimited data plans, a 57 percent increase from a year earlier, according to comScore, a research group.
The wireless carriers have generally benefited from the growth. Last year, they took in $152 billion in revenue from data use, compared with $113.5 billion in 2005, according to CTIA, the industry’s trade association.
Home Internet users are sucking up more data too, of course. But analysts say providers of home access are unlikely to drop unlimited plans anytime soon. One big difference is that those companies can more easily add capacity than mobile carriers, which must license scarce and expensive spectrum from the government.
When wireless customers take “unlimited” literally, analysts say, those plans rapidly become money losers for the companies. The problem is not unique to AT&T, analysts said, but it has suffered more than its competitors because of the data demands of iPhone users. They use on average a third more data than the typical smartphone owner, Entner noted.
“The biggest data pigs in the world are the iPhone guys,” said Edward Snyder, an analyst with Charter Equity Research.