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AT&T CEO predicts data-only wireless plans within two years

Randall Stephenson iPhone

As detailed by CBS News this week, AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson indicated that wireless customers may only require a data plan by mid-2014. Stephenson specifically stated “I’ll be surprised if, in the next 24 months, we don’t see people in the market place with data-only plans. I just think that’s inevitable.” In this scenario, customers wouldn’t sign up for voice or texting plans as voice could be routed through a data plan with a service like Skype or Apple’s Facetime. There are already a number of third-party texting applications available to smartphone users as well. According to company management, AT&T has seen a decrease in the average number of minutes used per month, thus fewer people are using their smartphone to place voice calls. 

Stephenson sees this shift as a gradual change over the next two years and doesn’t forsee a rush of customers that will be requesting this option immediately. He drew an analogy to this process by comparing it to the transition from fixed landlines to cellular telephones. AT&T is already planning to roll out support for data sharing over a variety of devices, but a transition to data-only plans could turn out to be a lucrative option for AT&T over the next five years.

Similar to how cable companies bundle television service, high-speed Internet access and landlines together, AT&T could use a a more aggressive bundling package to entice people to sign up for more than just a data plan a few years from now. The company could also charge significantly more for data-only plans or simply extend the contract period when a customer purchases a new smartphone with a data-only plan.

Stephenson also mentioned that content providers on the Web have approached AT&T in regards to paying the wireless provider a specific amount of money each month to allow customers to access the content provider site without going against the data limit on the customer’s data plan. This would probably be most advantageous for retailers that want customers to shop on mobile sites, but don’t want customers to avoid the site based on data limits.

However, this program would likely place smaller companies with fewer resources at a disadvantage. For instance, if Amazon decided to pay AT&T for this concept, customers may be more likely to check Amazon first on a mobile device like a smartphone or tablet when comparison shopping for a product. In regards to the program, Stephenson stated “It’s not us going out and mandating this. The content guys are coming in asking for it. If you don’t allow those kinds of models to flourish, you’re going to inhibit the potential of these services.

AT&T is also continuing with their planned 4G LTE data rollout as wireless customers in Cleveland got access to the upgraded network this week. AT&T had already started the 4G upgrade in Akron and Canton, Ohio during April 2012 and plans to cover all of Ohio by the end of the year. The company plans to reach forty major markets by the end of the year and will continue upgrading the network around the country over 2013.

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