In the future, your cell plan will only know data, not minutes, says AT&T boss

“Imagine there’s no minutes,” John Lennon oh so nearly sang. “It’s easy if you try. No worries about overage, above us only sky.” Okay, so perhaps those weren’t the exact sentiments of Lennon’s 1971 classic, but they’re the sentiments of AT&T CEO Randall Stephenson, who today said that he believed that cellphone plans could do away with the notion of “minutes” within the next two years.

Speaking at the Sanford Bernstein investor conference in New York, Stephenson said “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.”

Stephenson’s prediction hinges upon cell carriers deciding that audio calls are simply another form of data transfer, a la Google Voice or Skype services; the problem with this idea is that audio calls and texting still provide phone companies with the bulk of their revenue, with data revenue coming in at a significantly lower level. Additionally, phone companies currently charge to connect calls to numbers in their control, which could provide an additional cost beyond data usage for any carrier that makes the change.

Before AT&T makes the kind of pricing switch that Stephenson predicts, it’ll experiment with other options, including allowing customers to “share” data plans across multiple devices including tablets and smartphones (The Wall Street Journal quotes AT&T’s Ralph De La Vega as saying that plan, along with others, is close to being introduced to the market). According to the AT&T boss, increasing the number and type of devices data plans support will be “a lift, not a deterioration” to current data usage.

Intriguingly, the company is also floating the idea of allowing websites or video providers pay for data used in accessing them, in exchange for a financial transaction between the site and the user, with customers’ data allowance from their carrier untouched no matter what. “It’s not us going out and mandating this. The content guys are coming in asking for it,” Stephenson explained, adding that he’s unsure whether or not AT&T will be the first to offer such an agreement, or even offer the service at all. “If you don’t allow those kinds of models to flourish, you’re going to inhibit the potential of these services,” he said.

The future of cell plans looks set to be very different from the one we currently have. If this means that I’ll be able to make a call without a 50 percent chance of it being dropped, that’s all I really need to know.

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