The premise of AT&T's new wireless data plans is simple. They've gone to the same pricing model for data that they've always had for voice. Just like paying $40 for 450 minutes of talk time or $60 for 900 minutes, you pay $15 for 200 megabytes, or $25 for 2 gigabytes of data. You're buying a set amount of data for a fixed price, so you pay per byte, just like you pay per minute. Same deal. It breaks down like this:
AT&T is the only major carrier in the US to offer rollover minutes as a standard perk. Any minutes you don't use "roll over," banking them to use later, like on a rainy day when you're really bored and just want to sit on the phone for hours. You pay for 1400 minutes a month, but only talk for 950. Those leftover 450 minutes are added to your general pool of minutes, so you'd have 1850 to use the following month. The net effect is that you're legitimately buying the minutes, in the same way you purchase a 12-pack of soda for $5.
If AT&T is going to count bytes like minutes, you should get rollover bytes. If you pay for 2 gigs of data, you should get 2 gigs of data. If you only use 500 megabytes that month, the leftover 1.5GB should rollover to the next month. Particularly since there's no middle ground between the two new plans—there's a massive gulf, 1000 percent wide, between 200MB and 2GB. So a lot of iPhone users are stuck, since they use somewhere between 200MB and 2GB of data—not skimpy enough to grab the cheaper $15-a-month plan, but not anything approaching 2GB. (A $20 500MB plan would be dead on for most iPhone owners, I think—which is probably why it doesn't exist.)
Rollover data would make AT&T's argument that the new plans are about value—not simply strangling the most hardcore data users taxing the network—way more convincing, since it would make the plans address the issue of network capacity in a tangible way.
Unfortunately, it's highly unlikely that AT&T is particularly interested in fairness, or at least in the idea of you actually using all the data you pay for. AT&T senior VP of data and voice products Mark Collins' response about why they're charging $20 extra for the privilege of tethering says it all:
That capability is enabling something you can't do today. You can use one device and get multiple connections so it's more useful to you. You're going to use more data so the price is based on the value that will be delivered. [emphasis mine]
That doesn't make any sense at face value, because you're paying for every byte of data you consume, and the tethering fee doesn't give include additional data—it comes out of the 2GB you're already paying for. The subtext is that AT&T doesn't actually expect most people to use that 2GB, and in fact, they don't want you to—which is they make it more expensive to make it easier to use.
Look, I'll pay per byte. Just give me all the bytes I pay for.
Hat tip to Giz reader Ryan Henson for throwing this suggestion our way