Why (Unfair, Expensive) Shared Data Plans Just Became the Inevitable Future

You'll be forgiven for not paying too much attention to IFA, a giant tech conference taking place this week in Berlin. There have been some fine spectacles so far—84-inch, 4k TV anyone?—but for the most part, you're not missing much.

Except, maybe, for the exact moment that data plans started down an irreversible path towards the crippling, no-good, greed-driven shared data plans you've tried so hard to avoid.

It's easy to forget that we're still in the very early stages of data plans even being a thing, because mobile data's only something we've been mass-consuming for the last five or six years. But even in that short time, its evolution has been swift and painful. It was bad enough when unlimited plans gave way to tiered data in 2010 once we gobbled up too much of it. Then Verizon raised the spectre of mandatory shared data plans, which seem harmless enough until you realize that in the wrong hands, they can reach Human Centipede depths of remorselessness.

At least, though, those shared plans were also like Human Centipede in that you could for the most part safely ignore them. You could hold off on upgrading to LTE to keep from losing your unlimited privileges, or you could get your MiFi data through a different carrier from your smartphone. All it took was some gentle gamesmanship, and you were safe from redundant device charges and unkind data caps.

That was before today. That was before the 4G Samsung Galaxy Camera lit up the future like a million burning unlimited plan contracts.

The Samsung Galaxy Camera runs Android Jelly Bean and shoots 1080p video, but the only spec you need to know is that it comes in both 3G and 4G models. There's no official word yet on who its carrier partners are, but it's safe to assume it won't come free; unlike Amazon's 3G Kindle offerings (where unlimited data forever is wrapped up in the price), the Galaxy Camera has full access to a robust browser and apps and all the data-slurping corners of the internet your phone does. The only data a Kindle uses comes from the occasional book download or, god forbid, using the dopey experimental browser. At the very least, the Galaxy Camera will be pushing gigantic image and video files to your social networks. It is a camera that will require a data plan.

Why (Unfair, Expensive) Shared Data Plans Just Became the Inevitable Future

Will you buy it? Almost certainly not, unless you're the most self-destructive breed of early adopter. But whether you buy this particular camera doesn't matter. The Galaxy Camera has crossed the 4G Rubicon, and there's no going back. So to your list of phone, tablet, MiFi, and gaming device that all need data plans, add camera.

AT&T and Verizon have been chasing this dream since this summer already—Verizon already requires it if you pick up a new device—and Sprint and T-Mobile won't be far behind. 4G cameras are the tipping point, the saturation level at which the number of data-sucking devices we have outnumber our ways to distribute them. After a while, you can't outfox the system anymore. And instead of unlimited or even tiered, you're suddenly looking per-device fees regardless of how much data you actually use, along with harsh overages should you go over your GB allotment.

What's most galling is that shared data plans should be a boon; what's so bad about consolidating your bills? But by billing you every month for each device—regardless of if you even use it—and by using shared data as a way to pry your grandfathered unlimited plan from your iron grip, the carriers are dumping poison into a beautiful lagoon.

The transition will still be gradual; the Galaxy Camera doesn't change that. But what it and the army of copycat devices to follow does is make the switch to shared plans inevitable. It confirms that the future will hold more connected devices, not fewer, and validates the carrier strategy of lumping their usage together while still charging you for every one of them.

That's the biggest news of today. Not a product. A huge pain in the ass.