AT&T updates unlimited plans, top tier sports 5G-ready data cap

AT&T announced updated unlimited wireless plans, the most expensive of which features a 100 GB data cap before throttling and free HBO, with plans to offer its HBO Max service once it launches next year.

AT&T’s entry-level Unlimited Starter and mid-tier Unlimited Extra are available starting November 3, while premium-tier Unlimited Elite will roll out “in the coming weeks,” the carrier said.

The new plans:

  • Unlimited Starter is $65 per month for a single line or as low as $35 per month per line for four lines
  • Unlimited Extra costs $75 per month for one line or as low as $40 per month per line for four lines, plus 15 GB of mobile hotspot data per line. Data is capped at 50GB before throttling when there’s no congestion.
  • Unlimited Elite costs as low as $50 per month per line for four lines ($85/month single line) and includes 30GB of mobile hotspot data per line, HD streaming and HBO. When HBO Max debuts in May 2020, subscribers will get access to the $14.99 per month streaming service at no extra charge. The data cap on this plan is 100GB before consumers are throttled.

AT&T’s current entry-level Unlimited & More plan tops out at 22GB before throttling. Bill Ho, principal analyst at 556 Ventures, said the 100GB threshold on the Elite plan is interesting because not only does it work for power users now, but it could be ready to support 5G users if consumption demands change, without hurting the experience.

He acknowledged we don’t yet know what 5G will bring in terms of actual data usage outside of early models from Sprint and operators in Korea, but noted that implementing a high data cap could help ensure the 5G experience isn’t ruined for high-value customers when initial users come online.

“If they’re early 5G users, they won’t bump into anything from an algorithm standpoint to worsen the experience if you’re on 5G,” he said.

It should be a similar approach at other carriers like Verizon because 5G customers are typically early adopters that will likely pay more, Ho indicated. So, carriers don’t want to lose them, and being throttled early on in 5G could leave a particularly bad taste in those subscribers mouths.

AT&T has only launched 5G using millimeter wave spectrum in limited parts of select cities and hasn’t opened up 5G service to consumers yet.

The carrier has pledged to deliver nationwide 5G coverage by the first half of 2020. Ho said he expects 5G service will be opened up to consumers once dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) comes into play, enabling carriers to have nationwide coverage based on their LTE footprint, and when capable handsets hit the market.

Driving HBO as content platform

Another point worth mentioning about the refreshed wireless plans is that AT&T won’t be offering its Watch TV live TV streaming service, which came free with the current unlimited plans, as did the option for HBO on the premium tier. 

The entry-level Unlimited & More plan will no longer be available starting Nov. 3, but the Unlimited & More Premium option will be - though current subscribers to that plan will no longer get free Watch TV, according to an AT&T spokesperson.

“HBO is now our streaming option as part of AT&T Unlimited Elite,” the spokesperson said via email.

Removing Watch TV from the new plans is consistent with executive comments on AT&T’s recent earnings call that its forthcoming HBO Max platform will be the workhorse driving video consumption and distribution of HBO among the carrier’s consumer base, Ho noted.

AT&T currently has a variety of content platforms, and Ho said the new plans are a move to make HBO its main offering for content as the carrier works to get to a more singular platform.

They also come after rival Verizon revamped its own unlimited data plans earlier this year, with lower entry-level prices and the added perk of a free year of the new Disney+ streaming service.

RELATED: Unlimited plan price cuts help boost Verizon’s Q3 wireless subscribers

AT&T’s new price points are competitive against Verizon, Ho said, and pit the content library of HBO Max in the future against Disney+, though consumers could also just opt to pay $7 per month for a standalone Disney+ subscription.

T-Mobile first started offering free Netflix as a perk to certain unlimited plan subscribers in 2017. When asked if T-Mobile’s Netflix offer still stacks up against Disney+ or HBO Max, Ho said what holds value really depends on the customer base. Whereas Netflix “is all things to all people,” Disney+ content, which also features certain Marvel and Star Wars movies alongside classic family films, is more pointed.

Whether subscribers would actually make a switch to a new carrier for a free streaming subscription is another matter.

It gets more interesting in terms of differentiation for AT&T down the line, he indicated, as the carrier works to monetize the massive trove of content it acquired through its Time Warner purchase, with movies or TV content that’s exclusive to HBO Max.