AT&T CEO Randy Stephenson believes that data-only plans will be coming to wireless carriers within the next two years. Stephenson did not confirm that AT&T had any such plans to offer data-only options, but he suggested that the industry is heading that direction. Phone calls and text messages would be considered other forms of data.
"I'll be surprised if, in the next 24 months, we don't see people in the market place with data-only plans," said Stephenson at a Sanford Bernstein investor conference in New York. "I just think that's inevitable."
Consumers are increasingly using their smartphones for other activities besides making phone calls. And even for phone calls, some prefer to use Internet phone and text messaging services through web-based providers such as Skype. AT&T has actually recorded a decrease in the average monthly minutes used by subscribers.
But perhaps closer in the horizon are shared family data plans, which AT&T is expected to launch sometime this year. Whereas current data plans are tied to each device, a shared data plan would allow users to pool their data on multiple devices. Not only are more people transitioning to smartphones and needing data plans, but more people also now possess more than one device that may need data.
Another potential direction for data plans is for app developers or other service providers to share in the cost of data used by its customers. It would function like toll-free 800 numbers, where the business picks up the tab on the users' data. This would help bandwidth-intensive services to encourage consumers to use their services.