At first glance, it would be easy for a hardcore smartphone junkie to dismiss Wal-Mart's announcement Monday
of its Family Mobile service.
While the basic communication price is attractive enough, ($45 a month, no contract, for unlimited talk and text versus $90 at ATT and Verizon), Wal-Mart's data rates are a whopping $40 for 1 gigabyte. Verizon offers an unlimited data plan for $30, while AT&T offers two tiers— $15 for 200mb a month or $25 for 2gb. Seems pretty clear that this new service is aimed at dumbphone/feature phone using families and not your typical data and latte slurping road warrior, right?
Yes and no.
The kicker that makes Wal-Mart's offer compelling is that it's a prepaid block of data that carries over, month to month. No recurring charges and no paying for data you haven't used.
It could be argued that 1 gigabyte of data is nothing. But if AT&T's analysis
is correct, 65 percent of its smartphone user base uses less than 200mb of data on average. Heck, look at the results of both Verizon's and AT&T's online data usage calculators if your phone gets 50 emails a day and you check out 50 websites a day:
Both show usage of .29 gigabytes a month. At that rate, Wal-Mart's gigabyte of data would last three months. That $40 isn't looking too shabby after all. Even if your data use is greater than that, judicious use of free Wi-Fi hotspots and careful management of when cellular data is in play should still allow you to net some savings in the long run.
Of course, it's not that simple.
Wal-Mart's service is through T-Mobile, whose coverage isn't as extensive as the big two.
Hardware-wise, the plan only has a small selection of non-subsidized phones that start at $35 and the only smartphone on offer is the Motorola Cliq XT, which won't even be running the latest version of Android. Phone geeks could easily find ways around that, (unlocked Google Nexus-One phone and a sim card out of one of the offered phones could be really interesting) but undoubtedly few will try this.
No doubt the talk/text part of the plan will be very popular. But if the pre-paid data blocks gain real traction, we are happily witnessing the future of cellular retailing.