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Getting Around AT&T’s Tiered Smartphone Data Plans

March 4, 2012 in Featured, Other

You’ve probably heard that AT&T’s $30 unlimited* data plans have been dead and gone since the middle of last year, replaced with a couple of tiered plans (with some hefty overage fees, I might add). But you might not be familiar with a cheaper, lesser-known data plan that gives you unlimited data for your smartphone…with some caveats. (and the first caveat is that it doesn’t work with iPhones)

First, a slight aside: while this post is about gaming the unlimited data plan, you’ll probably save more money by entering a FAN (foundation account number). Essentially, it means you’re getting a respectable group discount (mine is 20%, but I’ve heard of postal service employees getting 30%) on your main plan. Best of all, there’s a good chance you’re already part of some group – whether it’s your employer, school, AARP, or whatnot. See my post on saving money, or at least the section on Saving Money on Your Monthly Bills.

…and now, back to the original subject.

Here’s a summary of AT&T’s data plans (updated 3/4/12, a couple of days after AT&T “clarified” their throttling policy):

300MB Smartphone Data: $20, $20 for every 300MB after
3GB Smartphone Data: $30, $10 for every 1GB after
5GB Smartphone Data 4G LTE: $50, $10 for every 1GB after
Unlimited Data for Non-Smartphones: $15

So the first three are your typical baller data plans where, at the cheapest, you get a whopping 300 megs for 20 bucks a month. And if you go over your 300MB, you get dinged with another $20. But there is hope. And that is the unlimited plan for non-smartphones (aka dumbphones), which just happens to be only $15.

Non-smartphones are supposed to be any phone that doesn’t have some kind of actual OS (versus, say, firmware). But on AT&T, a non-smartphone is any phone that is not tagged in the system as a smartphone OR is not sold by AT&T. That means if you can find a smartphone on a provider that uses the same frequency bands (basically, specific parts of the radio spectrum where data is transmitted) as AT&T, you can have your cake and eat it too: getting unlimited 3G/4G data while paying the $15 non-smartphone fee. Note: this method does not work on iPhones, and in some rare cases, specific smartphones that use similar IMEIs (that really long number that identifies your phone) across different carriers.

The hardest part in executing this strategy is finding phones that use the same 3G/4G frequencies, which are 850 and 1900 mhz. Luckily, there are two providers in Canada that use 850/1900 and thus make our job easier: Bell Canada and Rogers. So you can buy pretty much any smartphone phone on either carrier, or any phone that has AT&T’s 3G/4G bands but isn’t AT&T branded (ie, many Nokia smartphones).

Once you acquire a phone (and possibly unlock it), all you need to do is pop in your AT&T sim card and you’re golden.

So why would you want to go this route? A couple of reasons:

  • You want an unlimited data plan (no overage fees but possible throttling).
  • You want to save money ($15 for the non-smartphone plan vs. $20 for 300MB or $30 for 3GB).
  • You want a different phone that you can’t normally get on AT&T.
  • You want to stay off-contract. Since you’re procuring the phone yourself, this doesn’t affect your contract in the slightest.

And of course, there are a couple of caveats:

  • If you use less than 300 megabytes of data per month, this is probably not financially worth it (since you can opt for the $20 data plan, you’d be saving only $5 per month), unless the phone you buy is SUPER cheap.
  • If you go the traditional route and get a new contract/upgrade your phone, you will pay less up front than doing the non-smartphone strategy. Unlocked smartphones can be up to 500 bucks (in some cases, even more).
  • You lose the ability to take your phone into an AT&T store and get it replaced instantly.
  • Most likely, you’ll need to get your Canadian smartphones from eBay.

This strategy really shines if you’re trying to maximize your wireless plan savings, and are willing to use an old Bell/Rogers beater smartphone. In this situation, if you snag a cheap beater smartphone from eBay, you could be killin’. That translates into saving $15 bucks per month for however long you stay on the non-smartphone plan. From a different perspective, that’s a savings of $360 in two years where you’d normally have paid $720 for 3GB data. Nasty.


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6:45 pm

I got away from AT&T and their ridiculous plans. I got my iPhone unlocked and then followed the tutorial here https://sites.google.com/site/cheapsmartphone/ to switch to a Tmobile prepaid plan. I had to buy a SIM cutter to resize my SIM card but, I went from paying $100 a month on AT&T to $30 a month on T-mobile with no contract.


hugh dun-goophed
3:41 pm

Don’t tell us which phones are appropriate, thanks! Makes this article useless.


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