Telco shared data plans

Sharing data could mean big savings for you and your family
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  • Updated:8 Aug 2013

01 .Data pooling


New mobile plans that allow households to share a single pool of data across multiple devices were recently rolled out by two of the biggest US telecommunications providers, Verizon and AT&T

As it stands, Australian telcos require separate data plans for each consumer mobile or 3G device, each of which has its own data limits.

One Aussie telco comparison website, WhistleOut, has estimated that by combining devices into a single contract with a shared data allowance, some local consumers could save hundreds of dollars over the life of their contract.

According to WhistleOut’s analysis, a couple with two new high-end smartphones on contract and one iPad Mini could save more than $1600 over 24 months on a US-style shared plan, compared with the equivalent individual unlimited talk and 3GB data plans and a 1GB data pack offered by Optus and Telstra. 

It’s an eye-opener for Aussie consumers, as the cost of smartphone contracts in Australia and those from the big US carriers is comparable. 

What Aussie telcos say

CHOICE asked the four major mobile phone providers in Australia – Telstra, Optus, Vodafone, and Virgin – whether shared plans for personal use were on the cards for Aussie consumers:

  • A Telstra spokesperson told us the company will be launching new plans allowing customers to share their data across a number of mobile devices. “We believe these plans will be perfect for people who want to streamline and make the most of the data they pay for, without complication,” the spokesperson said.
  • Virgin Mobile’s Melissa Gompes said the company “will not be offering shared plans to Australians in the near future”, but pointed out that Virgin is unique in offering the next best thing on postpaid mobile plans: “the ability to roll over unused call credit to the next month”. 
  • Vodafone Corporate Affairs' Michelle O’Brien said there are no “immediate plans” to offer shared plans to retail customers, and added that Vodafone hasn't “seen demand for this type of product from consumers”. 
  • Optus declined to comment.

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Clearly, the beneficiaries of a shared data plan would be those who regularly exceed their data allowance on a particular device. 

One typical scenario is a smartphone and an iPad, used by people living in the same household, each with 1GB of data per month. If you exceed your smartphone’s data limit on a regular plan, you could be charged as much as 25c per additional megabyte – and that will add up rapidly if you’re a heavy user. 

Assuming you or a family member only use the iPad for only occasional web browsing or emailing outside of the home Wi-Fi range, and have plenty of data to spare when the billing cycle renews, under a shared plan your smartphone would automatically dip into unused data from the iPad - giving you more browsing time on your phone, without any extra charges.

Data share beware

However, a shared data plan might not be worth it if your data needs are modest. 

In the US, Verizon Wireless offers a shared plan with unlimited talk and text and 1GB data from $US50 a month. While this deal is comparable to Aussie prices, Verizon charges an additional monthly premium of $US40 for each smartphone that taps into the data pool, and $US10 for each tablet. These extra costs may negate any shared data savings - but with each new device added, the shared cost of the data pool is reduced and the chances of exceeding your allowance get slimmer. 

So whether or not the calculations work out in your favour depends on how much data you’re using. If you’re a light user, you may find any additional device charges on a shared plan outweigh any potential savings. (Telstra declined to comment on whether shared plans would include device charges.) 

A competitively priced prepaid or postpaid mobile service, such as Amaysim, offers unlimited talk and text plans including 4GB of data for $39.90 a month, and you can get a prepaid 1GB data pack for $9.90 per month. At these rates, light users may find it costs less to maintain separate accounts and increase your data cap if you run close to your data allowance each month. 

When launching the revised Telecommunications Consumer Protections Code last year, the Australian Communications and Media Authority drew attention to the widespread issues around "bill shock": unexpectedly high bills, confusing mobile plans, and poor complaints handling procedures. To combat this, advertising of standard unit pricing was made mandatory in the revised code, which also banned misleading use of advertising terms such as “cap” and “unlimited”.

CHOICE verdict

To the extent that telcos comply with it, consumers should be better equipped under the stronger code to choose the right data plan based on their expected level of usage, and actively manage and monitor that usage. 

A shared plan would likely give heavy-use households even more wiggle room when it comes avoiding extra data charges. 

The telecommunications landscape has, in theory, become less treacherous for mobile phone users over the past 18 months or so, with the federal regulator moving towards finding a cure for the long-running bill shock epidemic. 

The Australian Communications and Media Authority’s (ACMA) efforts came to a head in September last year, when it laid down the law in the form of a revised Telecommunications Consumer Protections Code

Among other things, the updated code stipulates that a customer’s mobile data usage should be available in real time, and that automatic management alerts be sent when the user reaches 50%, 85% and 100% of their data usage. 

For more information, read our article on the new telco consumer code.

Code verdict telco_shared_data_infographic_smaller

CHOICE applauds ACMA’s efforts to end bill shock and is looking forward to the next report from the Telecommunications Industry Ombudsman (TIO), which will show whether the changes have made a difference. 

In 2011-12, two-thirds of complaints to the TIO were about mobile phones. Over the same period, 34% of telco postpaid customers suffered a bill shock incident, and a quarter of those were hit with a bill at least $200 higher than expected. 

Australian telco analyst Telsyte estimates there are more than 30 million data-enabled devices active in Australia, and that telcos now make more money from mobile data and messaging than voice calls. 

Worryingly, all the telcos we spoke to except Telstra had a significant increase when it comes to overall TIO complaints as of the latest report.

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