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Devices/smartphones

AT&T Gets 81% of Subs Off Unlimited Data

AT&T's recent changes in its pricing and subsidy models are paying off; more than 1 million of its customers have moved from unlimited data plans to tiered Mobile Share options.

As of the first quarter, 81% of AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) customers were on a tiered data plan -- a 6% bump from the fourth quarter of last year. That's 42.9 million customers who are signed up for usage-based data plans, versus 33.5 million a year earlier. This is a big deal for the carrier as it looks to reduce the number of data hogs on its network.

Despite what CFO John Stephens called a "noisy competitive environment," AT&T managed to add more than 650,000 postpaid customers in the quarter. That net growth -- the strongest first-quarter growth in five years -- was due in large part to the success of both Mobile Share and Next, a plan the company ironically introduced as competitive response to T-Mobile US Inc. (See AT&T Adds 625K Postpaid Subs in Q1.)

Next is the carrier's no-subsidy plan, in which customers pay up front for their handset and can upgrade every year instead of waiting two. More than 40% of its smartphone gross adds and upgrades (at 2.9 million this quarter) were to a Next plans, causing a shift in revenue from services to equipment. Stephens said Next is also driving upgrades to LTE devices. More than 57% of the smartphones on its network are now 4G capable. (See AT&T's Next to Shorten Wait for Device Upgrades.)

"We've seen a dramatic change in purchasing activity," he said on the call. Even so, AT&T has no plans to do away with its subsidy plans, at least as long as there are a "significant number of customers who prefer it."

The CFO said it's too early to have a lot of Next customers trading in handsets yet, but he expects the carrier to use those phones that are exchanged in insurance fulfillment, for the prepaid market, or on the wholesale market, which is what it primarily did with trade-ins last years.

Customer migration to its data bucket Mobile Share plans was also "incredible," Stephens said on the call. The carrier offers Next customers discounted Mobile Share pricing, and he said that 46% of accounts are subscribing to at least the 10GB data option. Mobile Share's overall penetration is 46%, versus 20% in the fourth quarter, with accounts now totaling 11.3 million. (See AT&T Joins Verizon in the Shared Data Pool.)

The carrier also said that it plans to relaunch the Cricket brand, now fully under its ownership, in an aggressive way at the end of the second quarter. (See AT&T Plans a Prepaid Cricket Attack.)

— Sarah Reedy, Senior Editor, Light Reading

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