Remember the $19.99/month unlimited MediaNet data add-on for AT&T's GoPhone Pay as You Go (PYG) plans that the carrier launched in April? Well, it looks like the party is almost over. Phonenews.com has confirmed that the widely rumored demise of the plan is true. November 11th or 12th is the last day that you will be able to purchase the feature. You can currently stack up to three $19.99 packages for 90 days of service. Assuming that that Nov 11 is the last day to buy the feature and that AT&T doesn't change the rules, it should be possible to keep the service active to Feb. 9th, 2009.
Why is AT&T doing this? No one really knows for sure, but I lay the blame to the myth of "unlimited" wireless data. Bandwidth on mobile networks is actually quite limited. I believe that AT&T determined data availability on the network was being compromised because too many people were using the package for tethering and with data cards. Those uses are prohibited by the MediaNet TOS but the restriction is unenforceable given the anonymous nature of US prepaid and GSM's easy swapping of SIM cards. Sure the carrier could revoke a user's data privileges for tethering, but there is nothing to stop the user from buying a new SIM on eBay and starting all over. The option probably cut into AT&T's sales of $60/month for 5GB data card plans, too.
If you look around the world, very few carriers offer unlimited data to prepaid users. What they do offer and what is lacking in the US market are affordable megabyte data bundles. Italy's WIND for example, has packages ranging from 244MB for €3.00 ($4.14) to 4.88GB for €30.00 ($41.40). That's between $0.008 and $.017 per megabyte. In contrast the prices that ATT still offers PYG users are; ad hoc data at $.01 per KB ($10/MB) and 1MB and 5MB feature packs for $5 ($5/MB) and $10 ($2/MB) respectively. These are outrageous rates, between 100 and 1000 times what WIND charges for the same thing.
In the last 5 months I've used about 470MB of data on an N95 on a GoPhone account at a cost of $99.95 ($0.21/MB). This usage represents a couple hours of web surfing a day, almost all of it using Opera Mini which compresses pages to about 20% of normal size, plus a few videos (about an hour's worth of video over the entire 5 month period). I don't own a laptop so I don't tether. Using $10 feature packs this same level of usage would have cost a completely unacceptable $940 ($188/month)!
With the loss of unlimited MediaNet there are no longer any cost-effective prepaid data packages available on any major US GSM network. T-Mobile does give prepaid users free unlimited access to a walled garden on seven sites, but there is no way to get access to the open internet on T-Mobile USA' prepaid plans.
The only GSM alternatives are "hybrid" plans. AT&T's Pick Your Plan hybrid option starts at $29.99/month for 200 minutes plus $19.99/month for unlimited data. If you don't actually use 200 voice minutes a month there's a loophole that lets you get some of the money back after a year. A major drawback of Pick Your Plan for international travelers is that a US credit or debit card or checking account is required. I wonder if AT&T will accept one of these prepaid credit cards that are available at convenience stores? Probably not, but if anyone has done that please let us know in a comment.
T-Mobile's Flex Pay hybrid plan is another posibility at $29.99/month for 300 voice minutes plus $5.99 for proxied data with only ports 80 ( HTTP), 25 (SMTP), 993 (secure IMAP), 110 (POP) and 443 (HTTPS) available through the proxy or $19.99/month for open internet access plus free use of T-Mobile's 8900 WiFi hot spots. No credit card is required for FlexPay, you can visit a T-Mobile store each month and make a cash payment
If you are willing to abandon GSM there are some more affordable options. Verizon will sell you unlimited data for $1/day (charged only on days used) on their Impulse prepaid plan. Verizon can control data usage as, unlike GSM, CDMA doesn't use SIM cards. To change handsets you have to call CS or enter the new device's ESN on a web form. Verizon will not allow you to switch to a datacard or even a smartphone on Impulse. It is at least possible to hack some Verizon phones to allow tethering. This violates the TOS, of course, and could eventually get you device's ESN blacklisted
There's also Sprint's Boost Mobile iDEN prepaid which has a $10.50/unlimited Wireless Web option. The downsides to Boost are the extremely limited iDEN phone selection and a glacially slow 19.2 Kps data rate. All iDEN phones are tetherable out of the box and tethering is apparently allowed by the TOS, but surfing at a fraction of dialup speeds is no fun at all.
I'll probably load up my Go Phone account with three months worth of unlimited data early in November, When that runs out, it's back to Boost.
What I'd really like to see AT&T do is to replace their present overpriced prepaid data plans with something reasonable, say 250MB for $5, 500MB for $10 and 1GB for $20. These rates would be attractive for phone only browsing including streaming media but are signifigantly higher than the data card rate of $60 for 5GB to avoid hurting sales of that plan. I honestly don't expect to see AT&T offering anything like that but it would be the smart thing to do in the long run, getting prepaid users hooked on affordable data for a nice boost in ARPU.