Ina Fried

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The Data Plan of the Future is Available Now, at Least in Europe

While carriers in the United States have talked about having one data plan that can be shared among a number of digital devices, one international telecom company is already putting the plan into action.

For a couple of months now, France Telecom’s Orange unit has been allowing iPad owners in Austria to share one allotment of data with a phone, while other shared data plans were recently launched in France, the United Kingdom and Spain.

Although the plans vary somewhat by country, the basic premise is the same. Users pay an extra couple of dollars a month for each additional device that shares data — similar to the way families and businesses here have long been able to share minutes between multiple phones.

“We believe that’s really a way for the future,” said Olaf Swantee, senior executive vice president for France Telecom’s Orange unit.

And while France Telecom appears to be the first major carrier to offer such plans, others are likely to follow suit. At last month’s D9 conference, AT&T executive Ralph de la Vega confirmed that some sort of shared plan is in the works.

“We’re working on one,” de la Vega said in the onstage interview. “It will be soon. I can’t comment on a quarter (when it will launch) but it will be soon.”

An AT&T representative declined to comment further. Verizon CFO Fran Shammo also said recently that company is exploring such an offer.

The move to offer such data plans could become increasingly important as carriers look to shift away from unlimited data plans, in favor of those where customers pay for a certain amount of megabytes or gigabytes. Although the concept is inherently a bit tricky for users to get their heads around, it could ultimately become more palatable if all those bytes could be shared among different devices.

Currently, the need to sign up for an entirely new data plan is acting as a disincentive for many customers to buy additional devices with built-in cellular connections. Instead, users have gravitated toward Wi-Fi equipped devices, in some cases pairing those with a mobile hotspot. Such hotspots connect to the cellular data network and then distribute that connection over Wi-Fi to any number of nearby devices. Using a hotspot, though, requires all devices being used to be nearby one another — and the hotspot is yet another device to carry around and charge.

As for the France Telecom plan, early results are encouraging. In Austria, the country where France Telecom has been offering the plans the longest, the company said that 38 percent of all iPads on its network are now using the shared data plans.

Shared data plans are just one of the moves Orange is making as digital devices and smartphones go mainstream.

Swantee said it is part of an effort to offer a broader array of services to its customers.

“We are talking to customers and not SIM cards,” he said. Over time, Swantee said, the efforts could stretch beyond rate plans and also extend to services that could be used on multiple mobile devices, as well as over landline connections.

“We really believe in the long run you will have people that want to have an experience that works across different devices,” Swantee said.

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Another gadget you don’t really need. Will not work once you get it home. New model out in 4 weeks. Battery life is too short to be of any use.

— From the fact sheet for a fake product entitled Useless Plasticbox 1.2 (an actual empty plastic box) placed in L.A.-area Best Buy stores by an artist called Plastic Jesus