Verizon's new, unified family billing rate could portend shared data plans

Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) simplified its billing procedures for customers on its family plans by combining voice and data charges into a single billing rate, a company spokeswoman confirmed. Although nothing will change in terms of Verizon's rate plans, the billing change could be a precursor to family or shared data plans.

Starting Monday, Verizon adopted what is known as "account level pricing" for those on its Family SharePlan accounts. The changes went into effect nationwide, Verizon spokeswoman Brenda Raney confirmed to FierceWireless. Essentially, rather than seeing their voice and data charges as line-by-line items, family plan subscribers will see the charges as one single billing rate. Customers can still opt to see the charges broken out. Raney said the changes are "in response to customer requests for an easier to understand bill."

Raney declined to comment on what the billing changes mean for future Verizon plans. Verizon Communications CFO Fran Shammo said in May that the company envisions eventually moving to a pricing model where customers share a bucket of data depending upon how many devices are in their family. In July, Verizon switched to a usage-based data pricing model for new smartphone customers.

"It might not be completely related, but I absolutely do believe that we're going to see data being charged in a general pool," said Current Analysis analyst Weston Henderek. "I definitely think that that's the next logical step from a data plan perspective, with a focus on family plans."

Overall, Henderek said, carriers are looking for ways to make data services the central billed item for subscribers, and eventually voice and messaging will just become data applications. The transition to shared data plans is part of that evolution, he said.

AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) President and CEO Ralph de la Vega said in July that the carrier is seriously considering a move to shared family data plans, though he declined to give a timetable for doing so. Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) CEO Dan Hesse has also indicated in the past that Sprint is thinking about shared data plans. 

Research firm Strategy Analytics released a report last week on multi-device data plans, noting that Rogers Wireless and Bell Mobility in Canada, Telefónica Movistar in Spain and Orange Mobistar and Proximus in Belgium have launched multi-device plans. The research firm's survey found that 60 percent of smartphone owners want a single, shared data plan to connect multiple devices.

For more:
- see this Gotta Be Mobile post
- see this release

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