The odds-on favorite for this week's Big News in Technology was expected to emerge from San Francisco, site of Apple's annual Worldwide Developers Conference. Although Apple could surely turn more heads over the next two days, a longshot has taken the lead: Verizon's new scheme for putting a price tag on wireless data.
Consider the big picture, and you'll see how these stories are linked.
On the Left Coast, Apple is busily trying to hook you on the latest in mobile technology. For instance, it announced plans to include cell-network access to FaceTime — its sleek app for Internet video calling — when its new iOS 6 operating system arrives this fall. If it also arrives this fall, the iPhone 5 will likely include an upgraded user-facing camera, perhaps even HD-quality.
And on the Right Coast? There, Verizon has been eyeing the vast and growing wave of wireless data that Apple and its high-tech counterparts are propelling, and trying to ensure one thing: that its meter is running whenever and however you connect to its network.
Verizon calls its new pricing scheme the "Share Everything Plans." Even if it might benefit some customers, the carrier's new approach — a total reboot of the complex mix of "national," "family" and other plans that Verizon and its competitors have adopted over the years — has quickly proved controversial.
CNET's Roger Cheng called it "a raw deal for a lot of people." Others labeled it "botched," "radical," and "a ripoff."
Mary Schwab, of Robbinsville, N.J., is one of the skeptics among Verizon's 93 million customers. A pharmaceutical marketing consultant, she loves her Apple iPhone but has been burned by Verizon's bills.
Years ago it was when her son discovered texting — "we couldn't possibly imagine that a child could send more than 1,000 texts," she says. More recently it was three long conference calls that cost her about $700 in overage charges.
Schwab's family now has four smartphones and a $330 monthly tab — far too much already, she says. She worries that Verizon's new plan could boost her bill, either now or later on. "I'm having a hard time putting a context to our data usage, and forecasting future data usage," she says.
That's a common reaction to Verizon's new Share Everything Plans, which will be new customers' only options come June 28. With one exception — a basic plan without texting or data for non-smartphone owners — every version includes unlimited calling and texting. But data will come at a new and often-higher price.
Under Share Everything, a family with at least one smartphone will pay line fees plus a shared charge for data: $50 a month for 1 gigabyte of data a month, the minimum Verizon will offer, or $60 for 2 gigs. Above that, each additional 2 gigs will cost $10 a month. Four will cost $70, 6 will cost $80, and so on. Customers who blow past their plan limit will face overage charges of $15 per gigabyte.
Of course, the real key to the Share Everything concept is the integration of other mobile devices, such as tablets and netbooks. Verizon says up to 10 devices can share. It will charge $40 for each smartphone on the account, $10 per tablet, and $20 per netbook or similar device.
Plainly, some customers will be helped by the new scheme and others hurt. Among the losers: Verizon's remaining unlimited-data customers, including those who signed up when Verizon became the second carrier to offer the iPhone. Verizon says all its previous plans will be grandfathered in, with one exception: If you want to keep unlimited data, you won't be eligible for a subsidized price when the time comes to replace your smartphone. A new iPhone 5 could cost $600.
Would a family like Schwab's pay more under Share Everything? Perhaps not — at least for now. But Verizon's latest effort to clear its books of its unlimited-data customers is more evidence of what's really at stake.
Validas, a Houston company that analyzes wireless bills, says Verizon's smartphone owners used an average of 436 megabytes of data per month in 2011. If the Schwabs are in that range, their four smartphones plus 2 gigabytes of shared data would cost $210. Even if taxes and surcharges push that to $250, it's probably a bargain.
But that's not the end of the calculation, says Validas' Dylan Breslin-Barnhart.
Remember FaceTime, the Apple video-calling app? A recent analysis estimated that it eats up about 3 megabytes of data per minute.
Breslin-Barnhart says the average Verizon customer makes nearly 900 minutes of calls a month. If that user makes a third of those calls through FaceTime, it could add 900 megabytes to the tab.
FaceTime isn't Apple's only promised innovation with iOS 6. The new operating system will include Apple's own new mapping system, supplanting Google maps on the iPhone, including turn-by-turn voice directions. Facebook will finally be integrated into the iPhone. And other new features will add to data use.
Breslin-Barnhart suggests that Verizon's new pricing will steer people to higher-limit plans to avoid overages. "By the time you're at 4 gigs for $70 a month, it's easy to think, 'Why not go to 10 gigs for $30 more a month?'"
But the real possibilities for Verizon — and AT&T if, as expected, it follows a similar path — lie in the future. So do the perils for consumers.
Verizon's new plan includes the option of using your smartphone as a mobile hot spot, to deliver data to a WiFi tablet or laptop. That's a great feature, but it could get expensive for anyone tempted, say, to watch a high-definition movie on the iPad 3's impressive "Retina display."
Netflix, for example, says its HD video can eat up 2.3 gigabytes an hour. Watch one of those a week, and you'll need to spend an extra $50 for 10 gigabytes more in your plan — or face almost $150 in overage charges.
Is there an alternative? Sprint, alone among the major carriers, still offers unlimited-data plans. Two prepaid carriers, Virgin Mobile and Cricket, have announced similar deals.
Sprint spokesman Scott Sloat likens a smartphone to a Swiss Army Knife loaded with all sorts of tools. With 600,000 apps in Apple's store, it's a good metaphor but a vast understatement.
Smartphone users such as the Schwabs are mostly eager to explore the possibilities of these amazing devices.
Verizon deserves credit for adding a little extra transparency to data pricing. But it mostly just seems eager to cash in.