Sprint, With iPad Mini, iPad 4 on the Way, Intros Tablet Data Plans

Sprint will introduce several new tablet data plans Nov. 11, around the time the carrier begins selling 4G-enabled versions of the Apple iPad Mini and fourth-generation iPad.

Sprint lagged behind AT&T and Verizon Wireless in offering the iPhone, and even after it acquired the iconic device, it was left to make do without the iPad. All that is about to change. Apple shared Oct. 23 that Sprint, along with AT&T and Verizon, will soon begin offering LTE-enabled versions of the fourth-generation iPad and the iPad Mini, both of which will be available "a couple of weeks" after the WiFi-only new iPads' Nov. 2 launch.

Sprint shared Oct. 24 that beginning Nov. 11—possibly offering a hint about the cellular iPads' arrival dates—it will begin offering new tablet rate plans starting as low as $10 a month.

In a statement, Sprint said the plans will offer customers "up to 20 percent more data than Verizon or AT&T for the same price" and require no contract.

For current Sprint smartphone owners, Sprint's extending a special offer of 1GB of data for $15 a month or 100MB of data for $10 a month. For a limited time, it will also waive an activation fee on 3G/4G tablets.

Sprint will also offer four new national plans, all of which run on 4G Long Term Evolution (LTE), where available, and defer to 3G, where necessary. These offer:

  • 300MB of 3G/4G LTE data for $14.99 a month;
  • 3GB of 3G/4G LTE data for $34.99 a month;
  • 6GB of 3G/4G LTE data for $49.99 a month; and
  • 12GB of 3G/4G LTE for $79.99 a month.

Additionally, Sprint offers Mobile Broadband Passes for 3G/4G LTE data. Designed for those who connect their tablets to cellular less regularly, the data use can be charged directly to a credit card. Options are:

  • $14.99 for 300MB of data;
  • $34.99 for 3GB of data;
  • $49.99 for 6GB of data; and
  • $79.99 for 12GB of data.

Over the summer, both Verizon Wireless and AT&T began offering shared-data plans that connect a contract to a bucket of data from which multiple devices can sip. During their respective fiscal 2012 third-quarter earnings calls, executives from both carriers said that uptake for the shared plans had exceeded their expectations.

Verizon Chief Financial Officer Fran Shammo said that Verizon is seeing customers attaching more devices, particularly smartphones, older iPhones and WiFi devices. Tablet attachments, which the carriers have hoped for, were a little lower than expected.

AT&T CEO of Mobility Ralph de la Vega said that while customers were generally deferring to higher data buckets than AT&T anticipated, some customers were experiencing overages, and so AT&T plans to offer more data allotment options, so that customers can "feel comfortable in stepping up [to more data] but not feeling that they're having to pay an exorbitant amount. We want to encourage customers to use more and incur a little more cost, if that's what they want to do."

de la Vega added that he feels "bullish" about what's happening with tablets.

"I mean, it's very obvious to me that this tablet revolution is going to continue. I don't see anything in the horizon that stops it, and I think customers are going to want both, some smartphones and a tablet," he told analysts on the call. "They're going to see their content on the tablet in ways that's going to make them use more and more data. So I think the future of tablet computing is going to be very good for our industry."

Sprint, for the time being, plans to stick with its unlimited plans—an industry rarity that's helping it to attract customers looking for some savings. During Sprint's earnings call, CEO Dan Hesse acknowledged that Sprint may be open to increasing its pricing, but not before it has a vast, rock-solid LTE network in place.

Technology Business Research analyst Eric Costa agrees. Costa’s analysis finds that Sprint's unlimited data plans are "not sustainable long term," he wrote in an Oct. 25 research note. Still, Costa added, "Sprint will continue to offer them until its LTE network has caught up in size to AT&T and Verizon, as the plans provide a key differentiator to help grow [Sprint's] subscriber base."

Pricing for the cellular-equipped iPad Mini will start at $459, while the fourth-generation cellular iPad will start at $629.