Will iPad users get by on AT&T’s 250-megabyte data plan?

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Demand for the iPad outweighs the iPhone’s pre-launch demand, according to an RBC/ChangeWave report. But for the Apple faithful hellbent on buying the latest iProduct, there are several options to consider with the upcoming iPad.

First, decide how much storage space you’ll need -- 16 gigabytes, 32 gigabytes or 64 gigs. You can have about 20 hours of video with 16 gigs while 64 gigs can hold about 80 hours of video.


Now, can you survive just on Wi-Fi connectivity, or will you need to get the 3G-enabled hardware? If the latter, prepare to wait until April, while your friends make you jealous with their Wi-Fi iPads that debut at the end of March.

Finally (and this might be the toughest part), you’re tasked with guessing how much wireless data you’ll consume. For $14.99 a month, AT&T gives you 250 megabytes of monthly data. For $29.99, data is unlimited. There are no contracts, so you can switch plans.

How much is 250 megabytes really? We can benchmark in songs, as Apple has done with the iPod for years. It’s about 40 track downloads.

But we don’t plan to just download songs. IPad users will be surfing the Web, watching YouTube videos, sending tweets, downloading e-mail, flipping through photo albums and pulling down new apps. A high-quality music video on YouTube can eat up 20 megabytes easily. Loading the homepage can gobble a couple of megs.

With an iPad data plan, AT&T includes free access to its Wi-Fi hotspots, which includes Starbucks. That offloads some of the burden on AT&T’s 3G network and on your meter. Apple Chief Executive Steve Jobs is confident that these are ‘awesome plans’ and a ‘breakthrough deal,’ as he said onstage during the product’s unveiling in January.

‘That’s a fair bit of data,’ Jobs said of the 250-megabyte plan. ‘Most people will get by on that.’

Will they?

The closest benchmark to iPad usage would probably be the iPhone. AT&T only offers unlimited data plans for iPhone subscribers. The company doesn’t disclose details about customer data usage.

But some analysts have pinned estimates. Nielsen Co. pegs average usage of the iPhone 3GS at 287 megabytes of data per month and iPhone 3G at 273 megabytes. The numbers come from the third quarter of 2009 and are based on information taken from survey participants’ cellphone bills. Similarly, Consumer Reports pegs the iPhone average at 273 megs.

All of the numbers exceed the allotment of AT&T’s 250-megabyte plan. Perhaps Apple believes that iPad users will spend more time passively consuming books rather than actively tapping into the Internet. But our hunch is that the larger form factor will be a boon to video consumption. And video can eat up a lot of data.

Spokeswomen for both AT&T and Apple say they don’t have details on how much subscribers to the 250-meg plan will pay if they go over. We assume it will either be a metered charge per megabyte -- one comparable AT&T laptop plan charges 10 cents per meg -- or an automatic rollover to the unlimited plan.

-- Mark Milian