Verizon and AT&T: No Limits?

In what may go down as the wireless equivalent of the "shot heard round the world," Verizon Wireless -- a joint venture of Verizon Communications (NYSE: VZ  ) and Vodafone (NYSE: VOD  ) -- today announced that it is offering a new set of plans that allow unlimited talk, messaging, and wireless data usage for wireless phones. It also revamped its broadband data offerings, offering a lower price for customers making wireless use of laptops and PDAs.

Verizon unveiled an unlimited talk plan for phones, starting at $99.99 per month, which includes roaming and long distance in the base price. Another $20 per month gets you unlimited messaging on a select plan, while paying $139.99 a month gets mobile email, television and navigation services as well. In addition, Verizon's broadband wireless plans are now split into two offerings -- a $39.99 rate gets 50 megabytes of monthly usage, while a $59.99 plan allows five gigabytes of data.

Just as when AT&T (NYSE: T  ) eliminated roaming and long-distance charges with its groundbreaking One-Rate wireless plans nearly a decade ago, Verizon's new nationwide offerings are expected to force all other carriers to step up with their own unlimited plans. And AT&T didn't waste time stepping up, essentially matching Verizon's new rates with unlimited plans of its own.

Verizon and AT&T aren't the first to venture into the land of unlimited talk, however; Sprint Nextel (NYSE: S  ) and several smaller carriers have already dipped their toes into unlimited waters or flat-out rely on them for customer acquisition. For instance, Leap Wireless (Nasdaq: LEAP  ) and virtual operator Helio -- which is a joint venture between Korea's SK Telecom (NYSE: SKM  ) and EarthLink (Nasdaq: ELNK  ) -- have long offered such deals. But most were either priced higher, only offered on a regional basis, or included other limitations not seen in Verizon's new offer.

So now that the two largest service providers in the U.S. have offered unlimited talk on a national basis, the wireless industry will move into a new phase. Almost a year ago I wrote, "the question is not whether unlimited plans will be offered on a wide scale, it's when," and "unlimited plans are the next logical step for consumer wireless services." With today's news, that time has come, and I expect all other carriers to respond in kind.

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