When it comes to cellphone-service plans, everything old is new again. Specifically, we’re talking about the return of unlimited-data plans.
During the dawn of the smartphone age, cellphone-service providers, or carriers, dangled plans that provided unlimited amounts of data in front of consumers to get them to spring for pricey new smartphones. Consumers responded in droves and overloaded cellular networks, which forced carriers to back away from unlimited-data plans in favor of pay-per-gigabyte plans.
Now, unlimited data is back, or so the major national carriers would like consumers to believe.
All of the so-called Big Four now have unlimited-data plans. Sprint’s Unlimited Freedom plan sets consumers back $50 per month for a single line if they enroll in an automatic-payment program, or $65 if they don’t enroll. AT&T’s unlimited-data plan costs $100 for one line, but it’s available only to subscribers of one of the company’s TV plans, DirecTV or U-verse, which start at $50 per month. T-Mobile introduced its One plan in January 2017. It costs $70 per month for one line if you have auto-pay, or $75 if you don’t, and is notable for its inclusion of taxes and government fees, rather than separating those, as other carriers do.
Beyond the Big Four
Verizon became the latest to rejoin the unlimited-data-plan party in February 2017. Its new plan costs $80 per month for a single line if you use auto-pay or $85 if you don’t.
Unfortunately, “unlimited” doesn’t mean what you believe that it does.
LITTLE SECRETS. That’s right. Carriers offer unlimited-data plans to limit the amount of data that you consume. Here is how they do it:
Limited hotspot capability. Sprint’s unlimited plan caps your 4G data at 10GB if you use your phone as a hotspot to share a cellular internet connection with another device—a process that’s known as tethering. If you exceed that cap, you either can pay $15 for an extra 1GB of 4G data or you can slow to 2G speeds, which allows you to surf the web and send emails but nothing else. T-Mobile’s unlimited-data plan provides 10GB of 4G hotspot use and then unlimited 3G hotspot capability after that—Verizon’s plan is identical. Consumers can stream music at 3G speeds, but they can’t stream video or play online games as reliably at 3G. AT&T’s unlimited plan doesn’t provide hotspot use at all.
Limited 4G data. This is the dirtiest little secret of the unlimited-data plans: You get unlimited data, but it isn’t unlimited 4G data. Every unlimited-data plan that was available as of press time caps the amount of 4G data that you may use before your speed might slow to 2G levels. T-Mobile’s 4G limit is adjusted dynamically every month and affects the top 3 percent of the carrier’s data users—typically those who use 26–28GB of data. AT&T and Verizon begin to throttle back your speed when you pass the 22GB mark, while Sprint puts the clamps on at 23GB of data.
This speed throttling isn’t permanent. It kicks in only during a period of “network congestion,” and you should be able to return to 4G speeds after that period passes. Adrienne Norton, who is a Sprint spokesperson, says that Friday typically is the busiest traffic day of the week, and that 4–9 p.m. is the most likely time of the day to experience congestion on the carrier’s network. Bethany Frey of T-Mobile adds that network congestion can involve so many variables, such as being in a densely populated area or at a crowded event, that it’s difficult to pin down a day or a time when congestion most likely will occur. You can track the amount of data that you use by downloading your carrier’s mobile app, but other than a noticeable difference in your smartphone’s performance, you have no way to discern whether you are in a period of network congestion.