THE NEW MATH. With these limitations, it doesn’t make sense always to spring for an unlimited-data plan, says Roger Entner, who is the founder of research and consulting company Recon Analytics. That’s because—as with T-Mobile before them—AT&T, Sprint and Verizon stopped charging new customers automatically if they use up their monthly data allowance. Instead, Sprint and Verizon (but not AT&T) now provide new customers with a choice: You can pay nothing extra but surf at slow 2G speeds until the next billing cycle (the policy that T-Mobile instituted in mid-2014), or you can pay $15 per gigabyte for an additional 4GB of data. In other words, the traditional overage charge now is optional.
As a result, every data plan essentially now is an unlimited-data plan for new customers. What you pay for now is speed, or, specifically, the amount of 4G-data speed that you want per month.
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With this in mind, the math on unlimited-data plans might not add up if you don’t use more than 20GB of data per month and, particularly, if you have to have at least 10GB of LTE hotspot usage per month. AT&T, for instance, offers a 25GB data plan for $110 per month. That’s $10 more per month than what the carrier’s unlimited plan costs, but this plan doesn’t require a subscription to a TV service, includes 4G tethering and actually provides 3GB more 4G data than does the unlimited-data plan. Plus, if you exceed 25GB, your smartphone performance just slows, as it would in the unlimited-data plan when you hit 22GB, rather than you being charged extra. However, at Sprint, for example, the $50-per-month Unlimited Freedom plan is a better deal than is its $80-per-month 24GB plan as long as you don’t have to have more than 10GB of 4G hotspot access per month, because the unlimited plan caps the feature at 10GB. (T-Mobile will phase out its Simple Choice data plans.)
It also is important to note that not all data use is treated equally. When AT&T customers stream DirecTV content, for instance, it doesn’t count against their data use. Likewise, Verizon customers can stream video from the company’s Go90 service without it counting against their data use. Sprint, however, has no such freebies. Existing T-Mobile customers get a range of data-free streaming options through the company’s Binge On program, although new customers of the unlimited One plan don’t get those options.
AT&T and Verizon also got creative with how consumers manage their data. AT&T introduced in 2017 a feature that’s called Stream Saver. The free service lets you reduce the quality of your video stream to 480p, so you don’t binge-watch away all of your allotted data for the month. You should know that the default setting for Stream Saver is “on,” so if you want to watch high-definition (HD) video, you have to turn off the service. (You can turn it on again online.) According to Entner, only “eagle-eyed” consumers can spot a difference between 480p and HD video on their smartphone screen, although you likely would notice pixilation if you stream to a tablet computer that has a high-resolution screen.
Verizon’s PopData service, which was introduced in fall 2016, lets you purchase 30- or 60-minute “all you can stream” 4G data sessions for $2 and $3, respectively, so you can engage in a data-intensive activity without dipping into your monthly data bucket. If you have, say, a 4GB data plan and are at 3.9GB at the end of the month and want to stream that last episode of your favorite show, it makes more sense to spend $3 for an hour of 4G data instead of the $15 that you’d have to pay to buy an extra gigabyte.
If you want to steer clear of unlimited-data plans, we believe that the best deal among the big four is available from Sprint, which halves the price of a competitor’s monthly rate for customers who switch to Sprint. Sprint’s 50-percent-off plan doesn’t allow you to roll over unused data to the next billing cycle, which is an option for AT&T and Verizon customers, but it allows you to share data among multiple lines, and it supports mobile hotspots at 4G speeds. Sprint offers data packages from 6GB to 50GB, and new customers receive the 50 percent off through Jan. 31, 2018, Norton tells Consumers Digest, regardless of when they sign up. After that, they’ll pay the full amount. (As for consumers who already are Sprint customers, we believe that the best deal as of press time is to remain with Sprint, because its data rates are lower.)
NETWORK NEWS. The big four carriers made significant improvements in their networks in 2016 when they turned on a technology that’s called LTE Advanced (LTE Plus, in Sprint’s parlance), or LTE-A. LTE-A encompasses several distinct technologies that deliver the same thing: faster download speeds for more users at once. Whereas a typical 4G LTE network could deliver download speeds of 5–12 Mbps, LTE-A peak speeds from the major carriers have been measured at 200 Mbps, says Dave Williamson, who is an independent consultant and the former president of research company RootMetrics.