The Return of Unlimited Data Plans

Category: Mobile

Verizon announced the return of “unlimited” data service on February 12, 2017. For the first time in five years, all four major service providers (AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile and Verizon) are offering “unlimited” plans. You'll note I put the word in quotes, so let’s see how they compare, and what limits you may encounter in actual practice...

The Limits of Unlimited

It was just a few years ago that all of the major mobile carriers eliminated unlimited data plans, citing the high costs of offering that service. But now, they're back. Of course, there are a few caveats that apply to any company that offers unlimited access to a finite resource. You've probably already come to the conclusion that there is no TRULY unlimited mobile service plan; hence the quotation marks around the “U-word” above.

All of the carriers slow the traffic of customers who exceed a monthly allotment of 4G/LTE data. But instead of throttling data speeds, we now have “prioritizing during peak congestion.” Throttling limits your data speed for the rest of a billing period once the monthly data allotment is used up.

But prioritizing limits speed only during periods of network congestion; when traffic lightens up, you can still hit full 4G/LTE speed. Also, each carrier limits what you can do with video quality, mobile hotspots, tethering a PC to a phone, international uses, and so on.

Limited Unlimited Mobile Data Plans

Network coverage and quality of service still distinguish one carrier from another. According to a recent study completed by carrier monitoring firm OpenSignal, Verizon and T-mobile are virtually tied for fastest average download speeds, at just under 17 Mbps. But Verizon has a slight edge in national coverage. AT&T (13.9 Mbps) is in second place, and Sprint (9 Mbps) brings up the rear.

Verizon’s new unlimited data plan costs $80 per month for one smartphone line; $140 a month for two lines, $162 a month for three lines, and $180 a month for four lines. Multiple-line plans may include tablets as well as smartphones. These prices assume you sign up for auto-pay; if you don’t, a single line will cost $5 more per month, and multi-line plans cost $10 more monthly. Verizon’s prices do not include taxes and fees, which may add 10-15% to your bill.

Verizon starts prioritizing traffic - that is, slowing data speed - when a given line has used 22 GB in a billing period. Each line gets 10 GB of mobile hotspot (tethering) data per month at LTE speeds; thereafter, speed is throttled to 3G. Video traffic is not capped, and video quality is not altered. In my opinion those are quite generous allotments of data. By comparison, I typically use about 3GB of data monthly.

The T-mobile ALL IN plan costs $70 per month for one line, $120 a month for two lines, $140 a month for three lines, and $160 a month for four lines. Taxes and fees are included in these prices, providing a significant savings over Verizon. If you don’t sign up for auto-pay, each plan costs $5 more per month. Adding a tablet to a plan costs $20 per month, and adding a wearable (such as a smart watch) costs an extra $5 per month.

T-mobile starts prioritizing traffic after a line uses 28 GB in a given month. Mobile hotspots are limited to 10 GB at LTE speeds, throttled to 3G for the rest of a billing period. Video traffic is not capped, and video quality is not altered.

Sprint normally charges $60 a month for one line, $100 a month for two lines, $130 a month for three lines, and $160 a month for four lines. But until March 31, 2018, one line is $50, a second line adds $40, and lines 3 to 5 are free. The most you’ll pay is $90 per month for up to 5 lines (plus taxes and fees). Auto-pay is required. Adding a table to a plan costs $20 per month. Only new customers are eligible for these savings.

Sprint prioritizes traffic after 23 GB per month, and slows it way down to miserable 2G speeds. Full 1080p HD video is supported only if you buy a 5-line plan; otherwise, resolution is a terrible 480p. Sprint also limits music and gaming streams to 1.5 Mbps and 8 Mbps, respectively. Mobile hotspots get 10 GB per month at LTE speed before they are throttled to 2G speeds.

AT&T unlimited service costs $100 for the first line, and $40 more per month for each additional line. If you buy four lines for two consecutive billing periods, AT&T will gradually reimburse the cost of that fourth line to you via account credits. Yeah, AT&T’s billing schemes are the most complicated of all the major carriers. But at least you no longer have to sign up for AT&T U-verse or DirecTV service to get the unlimited pricing.

Taxes and fees are not included in AT&T’s prices. Prioritizing begins after 22 GB in a given month. HD video can be streamed, but it’s turned off by default. To enable it, you must go into Settings and disable AT&T’s Stream Saver. Mobile hotspots are prohibited except in certain smart cars.

If you want one of these "unlimited with limits" plans, you'll probably want to look first at which carrier has the best phone and data signal where you spend most of your time. You can find coverage maps on their websites, but that's typically not a good indicator of signal strength. Better, ask a friend or neighbor which carrier they use, and how many "bars" they get.

Unless you are a Netflix junkie, or have teenagers with smartphones crazy-glued to their hands, 22-28GB of data per line per month will probably be more than enough. Way more than enough. Especially if you connect your mobile gadget to a wifi router when at home.

Are you tempted by any of these new "unlimited" mobile plans? With these generous data allotments, would you consider dropping your ISP's internet service, in favor of going mobile-only? Your thoughts on this topic are welcome. Post your comment or question below...

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Most recent comments on "The Return of Unlimited Data Plans"

Posted by:

21 Feb 2017

It's all about the $$$$$. If they can find a way to suck us into paying more for anything, they will. Put lipstick on a pig and it's still a pig.

Posted by:

john silberman
21 Feb 2017

True unlimited does not even exist for home Internet. In my area I know both COMCAST and AT&T limit home service to 1TB per month before throttling or extra charges.

Posted by:

21 Feb 2017

There are also "unlimited" plans available from other outlets. I have a Family Mobile Plan from Walmart (T-Mobile network) that gives me unlimited data with 5GB for $40. Even viewing a few hour long videos along with about 6 hours of internet radio daily, I have yet to hit the 5GB limit. If I do, it slows down, but I still have data. Not sure how slow it goes to as I have never hit that threshold. Can add a second line for $35.

Posted by:

Cindy s Reynolds
21 Feb 2017

I am not interested in going total an older user, I find the comfort of my desktop computer the best....yes, I have tablets and smartphones but it isn't the best to see what you are doing or get the full affect of a webpage...I am pretty sure all the companies are ripping us off considering what we get for our money...Mediacom is the worst I know of as far as internet and amounts you have to pay....also have verizon for our phones and ripoffs!! A lot of older people I know are switching to Fast Talk....I am online a lot....doing all kinds of things, travel, recipes, social media...we retired people have a lot a free time!!

Posted by:

21 Feb 2017

crazy pricing policies!! I guess people will pay anything to look at a LCD screen 24/ where is my Tracfone? At my age I need a large screen and...I have a life

Posted by:

21 Feb 2017

john silberman-While AT&T limits internet-only service to 1TB, it provides unlimited data to home Uverse bundled customers. TV, voice, and internet qualifies for unlimited, as does just TV and internet. Probably other combinations also, including wireless.

Posted by:

21 Feb 2017

I have TWC, Spectrum, whatever it is this month. It is 350 down/ 20 up with no data cap. It is ~ $135/month, including the hidden charge for home wifi and router (yes two charges for the same box). When the granddaughters come to visit they can run their phones wide open while I do the same on my computer as well as the Roku playing whatever at 1080p. As long as there is no data cap I will continue with cable, after all it is cheaper looking at the prices above. I use Ting for my very rare cell usage, that bill is normally less than $10/ month because it is usually on wifi anyway and data is off for the network (I can turn it on at any time if needed).

Posted by:

Steve Piper
21 Feb 2017

ting has worked very well for me there is a"line" charge then minutes used, very reasonable i don't believe the are limits

Posted by:

21 Feb 2017

I guess I save a lot of money with my flip phone and I'm not on the thing obsessively.

Posted by:

22 Feb 2017

At this time, if you sign up for T-Mobile One, you can get the two lines for $100.00, rather than $120.00, which includes the taxes and fees. About a year ago, I actually switched to T-Mobile from Straight Talk's $45.00/mo plan. At one point, Straight Talk was technically cheaper, and the 5GB per line per month before throttling was fine for my husband and me. We paid exactly $90.00 per month. However, once our state required tax to be paid on the plan cards at the time of purchase, it became $102.00 per month. We switched to T-Mobile's Simple Choice "unlimited" plan (6 GB of high speed per line and throttled after 6 GB.) The total cost with taxes/fees is $93.00 Also, certain streaming activities do not count toward those 6 GB. Further, we are able to use the phones in Canada and Mexico without added roaming charges. On Straight Talk, the phones wouldn't even work outside the U.S. (and Straight Talk's International plan for $60.00 was pretty messy.) So, we actually got better plans for a little less money by switching from a MVNO to one of the big four. T-Mobile One looks good, but since neither of us exceeds the 6GB per month (so never get throttled or prioritized,) there isn't a compelling reason to switch over to the T-Mobile One plan at this time. However, I think it's a good deal as far as carriers go, in terms of limits and pricing. AT&T, however, really needs to get with it in the current "carrier wars." Their pricing is higher and they offer less than the other carriers. Even Verizon, who not long ago pooh-poohed the idea of a need for "unlimited" plans, is now on board with relatively decent plans because of competition.

Posted by:

22 Feb 2017

Regarding your comment about 22GB being more than enough. Not necessarily anymore -- especially if you stream Spotify or Pandora while you're on a routine 2-hour commute. Also, the under-30 crowd in my family uses GPS (voice) navigation all of the time. That's another data hog.

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