Pocketnow-U: Unlimited Data, Where Did it Go?


Recently we heard that Sprint plans to keep offering their unlimited data plans, even with their new LTE network. This is certainly great, even if slightly old, news for Sprint customers worried about tip toing around their grandfathered plans or those considering a network switch at some point in the future. Nearly all other US carriers have long since abolished “Unlimited” data plans in favor of tiered data and while many allow you to grandfather your older “Unlimited” plans onto their new LTE networks, one needs to be careful about not losing it and deal with new restrictions.

What is “Unlimited” data? Although it has mostly been eliminated, it still exists on the big US 4, albeit often with significant limitations.

Sprint: Unlimited data currently means unlimited, without throttling or overages. Although stipulations exist in unlimited contracts regarding large amounts of off-network usage, these are only to be used in extreme cases to stop network abuse in violation of Sprint’s terms and conditions.

AT&T: New “Unlimited” data plans are effectively gone but there are still many customers, like myself, who have grandfathered their plans into this future. Before the tiered takeover, soft GB limits did exist on these unlimited plans, even though they were rarely enacted upon by AT&T. Now AT&T is simply throttling unlimited users who breach the top 5%, which has been identified as 3GB or 5GB for 4G LTE users.

(Throttling speeds are often as low as 0.06 mbps down in a 1-Mbps+ area)

T-Mobile: They still offer “Unlimited” plans, but if you’re one of the users who break their contracted GB limit, be prepared to taste sweet network speeds from the early last decade.

Verizon: Similar to AT&T, Verizon opts to throttle the top 5% of data users, non LTE, “periodically for the remainder of your then current, and immediately following billing cycle… at locations and times of peak demand.”

For comparison:

Merriam-Webster: Infinite Data not bounded by exceptions.


A luxury division of Nissan, but not what I want on my phone.

With each carrier able to define unlimited in their own way, albeit all inconsistent with the word’s definition, it is understandable how the word got so perverted. How is it that carriers got this idea?

Each carrier claims that it is just a few of these unlimited data users that are harming their networks and negatively impacting performance for everyone else. As expected, they all refuse to actually publish these numbers, and we must rely on independent research. (Independent research is often statistically preferable, but not always as it is limited in scope and resolution.)

Nielson Company determined that the average data consumption for a US smartphone user was 606.1MB per month in Q3 of 2011. That is a significant jump from just a few months earlier in Q1 and an even bigger leap when compared to 2010. With data usage increasing across the board per user, compounding with the increase in smartphone users in general, our antiquated cellular networks are quickly put under serious strain. While this study didn’t document the strain, it did confirm that for most smartphone users 2GB plans are more than plenty.

But what about this top 5 or 1%? AT&T began notifying users at just 2GB that they breached the top 5%, and based on Nielson’s findings, this isn’t outlandish. Their study showed that it was the top 3% of users who used 2 GB+ and the top 1% who used 4.5 GB+.

In an attempt to modify the behavior of heavy data users through their wallets and headaches, many carriers adopted tiered data plans and throttling which leaves 95% of their customers unaffected. Although recent studies serve to disagree with this claim, showing that tiered data + throttling is doing jack diddles to network performance or to influence data usage of unlimited users, I doubt carriers will be phased.

validas throttling study 75

Effects of tiered data and throttling

Should we expect real unlimited data to come back once again?

I’d like to believe that real unlimited data may eventually return and many analysts are inclined to agree. With the expansion rate of LTE and the capabilities of the technology, soon 4GB+ data usage patterns for those outside the top 1% may not be so unreasonable. Once the infrastructure is in place and the usage patterns are there, carriers may once again open up the pearly unlimited gates for a significant premium. While I expect a lot of the carrier stipulations regarding unlimited data to persist in any new forms of the plan, I’d like to be able to add features / phones to my plan without tiptoeing around my unlimited plan someday.

While I think AT&T should just start mailing everyone over 5% a Microcell for free, I realize not everyone would agree with this idea. What do you think is the best solution for carriers at this time? Do you currently have a grandfathered unlimited plan? What do you expect from carriers regarding unlimited plans in the future?


GIGAOM – Verizon Soft-Caps

ATT – LTE Data Plans

iPhoneHacks.com – ATT Throttling

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