Unlimited plans sound great in theory – pay a set monthly amount, download and upload as much as you can and never worry that you’ll be forced to pay more than the amount you signed up for. Using a smartphone can mean you burn through a lot of data, especially if you’re using a 4G LTE enabled device on a fast network with great coverage. Plans with unlimited data are a great way to make the most of the browsing and streaming capabilities of your device, without the nasty bill shock that’s so often a consequence.
The only downside of the quick speeds that 4G provides is that it means cell phone owners will use their data allowance much quicker than if they were restricted to 3G or 2G speeds. Therefore, most users will be hoping to find a plan that offers enough data to meet their usage needs and will prevent the worry of going over their plan’s data inclusions.
Two of the major US carriers – Sprint and T-Mobile, offer some form of genuinely unlimited data, but what’s important is knowing when ‘unlimited’ doesn’t really mean unlimited at all. It’s essential for consumers to understand that an unlimited data plan doesn't mean endless high-speed downloading. Instead, most carriers determine a set amount of data that will be accessible at high-speed – this will vary between carriers and plans, but will be outlined in your contract. Any use going over this amount will be ‘throttled’ – that is, speeds will be significantly slowed. So while technically there is no hard cap on how much data you can use, it won’t all be delivered at your network’s top speeds. Throttled data is usually reduced to 2G EDGE speeds, so this makes it hard for customers to enjoy anything that requires the speedy transfer of data.
T-Mobile’s new ‘uncarrier’ plans include an unlimited 4G data option, and these plans won’t throttle your speed when you reach a certain level of usage each month. The bad news is, if you like to tether your device, it only allows users to do so with up to 500MB of that unlimited data, unless they purchase an additional 2GB or 4GB of data specifically for accessing a mobile hotspot . The good news is that all its plans are month-to-month and contract free, so customers aren’t locked in (although may find it difficult to use their T-Mobile phone on rival networks if they decide to switch carriers, so be warned).
Sprint also provide customers with an unlimited data option for individual and family plans, with no slowing of speeds after a few gigabytes of use. Customers are able to upgrade from their existing unlimited plan to a new device, or sign up for a completely new plan. Sprint also allows its users to tether on their unlimited data plan – but it comes at a price, and can only be used for either 2GB or 6GB of data.
Verizon Wireless isn't offering new unlimited data plans for smartphones; however, if you’re already on a grandfathered plan and want to upgrade your cell phone, they will allow you to keep your plan only if you buy the phone outright. So, unlimited data is technically available if you already have it, but you won’t be able to get a subsidized phone.
You’ll find that, when it comes to using your phone as a mobile hotspot, most carriers don’t love it and will either forbid it completely, or charge you extra each month for the option. If you’re looking at unlimited data purely because you like to tether, be careful about who you sign on with – you may find it much cheaper to go for a different Internet option that doesn’t involve your smartphone.
Another thing we need to stress – depending on where you live and if you do a lot of traveling, you need to know which carrier provides the best coverage for your area. The cheapest carrier may not be a saving at all if you can’t get a signal, or your phone’s 4G ability is wasted because you don’t have LTE service where you live. Even big networks have dead spots in their coverage, or some areas that are stronger than others, so ask around to find out how well your intended carrier’s network works where you'll be using your phone.
If you truly are a heavy data user who spends a lot of time downloading apps or streaming YouTube videos, you may find an unlimited plan to be a cost efficient way of enabling your data addiction. But there are a lot of customers on unlimited plans who, realistically, don’t use nearly enough data each month to justify being on such a high tier of plan. With a little research and a better idea of how much data you’re really using (see here to give you an idea of what forwarding that email or posting that status costs you, data-wise), you can potentially save hundreds annually by downgrading yourself to a more suitable data plan.
However, for customers who genuinely do need uncapped data – bear in mind that you’ll still need to match talk and text, as well as other plan features, with your own cell phone habits. As always, compare different plans from different carriers before signing a 12 or 24 month commitment.
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