Unlimited Isn’t Unlimited? The Fine Print of Unlimited Data Plans

You’ve been working with those limited data plans for a while, but you always bump up against the limit. They charge you or slow your service to a crawl, so you bought the unlimited plan. But something isn’t right, because your data speeds still change after a certain point. Why? It’s the fine print of unlimited data plans.

The Fine Print Of Unlimited Data Plans

Despite the name, unlimited doesn’t actually mean unlimited. Every carrier has some version of fine print for each plan that can change how they deliver your data. Let’s take a look at the fine print of unlimited data plans at the major carriers.

Mobile data around the world
Unlimited data plans connect you to the world.

AT&T Unlimited Fine Print

AT&T has two unlimited mobile plans, Unlimited &More and Unlimited &More Premium. Both offer different features:

Unlimited &More

The unlimited and more plan offers these features:

  • Unlimited talk, text, and data
  • More than 35 channels of live TV
  • 480p streaming
  • Coverage in Mexico and Canada included

You can get all that between $70 a month for one line to $160 a month for four lines, plus taxes and fees, when you include discounts for autopay and paperless billing.

AT&T is upfront about the conditions of this unlimited plan. Their FAQ addresses it directly. The plan does give actually unlimited data, but it doesn’t mean that the stream is always the same speed.

AT&T says that users may experience speed slowdowns when the network is congested. So, while you truly get unlimited data, they don’t guarantee that you have full-speed internet all the time.

Plus, AT&T throttles the speed down when you’re streaming videos, so they allow only enough data to give you standard definition video.

Unlimited &More Premium:

This plan gives you everything included in the above plan as well as these extra features:

  • 1080p streaming
  • 15GB personal hotspot
  • A choice of one premium movie or music service

The premium plan goes for $80 a month for one line up to $160 a month for four lines, plus taxes and fees, when you include discounts for autopay and paperless billing.

This plan has more guaranteed data speeds. The premium plan guarantees fast speeds up to 22GB. Once you have used that much data, you may experience slow speeds when the network gets congested.

This plan also offers tethering and mobile hotspot, but AT&T limits it to 15GB. After you reach that limit, they throttle the speed back to 128kbps, or 2G speed.

AT&T Plans Compared

Unlimited &MoreUnlimited &More Premium
Deprioritization ThresholdAlways22 GB
Streaming QualitySD- 480pHD 720p
Mobile HotspotNot available15 GB and then 2G speed
Mexico and CanadaNo CapNo Caps
International$10 for a day pass, otherwise pay as you go$10 for a day pass, otherwise pay as you go
Bundled ServicesNonePremium Entertainment

T-Mobile Fine Print

T-Mobile offers two different unlimited plans, T-Mobile Essentials and T-Mobile One, the premium plan.

T-Mobile Essentials

T-Mobile essentials offers these features:

  • Unlimited talk, text, and unlimited data
  • Unlimited mobile hotspot data
  • Unlimited talk, text, and data in Mexico and Canada

T-Mobile essentials starts at $60 a month for one line and goes up to $120 a month for four lines plus taxes and fees.  

The essentials plan deprioritizes your data when the network is congested. So, while you have unlimited data, your data speeds may vary when you live in areas with lots of users and high volume.

T-Mobile also throttles your data speed when you use mobile hotspot. 3G speeds can go as low as 400Kbps and as high as 4Mbps. On the low end, that can make your hotspot connection almost unusable.

Compare that with 4G LTE speeds that go between 5Mbps and 12Mbps. When you turn on mobile hotspot, you’ll notice a big slowdown in your connected device.

Mexico and Canada gets even worse. Data speeds in those countries drops down to 2G, which is about as fast as old-school dial-up internet at 128Kbps.

T-Mobile One

T-Mobile One is the premium unlimited plan. It offers:

  • Unlimited talk, text, and unlimited data
  • Mobile Hotspot data
  • Unlimited texting and data in 210+ countries
  • Unlimited talk, text, and data in Canada and Mexico
  • 2-screen Netflix

You get all this for $70 a month for one line and $140 a month for four lines with taxes and fees included. Yep. They’re included, which means there are no surprises on your bill.

There are some limitations, of course. After 50GB of data usage, T-Mobile deprioritizes your data, so you may experience slowdowns when the network is congested. However, 50GB of data is a ton to go through each month, so most users wouldn’t have to worry.

Mobile hotspot data, like the essentials plan, stays at 3G speeds. While not so slow that it’s unusable, you’ll definitely notice a speed difference.

Data in Canada and Mexico is included, but with limits. The first 5GB are at 4G LTE speeds, but they drop your speed down to 2G after that.  

T-Mobile Plans Compared

T-Mobile EssentialsT-Mobile One
Deprioritization ThresholdAlways50 GB
Streaming QualitySD- 480pSD- 480p
Mobile HotspotUnlimited at 3G speeds

$10 a month for 10GB 4G LTE

Unlimited at 3G speeds

$10 a month for 10GB 4G LTE

Mexico and CanadaTalk, text, and 2G data. $5 per day for 512 MB of 4G LTETalk, text and up to 5GB 4G LTE Data
InternationalUnlimited text plus $0.25/ minute talk. Day pass $5 per day for calling and 512MB dataUnlimited text plus $0.25/ minute talk. Day pass $5 per day for calling and 512MB data
Bundled ServicesNoneNetflix

Verizon Unlimited Plan

Verizon offers three different unlimited plans, Go Unlimited, Beyond Unlimited, and Above Unlimited, each with its own features.

Go Unlimited

Go Unlimited is Verizon’s low-cost unlimited plan. It offers:

  • Unlimited talk, text, and data
  • Talk, text, and data in Mexico and Canada
  • Streaming video
  • Unlimited Mobile Hotspot

You can get this for $75 a month for one line up to $160 a month for four lines, plus tax and fees.

Just like other unlimited plans, Go Unlimited isn’t just unlimited. With this plan, your data might be deprioritized during network congestion. While they don’t throttle down your speed, you might experience a little slow down during lots of network traffic.

Unlimited plan fine print
Some unlimited plans deprioritize or throttle download speeds

There are also limits to the talk, text, and data in Mexico and Canada. There is a daily data cap of 0.5GB after which the Verizon slows your connection to 2G speeds. If you use more than 50% of your service in these countries over 60 days, Verizon may simply remove the feature from your plan (yikes!).

Verizon also throttles video streaming and hotspot data. Streaming is limited to 480p or standard definition. Hotspot data slows to 600kbps. That’s really slow, but it might be ok if you use it only occasionally.

Beyond Unlimited

Beyond Unlimited is the next step up from Go Unlimited. It offers the same features as Go Unlimited but with different caps and throttling speeds. It costs between $85 a month for one line to $200 a month for four lines, plus taxes and fees.

The first 22GB per line you use are prioritized, so there aren’t any slow downs even if there’s high traffic. After that, you may experience some slowdowns. Video streaming quality gets bumped up to HD, and you get 15GB a month in mobile hotspot data at 4G LTE speeds. It also has the same limits for calls in Mexico and Canada as Go Unlimited.

Above Unlimited

Above Unlimited is the high-end unlimited plan. It goes for $95 a month for one line to $240 a month for four lines, plus taxes and fees.

Above Unlimited includes the same feature as both Verizon unlimited plans, but they have different caps. You get prioritized data for the first 75 GB of usage, and then your data is deprioritized. Your mobile hotspot data goes up to 20 GB per line at 4G LTE traffic, and the same caps as above apply to service in Mexico and Canada.

Above Unlimited has a few extra features, though. You get to give days a month with service in 185 countries around the world, with the same caps as Mexico and Canada. You also get 500 GB of cloud storage with Verizon, too.

Verizon Plans Compared

Go Unlimited Beyond UnlimitedAbove Unlimited
Deprioritization ThresholdAlways22GB75GB
Streaming QualitySD- 480pHD- 720pHD- 720p
Mobile HotspotUnlimited at 600Kbps15GB 4G LTE20GB 4G LTE
Mexico and CanadaTalk, text, and 0.5GB per dayTalk, text, and 0.5GB per dayTalk, text, and 0.5GB per day
InternationalNoneNone5 daypasses a month for talk, text, and 0.5GB per day
Bundled Services6 months Apple MusicApple MusicApple Music

Sprint Unlimited Plans

Sprint offers three different unlimited plans, Unlimited Basic, Unlimited Plus, and Unlimited Premium.

Unlimited Basic

Sprint’s Unlimited Basic plan offers these features:

  • Unlimited Talk, Text, and Data
  • Mobile hotspot
  • Streaming
  • Talk, text, and data in Canada and Mexico
  • Text and data in 200 countries

You can get Unlimited basic for $60 a month for one line up to $140 a month for four lines. There’s a limited-time offer to get five lines for $100 a month.

Unlimited basic deprioritizes your data whenever network traffic is high. You may experience service slowdowns if there are a lot of users clogging the network in your area.

Unlimited Basic’s hotspot limits you to 500MB of 4G LTE data and then it slows to 3G speeds. While this plan won’t work for anyone who uses a lot of hotspot data, it’s great for someone who only uses it occasionally.

Unlimited plans throttle streaming speeds
Most unlimited plans slow streaming speeds to limit data traffic.

Streaming services are where this plan is really limited. All video is throttled to SD- 420p quality, music streaming is limited at 500Kbps, and gaming is limited to 2 Mbps.

Unlimited Plus

Unlimited Plus has the same features but with different caps. It includes the same deprioritization cap as Unlimited basic, however.

This plan also bumps up mobile hotspot data to 50GB of 4G LTE data until they drop you down to 3G speeds. This is a ton of data, and it would be great for heavy hotspot data users. Mexico and Canadian data is limited to 10GB a month

Streaming services also get an upgrade. Video streaming gets bumped up to HD- 1080p, music streaming to 1.5 Mbps, and gaming data at up to 8 Mbps.

Unlimited Premium

Just like basic and plus, premium has the same basic features with different caps. Unlike other carriers, all three plans use the same deprioritization caps.

Premium is different, however, in other ways. It bumps up the hotspot data to 100GB at 4G LTE before dropping to 3G speeds. While this won’t replace your home internet, the average home uses 190GB of data a month, you can use a ton of data before going over the limit. Mexico and Canada data are unlimited, too.

Streaming is where this plan shines above the other Sprint unlimited plans. Video streams at full HD with no caps on music and gaming. If you stream a lot on the go, this plan gives you the best quality.

Sprint Plans Compared

Unlimited BasicUnlimited PlusUnlimited Premium
Deprioritization Threshold50GB50GB50GB
Streaming QualitySD- 480pHD- 1080pFull HD
Mobile Hotspot500MB 4G LTE50GB 4G LTE100GB 4G LTE
Mexico and CanadaTalk, text, and 5GB of 4G LTE dataTalk, text, and 10GB of 4G LTETalk, text, and unlimited 4G LTE
InternationalText and data in 200 countriesText and data in 200 countriesText and data in 200 countries
Bundled ServicesHuluHulu, TidalHulu, Tidal, Lookout, and Amazon Prime

So, Unlimited plans aren’t actually unlimited at full speeds. Every unlimited plan has some sort of speed caps or throttling. We see them most in streaming video speeds, when carriers limit speeds to a certain definition based on the which plan tier you select.

While the fine print of unlimited plans is confusing, and the limits might seem to confine, they are the reason companies can offer unlimited plans at all. With truly unlimited plans, a carrier’s network would quickly become overloaded.

Net neutrality rules meant that unlimited plans were destined to disappear since they required carriers to treat all traffic equally. Carriers would’ve needed to apply data limits to control the amount of traffic.

All of this will change when 5G finally becomes a reality in the US. It will make internet service much cheaper with even more connected devices. Look for amazing deals and much better-unlimited plans when that happens.

 

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