The Fine Print: Exploring The Big Four Carriers' New Unlimited Data Plans
Unlimited Is In
In an effort to up the ante in an already crowded, competitive wireless market, carriers are bringing back the ever-stylish unlimited data plan of years past.
The caveat? The new plans have some limits. While AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon are all coming to the table with unlimited data offerings, many of these plans include data caps that ratchet users down from their 4G LTE networks to a slower network speed after a specified amount of gigabits (GBs) are used each month. Some carriers are also downgrading video quality after a data cap is reached.
When dealing with unlimited data, the quality of the network matters, and not every wireless network is created equal.
In a recently released State of Mobile Networks Survey by mobile wireless analytics firm OpenSignal, which collected network performance data from millions of consumer smartphone users, Verizon and T-Mobile were determined to be nearly neck and neck in LTE network speeds.
Verizon's LTE network ranked slightly more available than T-Mobile's, with AT&T and Sprint in third and fourth place, respectively. Verizon also had the lowest amount of latency on its 4G network.
CRN dove into the four major U.S. wireless carriers' unlimited data plans to determine just how unlimited the new plans are. Here are the ins and outs of each plan.
AT&T's unlimited data plan can be used by postpaid customers — both consumers and businesses – and costs $180 per month for four lines, the price tag after a $40 credit for a fourth smartphone line. Customers pay $220 for up to two billing cycles before the credit kicks in, according to AT&T.
Dallas-based AT&T says each line may be slowed in areas of congestion after a user runs up against the monthly limit of 22 GB of LTE data. Unlike its rivals, AT&T turns off HD video by default. Customers must disable the carrier's Stream Saver setting in the myAT&T app or on AT&T's website to access HD video streaming capabilities.
AT&T had previously offered an unlimited data plan only to consumers who signed up for its DirecTV satellite service or U-Verse service. That bundled service was $100 per line, per month, and $40 a month for each additional smartphone line, before taxes and fees.
Sprint is pulling away from the pack with the least expensive unlimited data plan of the four major carriers so far, but its network speeds are still slower than those of the rest of the carrier competition.
The Overland Park, Kan.- based carrier is running a promotion for its unlimited data plan until March 31 that boasts $50 per month for one line, $40 for a second line, and no cost for third and fourth lines. Following the promotional period, users who sign up for Sprint's unlimited plan will pay $60 a month for the first line, $100 for two, $130 for three, and $160 for four lines a month, before taxes and fees. Sprint users also must enroll in auto-pay billing, or face a $5 price increase.
Sprint said each line may be slowed in congested areas once a user reaches the monthly cap of 23 GB of LTE data, and the carrier caps all video streaming on its unlimited plan at a 480p resolution, less than HD quality. Sprint also limits music streaming to 500 Kbps, and gaming streams to 2 Mbps. Meanwhile, Sprint users receive 5 GB of LTE mobile hotspot per month, and the carrier drops hotspot data to 2G speeds after the 5 GB limit is reached.
Bellevue, Wash.-based T-Mobile is currently selling its unlimited data plan, T-Mobile One, for $70 for one line, $120 for two, $140 for three and $160 for four lines, monthly. Unlike the rest of the competition, these prices include taxes and fees.
While T-Mobile said each line could be slowed in congested areas once a user exceeds 28 GB of LTE data in a month, it added that as of Feb. 17, customers on the unlimited plan will stream video at HD resolution by default, an improvement over the 480p mobile data quality cap the carrier imposed on all its unlimited data users prior to this announcement. T-Mobile also said that, as of Feb. 17, it will match Verizon's offer of 10 GB of LTE mobile-hotspot data a month, with speeds dropping to 3G LTE after the 10 GB limit is reached.
The T-Mobile One Plan is $10 less expensive than Verizon's unlimited plan before taxes and fees, but slightly higher than Sprint's current unlimited offering.
Telecom giant Verizon announced its unlimited data plan this month, Verizon Unlimited. The new data plan marks the first time the Basking Ridge, N.J.-based carrier has offered an unlimited plan since 2011.
Verizon Unlimited costs $80 monthly for a single line, and $180 for four lines of unlimited data, before taxes and fees. For multi-line plans, customers can use smartphones and tablets.
Verizon said LTE data speeds could be slowed for users on congested cell towers if they have consumed more than 22 GB of data in a single month. Users can stream "uncapped" HD video, and can get 10 GB of LTE mobile-hotspot data a month. But mobile-hotspot speeds will be reduced to 3G speeds after the 10 GB limit is reached.