Unlimited Data:
How Much Is Enough?

Jay Carnes | June 18, 2016


Free drink refills; bottomless frozen yogurt; unlimited data. Providers tap into our longing for endless consumption. But how much data do users need for a smartphone plan, and what does unlimited data really mean? This post (and our infographic) will examine smartphone data, explore the concept of unlimited plans and their fine print, and explain how consumers can make informed decisions when comparing plans and providers.

Using a smartphone to access email, browse the internet, navigate with map and GPS software, and utilize other applications requires the user to transmit and receive data via the device. This data is transmitted either via the cellular provider network, or via WI-FI when a connection is available.

Note: When a device is connected to a WI-FI network, the data transmitted does not count against the allotment for cellular network use. To minimize cellular data usage, utilize WI-FI whenever possible.

Wireless providers offer multiple data-level plans to accommodate the varied needs of consumers. In addition to these specific Gigabyte-level allotments, AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile each offer a plan with UNLIMITED data. On the surface, unlimited seems like a straightforward description. Upon hearing about unlimited data, customers may think they have an unquenchable thirst for data, and unlimited is the way to go. Or, more commonly, customers consider the unlimited plan as a cost-management approach: “In case I exceed my data allotment, on this plan I’ll never pay an overage penalty.” Note, as of 2016, according to Mobidia, the average American’s monthly data usage is only 1.8GB

However, these plans include restrictions and details worth considering before jumping at the opportunity for endless data consumption.

First, it is critical to know the provisions that differentiate unlimited data plans among providers.

  • Verizon does not offer an unlimited data option. Plans are incremental from as small as 1GB to as high as 100GB. Customers simply pay for what they need.
  • Sprint offers an unlimited data plan. However, Sprint data plans do not charge any penalties for exceeding the data allotment; data transmission simply drops to 2G speed until the next billing cycle begins. So technically, all Sprint data plans are unlimited.
  • AT&T offers an unlimited data plan only to customers who have both AT&T Wireless service and either AT&T U-Verse or DIRECTV subscription service.
  • T-Mobile offers an unlimited data option, and similar to Sprint, other T-Mobile data plans do not impose overage penalty charges for exceeding data levels. Transmission speed slows to 2G for remainder of billing cycle.

In addition to these differentiating factors, there is a policy that carriers employ to manage heavy data users on their cellular networks. While called by various names (data throttling, speed restriction, performance optimization) providers include in the Terms of Service a provision that users who transmit massive amounts of data may experience slowed or restricted data transmission speeds past a certain threshold. So if you opt for an unlimited plan – be mindful that gaming and streaming endless video may be more buffered than bliss.

Unlimited Data Phone

Streaming music on services like Soundcloud, Pandora, or Spotify can be a huge data hog.

Excerpt from the fine print at Sprint:

To help protect against the possibility that unlimited data plan customers that use high volumes of data may occupy an unreasonable share of network resources, Sprint employs network prioritization or QoS on the Sprint network. Customers who choose unlimited data…that use more than 23GB (to be adjusted periodically) of data during a single billing cycle will be de-prioritized for the remainder of that billing cycle…Customers subject to prioritization may experience reduced throughput and increased latency compared to other customers on the constrained site and as compared to their normal experience on the Sprint network. Unlimited customers may also notice temporary changes in the performance of data intensive applications such as streaming video or online gaming when subject to prioritization.

Excerpt from the fine print at AT&T:

One network management practice we use to manage our network resources may affect certain smartphone customers with Unlimited Data Plans. Specifically, if a customer on a smartphone with an Unlimited Data Plan exceeds 22GB of data usage in a billing period, he or she may experience reduced data speeds and increased latency during periods of congestion as compared to other customers using the same cell site… Reduced speeds and increased latency may cause web sites to load more slowly or affect the performance of data-heavy activities such as video streaming or interactive gaming.

Excerpt from the fine print at T-Mobile:

To provide the best possible experience for the most possible customers, and to minimize capacity issues and degradation in network performance, we manage significant high-speed data usage through prioritization. Specifically, customers who use more data than what 97% of all customers use in a month, based on recent historical averages (updated quarterly), will have their data usage de-prioritized compared to the data usage of other customers at times and at locations where there are competing customer demands for network resources, which may result in slower data speeds…Based on network statistics for the most recent quarter, customers who use more than 25GB of data during a billing cycle will be de-prioritized for the remainder of the billing cycle in times and at locations where there are competing customer demands for network resources. At the start of the next bill cycle, the customer’s usage status is reset, and this data traffic is no longer de-prioritized.

Unlimited Data Phone

Using services like Apple Maps, Google Maps, or Waze can eat into your data usage.

Furthermore, when considering what “unlimited data” really means and whether this type plan fits your needs, a further complicating factor is the existence of older, discontinued plans that include unlimited data. Clients who have been subscribers for multiple years may still operate on older agreements with entirely different provisions. For example, some old plans remain structured around the amount of call-time minutes allotted each month and include unlimited data. Initially, users may consider these old plan models to be a great deal if the pricing is less than currently offered unlimited data plans. However, this comparison does not automatically confirm it is the best cost-saving option. Rather, customers should evaluate their current data usage pattern, and assess how it aligns with various data levels and price points.

Consider this scenario:

  • Current unlimited data plan is $95/month for the first user
  • Customer has a grandfathered plan with unlimited data that costs $85/month
  • Customer average usage is actually 8.5GB/month – current 12GB plan for $80/month

This example illustrates that simply comparing new unlimited to old unlimited is insufficient for maximizing cost-savings. Mired in all these details, how are consumers to make a clear decision about whether an unlimited data plan is most appropriate? Complexity abounds.

In conclusion, selecting an appropriate wireless plan requires customers to be informed about what providers offer, and have a clear understanding about their own needs. If you are a current wireless subscriber, your provider can outline data usage trends for your evaluation purposes. If you are new to the wireless smartphone market, some provider websites include data-calculators which help project likely data needs. Ultimately, users must consider the number of users on the plan, their usage habits, and whether data transmission will most commonly be via WI-FI network or on the cellular network. This information will allow customers to decide if unlimited is the way to go.

If you want to read more, you can check out the BillFixers infographic on unlimited data plans!

BillFixers helps you save money. We provide guidance and services to advance customer savings. Visit this blog often for advice on future money-saving topics. You can visit BillFixers online any time to upload a bill so we can negotiate savings on your behalf.


BillFixers helps save you money.

We provide guidance and services to advance customer savings. Visit this blog often for advice on future money-saving topics. You can visit BillFixers online any time to upload a bill so we can negotiate savings on your behalf.

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