When Unlimited Data is Actually NOT Unlimited Data

throttlingDon’t we all want to be in the top 5%?   Personally, we’d love to be in the top 1%.  But if you are a cellular customer, you don’t want to be anywhere near that top echelon, lest you be reacquainted with modem-speed Internet.    And don’t take any comfort in the fact that you have an “unlimited” data plan with your cellular carrier because you, specifically, are the one targeted by the carriers.   They don’t want you using more than 50-100MB per month  (appx. 4-8 Netflix movies worth of data).   Like a really bad second date, unless you read the fine print, you might find that your “unlimited data” plan is not what it first appeared to be on your first date.   The term the carriers like to use is “throttling bandwidth”, a somewhat pleasant term for choking your Internet until it is gasping for bytes.   They are taking your money for a service you aren’t necessarily getting.

The AP published a story recently detailing the throttling levels for each of the major 4 U.S. carriers.  In sum, T-Mobile’s throttling is really complicated, suffice to say that if you have one of their cheaper plans, expect throttling at 1GB.  Of course, T-Mobile also allows you to bank and roll-over your unused data to the next month, so, like we said, it’s complicated.   Sprint caps at data at about 5GB per month  (which is fairly generous).   AT&T’s threshold is about 3GB and Verizon is very squirrelly about their data limits.   But if you are in the top 5%, don’t be surprised if your phone begins to behave as if swathed in towels soaked with molasses.  In contrast, Republic Wireless throttles at 5GB….but it sort of cheats by using your wi-fi system to provide much of your phone’s data.   Still, 5GB isn’t bad.

Another article details the caps on some of the smaller “niche” carriers and those limits are more restrictive — as one might imagine.  Virgin Mobile throttles at 2.5GB.   Straight Talk caps at 3GB.  Metro PCS caps data at around 1GB — like T-Mobile, as does Boost Mobile.   Again, these are substantially lower-cost carriers so the lowest thresholds are not unexpected.

If you are in the market for a carrier plan, aside from our recommendation to avoid the 2-year contracts, we also recommend that you try to calculate your estimated data consumption.   Consumer Reports offers the folllowing useful guidelines:

  • An HD-quality video stream consumes up to 5MB or 6MB per minute. Streaming one 4-minute video a day from YouTube can eat up 700MB of data each month.
  • Face-to-face video calls can use a hefty 2.5MB to 3MB a minute.
  • Streaming favorite tunes to your phone eats up 1MB of data per minute. Listen during a half-hour commute on weekdays and a few 20-minute workouts per week, and you’ll consume 700MB of data in a month.
  •  A 3-minute video clip in HD (1080p) can be as large as 300MB. If you must upload video, reduce the resolution to minimize the hit.
  • Playing fast-action games with other players is costly. Figure 1MB of data per minute of play.

U.S. regulators have begun to crack down on carriers who are playing the unlimited data game, but ultimately, the regulators aren’t banning this practice as much as they are requiring disclosure……….in fine print.  Not that it does a whole lot of good, but it’s something.  Better you should occasionally check in with your account on the carrier’s web page and make sure you haven’t gone hog-wild with the data.

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