After a half-decade hiatus, unlimited data plans are back on our nation’s four largest cellular carriers – AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile.
Did you notice? If you’re anything like my roommate, you might not have noticed the sneaky games these carriers have been playing over the years. “These phone companies capitalize on people’s inability and unwillingness to understand how they work,” said my technically inept roommate as I told him about this topic at the time of writing. As much as I joke about him being technically inept, he likely shares the same sentiment that millions of Americans do when jumping through the never-ending hoops that is Phone Carriers 101.
Back in 2007, AT&T — who had an exclusive deal with Apple at the time — announced unlimited data plans to support the release of the brand new iPhone. At “just $59.99 per month,” subscribers enjoyed “unlimited data, Visual Voicemail, 200 SMS text messages, roll-over minutes and unlimited mobile-to-mobile calling.” Those were the days, right?
Wireless technology in the 2000s was just as simple as the pricing scheme of our cell phone plans, relatively speaking. Flip phones were in, 160-character texts were the norm, and you called the illusive number to listen to your voicemails without thinking twice. Wireless data was a new phenomenon, and the release of the iPhone was arguably the first widespread application of wireless internet access, barring pay-by-the-kilobyte web browsing that your parents screamed at you for when they got the bill at the end of the month.
And thus, as technology evolved, so did the iPhone — iPhone 3G boasted next-generation internet speeds as well as the introduction of the App Store. Data usage increased exponentially as Apple enjoyed widespread adoption of its second-gen smartphone. MMS — yes, the ability to send pictures through text — joined the Messages app with iPhone 3.0 software update two and a half years later.
Fast forward to the introduction of next-gen phones, LTE, and the brand-new iPad, and you’ve got a potent combination for data-hungry users. You could now binge-watch Netflix from virtually anywhere. It got so insane that people cancelled their home internet service to use the personal hotspot feature on their phone to power their life.
Sounds like a win-win, right? Well, not so much. There were two major problems with how the carriers proposed this business model and how customers responded to it. First off, 4G was a new technology, and the bandwidth built out by the carriers wasn’t capable of handling the high-intensity web traffic sought by users, such as HD Netflix streaming. Second, and not to much surprise, customers took advantage of their newfound “unlimited” data.
As the adage goes, all good things must come to an end. When carriers started to notice this massive upscale of mobile data use — as large as a 26-fold increase — they initially responded with imposing limitations, such as data caps and throttling. Soon after, they phased out unlimited plans altogether. Unlimited data’s grave was dug with the rise of “tiered” data and shiny new “family” plans that promoted the sharing of data across devices.
For years, carriers led us customers to believe that tiered and shared data plans were the wave of the future. Even T-Mobile touted tiered data plans for a period of time. With each new rollout of a data plan came more strings attached and greater customer confusion. Rollover data, overage limits, switching data plans at a fee, and confusing plan terms benefited only the carriers. The days of unlimited data plans returning were looking grim. The light at the end of the tunnel? Faster data speeds, more reliable coverage, and — for light data users — pretty substantial savings.
But what we didn’t see behind the scenes is that although unlimited data plans were curtailed to relieve network congestion and improve overall performance (or so they say), the four major carriers were investing billions to beef up their network’s strength. Once they accomplished this feat, they became hungry for customers. T-Mobile launched its “uncarrier” campaign to woo customers from AT&T and Verizon; Sprint touted its “1% reliability” ad spots to lure customers from Verizon; AT&T merged with DirecTV to bundle home entertainment with wireless plans; and, last but not least, Verizon unveiled its “unlimited” plan early this year, as if déjà vu is a hoax.
At the time of writing this, “unlimited” is back – but with many of the nooks and crannies of their late-2000s predecessor. Depending on your carrier and your plan, you’ll likely experience a rollercoaster of carrier emotions. If you’re on T-Mobile, you might enjoy Netflix included – but have HD video quality suppressed across the board. AT&T offers free HBO for new subscribers, but can slow you down after eating up data too quickly. On Verizon? Your data isn’t capped after a set amount, but it could be slowed down at any moment if a lot of people around you are using their data too. And Sprint’s too-good-to-be-true free unlimited data does give you (mostly) free reign, but it expires after a year of service.
So, what to do? For now, let’s be thankful (🙏🙌) that unlimited data is back, even if you don’t have an unlimited plan. This is great for competition, and gets the carriers out of their former monopolistic mindset and gives power back to the consumers. If history has taught us anything, Unlimited 2.0 could be short-lived. As with most companies, the major carriers are following the capitalistic rules of digital business that are ever-changing with the rise of new technologies. The old way of doing business is no match to our evolving society, and it’s evident that even the historically most rigid industries are becoming more agile.
Further reading: I embedded dozens of links to articles throughout this post to encourage further reading. If you’re looking for more, this article suggests yet another end to the second wave of “unlimited” data: https://www.wired.com/2017/02/unlimited-data-party-will-last-big-four-become-big-three/