This week, Verizon unveiled new unlimited data offerings for wireless customers. Unfortunately—for both consumers and those who insist on accuracy—none of its “unlimited” plans are actually unlimited.
Verizon now has a few different “unlimited” choices: the cheaper Go Unlimited monthly plan, the more expensive Beyond Unlimited monthly plan, an option for business customers, and a prepaid option. These plans all place limits on video quality (480p or 720p, depending on the plan) and some of them place limits on the speed of your connection. Verizon’s previous unlimited data plan, which placed no limits on video quality but would throttle your bandwidth once you hit the 10GB-per-month mark, is no longer available to new customers. Verizon customers who have that older unlimited plan will be able to keep it, but they will also see their video quality limited to a maximum of 720p, just like everyone else on the network.
Verizon famously launched its all-you-can-eat monthly plan in February. In doing so, it forced other carriers to restructure their own unlimited data plans to compete. This resulted in a net positive effect for consumer choice in cellular data. Since then, however, Verizon has begun stepping back its offerings by forcing lower-quality video streams and imposing speed limits for its cheaper plans. It’s possible the other carriers will follow Verizon’s lead once again and start downgrading video (as some already do) and being less generous with their data plans in general.
Right now, all four major carriers—and some lower-priced virtual mobile networks—have an unlimited data plan of some kind. There are major differences in terms of pricing, qualifications, and data-throttling. Here’s how they all shake out.
Price: $75 per month and up. The fine print: The amount of 4G LTE data is unlimited, but your speed could be throttled at any time, no matter how much you’ve downloaded so far this month, if Verizon’s network is experiencing congestion. Whether the network is congested is entirely up to Verizon to determine. Video quality is limited to 480p on mobile phones and 720p on tablets. You can’t watch any 1080p video on this plan. Mobile hotspot capability is unlimited, but speeds are throttled to 600 kbps. Best for: Video junkies who don’t mind being stuck with DVD-quality streams.
Price: $75 per month and up. The fine print: The amount of 4G LTE data is unlimited, but your speed could be throttled once you hit the 22GB mark for the month. Video quality is limited to 720p on phones and 1080p on tablets. Mobile hotspot capability is unlimited for the first 15GB, but speeds are throttled after that. Best for: Mobile workers who rely heavily on tethering, and video streamers who gotta have their HD.
Price: $70 per month and up. The fine print: AT&T’s cheapest unlimited plan gives you all the data you want at 3Mbps speeds until you hit the 22GB mark. After that, it could throttle your data speeds further during periods of congestion. Video is limited to 480p. Mobile hotspot capability isn’t part of the plan. Best for: People who never tether and are OK with DVD-quality video.
Price: $100 per month and up. The fine print: AT&T’s more expensive unlimited plan gives you all the data you want at unthrottled 4G speeds until you hit the 22GB mark. After that, you’re throttled during periods of congestion. Video streams in 720p. Mobile hotspots work at full speed for the first 10GB. After that, hotspots are throttled to 128kbps, which is throw-it-out-the-window slow, totally unusable. But hey, you get free HBO with this plan, just like a hotel room. Best for: Those who insist on HD video, tetherers, and Insecure addicts.
Price: $70 per month and up. The fine print: The good news is that all taxes and fees are lumped into that $70 price, and you get a free hour of Gogo in-flight internet when you’re on a plane. You’ll need to sign up for auto-pay. If you use a ton of data every month (we’re talking the top three percent of data hogs), your speed may be throttled. In response to Verizon’s unlimited relaunch, T-Mobile added mobile-hotspot service and HD streaming to its own plan. Hotspots are limited to 10GB and 3G speeds, and videos “typically” stream in HD. Best for: This still appears to be the best all-around deal. Plus, you’ll know exactly what you’ll be charged every month.
Price: $65 per month and up. The fine print: You’ll need to activate auto-pay for that lowest price; otherwise it’s $60. Download speeds are capped at 8Mbps, which is slower than the US average. Just like other carriers, Cricket will throttle you further after you hit the 22GB mark for the month. Doesn’t include mobile hotspot capability. Best for: Getting unlimited AT&T data coverage at a much lower price.
Price: $50 per month and up. The fine print: You’ll need to activate auto-pay; otherwise it’s $55. Video resolution is capped at 480p. Doesn’t include mobile hotspot service. Best for: Those who want the lowest-priced “Big Four” unlimited plan.
Price: $50 per month and up. The fine print: Video is capped at 480p unless you pay an extra $20 per month for HD streaming. Music streamed from Spotify, Pandora, and iHeart Radio doesn’t count toward your monthly data—although that’s really more of a perk for data-limited plans. Best for: Those who are fine with Sprint’s coverage, but also want mobile hotspot for the same price.
Price: $50 per month and up. The fine print: Your data speeds start throttling back after just 500MB. Doesn’t include mobile hotspot capability. Best for: Hard to say. Boost and Sprint are better options due to the low cap for throttling.
Price: No unlimited data plan; $20 for unlimited talk and text, plus $10 per GB of monthly data (plus fees and taxes). Only available on Nexus and Pixel phones.