Phones

How Much Longer Will Your Unlimited Data Plan Exist?

Data caps on nearly all wireless and wired networks in the U.S. seem likely to be in place soon, despite the latest unlimited data offers from Verizon Wireless and Sprint.

Verizon, the nation's largest carrier, began selling the ThunderBolt by HTC with faster LTE service March 17 and continued offering its $29.99 unlimited smartphone data plan. That move is widely seen as an inducement to early adopters who can virtually endlessly download media-rich files as long as they have a good power supply .

On March 1, however, Verizon's CFO Fran Shammo told an investors conference that smartphone data pricing tiers are likely to arrive at Verizon this summer.

At Sprint, the nation's third largest carrier, a recent TV ad featuring CEO Dan Hesse continued the familiar Sprint mantra about unlimited data plans. Sprint outlined its Simply Everything plan plus $10 monthly for unlimited smartphone data, comparing itself to other carriers.

But Hesse undercut that message somewhat when asked at CTIA on March 22 about whether Sprint would keep its unlimited data plans in place: "Maybe, and maybe not."

That comment came two days after AT&T, the No. 2 carrier in the U.S., revealed plans to buy No. 4 carrier T-Mobile USA for $39 billion, a move that Sprint strongly opposes for anti-competitive reasons.

AT&T and Verizon Wireless, the nation's two largest carriers, both limit tablet data use. But only AT&T, so far, has set smartphone data limits at $15 per month for 200 MB and $25 a month for 2GB (with $10 more for each additional 1GB of data).

T-Mobile still offers unlimited smartphone data, offering the lowest price -- $99.99 a month -- of the four biggest carriers for voice, data and texting on smartphones. (That offer could continue until T-Mobile is purchased, or not, by AT&T.)

However, both Verizon and T-Mobile have warned of some limits on smartphone data usage in the form of throttling, affecting 5% of the heaviest users at Verizon and those who use more than 5GB of data per month per device at T-Mobile.

Many smartphone users might respond to data caps (and threats of data throttling) by resorting to heavy media downloads over their fast Ethernet-based networks while at work or working at home over a connection with fiber optic, DSL or cable modem. A smartphone on a home Wi-Fi network connected to DSL or cable modem would only be governed by the data limits, if any, of those wired services.

But even home wired plans are now facing the prospect of data caps.

AT&T, the first major carrier to put data caps on smartphones last year, will impose a 150GB data cap on its DSL customers -- and a 250GB cap on its U-Verse (fiber optic) customers -- on May 2. As first reported by DSL Reports on March 13, AT&T offenders will get two warnings; after a third violation, they will be billed $10 for each 50GB over the allowance.

Verizon's wired customers might have more time to use home DSL and fiber (Infinity) in an unlimited way , based on what a spokesman recently said in a separate report: "We have no plans to implement usage-based pricing for our fixed broadband customers."

Comcast set 250GB limits in late 2008 for cable modem users in the U.S., while Time Warner tried to set a 100GB cable modem limit in 2009, but later modified that approach to throttle data to users of excessive bandwidth.

Data caps on both wired and wireless customers are widespread, even if they annoy some smartphone early adopters in the U.S. Ars Technica listed the policies of 11 different wired network data caps for several different countries.

Although Wi-Fi might seem like a better option for downloading bandwidth-heavy movies and music to a smartphone, that might not remain so.

Large companies generally work with carriers on data discounts, and share data limits-per-user across the entire work force, said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates. So if one user never downloads anything, his or her data capacity is shared with others governed by the contract, including heavier users.

Wi-Fi networks in a large company could be slowed by heavy users, but that's entirely dependent on how the IT shop has configured the network. The overall data supply from the carrier to the building via copper or fiber would probably be more than enough for heavy users, and could be quickly adjusted upwards based on contract terms.

Outside the office is another matter. Workers with their own wireless plans would be governed, most likely, by the same data caps as any other consumers. But a worker on a corporate data plan would be able to use data under the rules in the shared plan set up by his company.

Still, given how fast smartphone use is growing, it's logical to assume that carriers will be watching how much workers use smartphones for data while at the workplace or on the road -- just as they are watching consumers, analysts said.

"The notion of unlimited data as devices get more content rich and data intensive means the networks will get overloaded as more smart devices come on line," Gold said. "Network capacity is a limited resource, and like any limited resource, carriers have to find ways to share the resources fairly with the customer -- either through limiting the access, increased pricing for heavy users, or outright banning of abusers -- which is unlikely.

"Right now, Sprint is probably the least loaded of the networks, and perhaps T-Mobile is, too, so having unlimited data offering is feasible," he said. "Ultimately, unlimited data for everyone at a relatively low cost is unsustainable in a limited resource like wireless networks."

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed . His e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com .

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For comprehensive coverage of the Android ecosystem, visit Greenbot.com.

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