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Is There a Limit on Usage of Unlimited Data Plans?

If you’ve hooked on with any of America’s four big wireless carriers, you would have definitely come across the phrase “unlimited data plan”. But the question is are these unlimited data plans really limitless, or is there more reading need to be done?

Data Unlimited, But Speed May Drop

Yes, unlimited data plans are indeed seamless as far as the amount of data customers can consume. However, “unlimited” doesn’t talk much about data speeds. In other words, after having used a certain amount of data predetermined for the particular billing period, you would see a drop in your mobile Internet speeds. 

For example, Verizon offers true 4G speeds for only the first 22GB consumed in a specific billing period. Once the 22GB have been exhausted, the speeds would drop down significantly – the actual speed is not clear and would vary with the area you live in. And yes, the remaining three carriers and other small carriers that offer unlimited data plans indulge in such throttling too. 

Non-Transparent Carriers

The carriers that promote unlimited data plans do not come out in the open about the aforementioned practice. To explain their position, they usually throw in some fancy words such as “network usage”, “data prioritisation”, “network congestion”, etc. But the average user is really not sure what these terms mean anyway. They just look at the word “unlimited” and buy in. 

As a user, there are certain things you must know beforehand. All carriers, in the United States and most other parts of the world, function similarly. If you’re on any of the networks’ unlimited data plan, the 4G LTE speeds you receive could be slowed intentionally if your usage surpasses a certain limit of data consumption. Verizon and AT&T have a 22GB cap. Sprint offers 23GB of high-speed data. T-Mobile is the most generous of the lot, offering 28GB. 


By the way, the reduced mobile data speeds also mean your tethering speed would go down. Tethering is essentially using your smartphone with an active data plan as a mobile hotspot. Carriers have a separate cap for mobile hotspot data usage, and thankfully, the rules with regard to hotspot usage are much clearer. Once a specific quantity of hotspot data is used, the tethering data speed would get throttled continuously for the remaining period left in the billing cycle. 

Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile offer 10GB full-speed hotspot data per billing period. Thereafter, the speed is drastically reduced. Thankfully, T-Mobile and Verizon cut down to 3G speeds. Sprint, however, goes lower and settles down at 2G speeds. AT&T is an exception in this case as it doesn’t permit its unlimited data plan subscribers to avail its mobile hotspot offering. Not to mention, AT&T’s unlimited data plan is the priciest of the four carriers. 

Video Streaming

Streaming video quality is the final limitation relating to unlimited data plan usage. Compared to browsing and tethering speed, video streaming is probably more consumer-friendly, if the recent developments are any indication. The majority of wireless carriers in the States have brought down their restrictions pertaining to streaming video quality. 

For instance, T-Mobile, AT&T, and Verizon do not limit streaming video resolution at all. With T-Mobile, the quality of video is throttled by default. However, the throttling can be disabled by turning the “Binge On” feature off. It’s the other way around with AT&T, as video streaming happens at full resolution right out of the box. The “Stream Saver” feature could be activated to throttle the quality of the video. Sprint is the lone carrier that restricts quality of video streaming to 1080p. Moreover, gaming and music streaming are throttled to 8Mbps and 1.5Mbps, respectively. 


At the end of the day, these “unlimited data plans” are indeed unlimited, but only with regard to text messaging and voice calling. Data usage and other features part of the unlimited plan are not “inexhaustible” in the true sense. In other words, your data speeds could vary tremendously, based on your usage and the area you live in.

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