Compare the best unlimited data plans offered by both major carriers and smaller MVNOs at Wirefly. Unlimited data plans are now a reality, but they are not all created equal. Learn the difference between different unlimited data plans by comparing them using Wirefly's tool below.
It is becoming exceedingly important to choose a cell phone data plan which allows enough data available to be used and which charges a reasonable price. According to a study posted in 2011, average users spent about $80 each month in data fees. In 2013, American data users were consuming an average of 269 billion MB of data each month. Carriers which once offered unlimited data plans are now finding it hard to keep up with the exponentially increasing customer demand. Choosing the best data plan can depend on the device being used, the network used to access data, and the cell phone company being used.
What are Data Plans?
Minutes and text messages are easily quantifiable, so when a plan is consistently going over or under it is easy to look and alter the plan accordingly. Data, however, is much trickier to understand. Data is used in several different circumstances, including music streaming, GPS functions, browsing the internet, and texting photographs. Data is what allows the smartphone to access the internet even without a Wi-Fi connection. 4G or LTE data speeds allow internet searches and functions at extremely fast speeds. Each different cell phone carrier will offer data plans with varying amounts of data each month.
How Much Data is Used For Different Activities?
A megabyte, or MG, is a measurement of data which is roughly equal to streaming about 2 minutes of music or posting three pictures on Facebook. It usually takes about 1 MB to load and view one web page, send 50 e-mails, or watch 30 seconds of video on low-quality streaming sites such as YouTube.
A gigabyte, or GB, on the other hand measures in around 1,000 MBs. It takes about 1 GB of data to watch about 8 hours of video on a streaming site like YouTube or posting about 2,800 photos to Facebook.
Streaming videos and music when you are not connected to a Wi-Fi network will take up a lot of data. Streaming music for extended periods during the day will probably cause usage upwards of 4GB to 6GB every month. A single full-length movie each day would run about 5GB a month. Unless the data is unlimited, the charges for these activities will add up very quickly.
On average, users will go through about 800 MB of data each month. This amount of usage is equivalent to posting about 50 photographs to Facebook, streaming about 10 hours of music, or watching about an hour’s worth of YouTube videos. The average cell phone company recommends a standard amount of about 2 GB to ensure there are no overage charges.
What Does ‘Unlimited’ Mean?
When purchasing an unlimited data plan, the idea is that data can be downloaded or uploaded as much as desired without any worry of paying extra overage fees. Unfortunately, this is rarely the case with most cell phone data plans. Usually what cell phone company’s promote as unlimited data plans are in actuality quite limited. Cell phone data plans are limited by speed caps and charging extra to make mobile hotspots.
Many big cell phone providers limit data in more ways than just a cost ceiling. More and more companies are significantly decreasing the speed of the data plan once a certain amount of data is used. Even if you have the ‘unlimited’ data usage plan, the surfing speed will be severely handicapped after reaching a pre-determined amount of data. This is called throttling. Data which has been throttled is typically only offered at 2G speeds. According to recent allegations, AT&T‘s cell phone company slows down the data speeds up to 95% for those users who have plans allowing for unlimited data. Some consumers who held plans that allowed for only 2 GB a month even experienced this throttling in dense areas like San Francisco. Statistics show that nearly one in four data users who have plans with AT&T were throttled last year.
What About Mobile Hotspots?
Tethering explains a process which allows a connection between the smartphone’s data and another device such as a laptop, tablet, or desktop computer. The smartphone is able to act as a modem and allow the secondary device to connect to the internet using the phone’s data plan. Creating a mobile hotspot can be very helpful but it can quickly run through huge amounts of data. Most cell phone carriers try to limit this behavior by either charging hefty fees or making tethering impossible.
The Best Unlimited Data Plans
The best unlimited data plans depend heavily on the type of device being used, the network used most, and the cell phone company chosen to do business with. Some of the biggest companies with the most far reaching networks base data charges on the device itself while smaller cell phone companies base their data charges on the network being utilized to access data.
This cell phone provider still offers customers the option of purchasing unlimited data plans. The do stipulate, however, that though the plans are advertised as unlimited they do in fact partake in data de-prioritization occasionally. Once the data cap for the month is reached (30GB), data speeds may be significantly reduced for the remainder of the billing period. The speed is cut down so much that it is only about twice as fast as dial-up connections. The benefit, however, is that no overage charges can be incurred with their plans. Additionally, the company recently announced that as long as the user stays within T-Mobile’s network there will be no speed caps.
Sprint’s data plans now feature an Unlimited Plan. Sprint's Unlimited Freedom Plan offers unlimited talk, text, and data. Data is unlimited, however, a customer's data speeds may be de-prioritized after 23GB of usage per month.
While both Verizon and AT&T do not offer unlimited plans, their data restriction is heavily based on the type of phone being used rather than the network being used. It may be an easier solution to upgrade the device to get the best data plans with these companies. With T-Mobile and Sprint, on the other hand, the network being used is a huge determining factor when it comes to data charges. When a user is able to completely stay within T-Mobile’s network and not roam, the customer can enjoy truly unlimited data with no speed caps. This type of plan is the best data plan for those who do not travel out of the network area often.
Unlimited Data Plans for Cell Phones and Smartphones
It's important to remember that unlimited data plans for cell phones do allow you to use unlimited data, but sometimes these plans can be "throttled" by the carrier. Throttling means the carrier can slow your data speeds down after you use a certain amount of data. While you won't be charged any overage fees, you should still be aware whether your plan can be throttled or not after a certain threshold.
Luckily for you, Wirefly breaks down unlimited data plans in our tool above so you can know for certain whether the plan you select is truly unlimited at full speed.
In addition, some unlimited data plans offer free tethering (which means using your phone as a mobile hotspot for your laptop or other web-enabled devices), and some carriers charge extra for this. Click on the plan name in the tool above to see details about whether the plan offers free tethering.
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