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Unlimited Plans At 2G Speeds Are Bogus

It’s becoming more common for carriers to offer additional data at 2G speeds after subscribers use up all of the regular-speed data that they’ve been allotted. In most cases, this means subscribers who’ve run out of regular data are throttled to a maximum speed of 128Kbps. It’s a great perk. Imagine you’ve run out of regular data, but really need to use the internet for a moment to pull up a boarding pass, look up directions, or view an email. At 2G speeds, it will probably be frustratingly slow to do any of those things, but that’s a much better scenario than being unable to use data at all.

Most consumers have little clue what 2G speeds amount to in practice. Let me be clear: 2G speeds are really slow for most things people want to do. Music streaming probably won’t work well. Video streaming at low, 240p resolution won’t be possible. Most websites will take a long time to load.

Carriers vary in how they present the perk of extra data at 2G speeds. In my opinion, Mint Mobile and Verizon handle the perk in a commendable way. Both carriers generally describe their plans and data allotments based on the amount of regular data allotted. In contrast, Total Wireless and Tello offer “unlimited” plans. These plans have caps on regular data use. After the cap is reached, subscribers continue to have data at 2G speeds. I think it’s misleading, bordering on outright lying, to call these unlimited plans. It’s just not possible to use data in a normal manner once speeds are throttled to 128Kbps.

In fact, imposing a throttle creates a limit on how much data can be used in a month. If a subscriber manages to transmit 128 kilobits of data every second for an entire month, they’ll use about 40GB of data.[1] While almost no subscribers will come close to reaching it, there is a theoretical limit on these supposedly unlimited plans. It’s roughly: amount of regular data + 40GB.


Disclosure: I have financial relationships with Verizon, Mint Mobile, Tello, and Total Wireless (more details).

Footnotes

  1. 86400 * 30 * 128 / 8 / 1024 / 1024 = 39.55

    • 86400 seconds in a day
    • 30 days in a month
    • 128 kilobits per second as a max speed
    • 8 bits in a byte
    • 1024 kilobytes in a megabyte
    • 1024 megabytes in a gigabyte

6 thoughts to “Unlimited Plans At 2G Speeds Are Bogus”

  1. Absolutely. And that 40GB is being generous with the 128 kilobits being actually useful. Many pages just refuse to load if the speeds aren’t what are expected. TTLs can’t be forever!

    It’s also difficult to explain to your average everyday consumer that their unlimited plan isn’t actually unlimited. It’s just that their average usage threshold falls below what their high-speed allotment is. They hear “$25 unlimited” and anything priced thereabove isn’t worth discussing, despite any other benefit for the money.

    This weird threshold exists for data but not for any other service. You can offer 5000 minutes and call it unlimited and even CHARGE for overages on an unlimited plan and still get away with using it in marketing (see: https://www.readymobile.com/plans — certificate expired). Once overage charges exist on an unlimited plan, the word loses its meaning.

    That’s not to say that the concept of the thresholds aren’t without merit. They exist to push you into a higher-margin plan with probably a larger data bucket and/or more breakage. It makes no sense to collect less money from you per month than they pay their provider to have you. MVNOs are, after all, in it to make money.

    So, they slow you down to basically unusable speeds to either get you to (1) upgrade next month to pay more or (2) keep your total usage under what they consider profitable.

    Disclosure: I work for Ting, a Sprint and T-Mobile MVNO.

    1. This is a great point that I didn’t mention:
      Many pages just refuse to load if the speeds aren’t what are expected

      I’m worried that the cell phone industry is starting to see the same silly movement towards “unlimited” plans as a marketing necessity that the shared web hosting industry went through several years ago.

      In my view, I’m ok with unlimited plans preventing outrageous types of use from being possible, but I don’t like plans having the “unlimited” label if pretty reasonable use can cause people to hit limits.

      Maybe restaurants offering unlimited trips to a salad bar is an appropriate analogy. I’m ok with a restaurant cutting off someone who fills a plate, dumps all the food in a trash can, then fills another plate over and over. I wouldn’t be ok with the restaurant cutting someone off or imposing weird restrictions after three trips to the salad bar.

  2. A very important thing to note: Technically, several plans say they’ll give you unlimited internet at *up to* 2G speeds (at least that’s what my AT&T through Red Pocket says).

    I intentionally hit the limit a fee days before my plan renewed last month, and they dumped me to speeds that were only 10% of that advertised 128Kbps max. It was completely unusable for even the most basic functions.

    1. “Up to 2G” really means “2G or less”.

      If I were in charge of the FTC I would enforce replacing “up to” with “or less”.

      Imagine how much less deceptive it would make advertising.

      Instead up “SAVE up to 25%” (which could be a 1% discount) they would have to write “SAVE 25% OR LESS!”

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