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Are We Moving Beyond “Unlimited” Plans With 2G Speeds?

For a few years, it’s been common for cell carriers to label phone plans as “unlimited” while capping the amount of full-speed data subscribers can use each month. On these “unlimited” plans, subscribers that run out of full-speed data are often throttled to a maximum speed of 128kbps (sometimes called “2G speeds”).

I’ve been critical of carriers calling these plans unlimited. In a pedantic sense, it’s not true. If a service imposes throttling after a certain number of gigabytes of data use, there’s an absolute limit on the amount of data that can be used each month. More importantly, “unlimited” plans that throttle to 2G speeds don’t allow subscribers to use the internet in a roughly normal way once they run out of full-speed data. 128kbps is extremely sluggish for many activities. A lot of web pages won’t just load slowly but will time out and fail to load altogether. Video streaming, even at 240p (a low resolution), won’t work.

Fortunately, the cellular industry seems to be moving towards less aggressive throttling on unlimited plans. Here are a few example of carriers’ throttling policies for heavy users:

  • Boost: 500kbps
  • US Mobile: 1Mbps
  • Google Fi: 256kbps
  • Xfinity Mobile: 1.5Mbps download (750kbps upload)

Google Fi’s 256kbps throttle has been around for a while. It’s still too aggressive to allow for what I’d consider more-or-less normal internet surfing, but it’s still a huge improvement over the 128kbps standard. Xfinity Mobile’s 1.5Mbps cap isn’t bad at all. While downloading huge files or streaming 4K video won’t be pleasant, speeds will be passable for most things people use their phones for.

I’m pretty sure both US Mobile and Boost came out with their current throttling policies in 2021. I wonder if we’ll see more carriers move beyond 128kbps throttles in 2022.

Representation of the concept of a limit

Google Fi’s Unlimited Plan Has Limits

Last month, I published a blog post titled Unlimited Plans At 2G Speeds Are Bogus. I argued that wireless carriers that throttle data speeds to 128Kbps after a threshold amount of data use shouldn’t call their plans “unlimited.” Doing things on the internet at 128Kbps is often frustrating or impossible. Beyond that, imposing a maximum speed implicitly limits the amount of data a subscriber can use in a month.

In a follow-up post, I was critical of Atlice Mobile for labeling a plan as “unlimited” while imposing a bunch of limits that it did not clearly disclose. Google Fi seems to be following in Altice Mobile’s footsteps. Today, Fi Launched a new “unlimited” plan. Subscribers on this plan only get to use 22GB of data at regular speeds:1

If you use more than 15 GB of data in a cycle on the Fi Flexible plan or more than 22 GB in a cycle on the Fi Unlimited plan (less than 1% of individual Fi users as of Jan. 2018), you’ll experience slower speeds (256 kbps) above those respective data thresholds until your next billing cycle begins.
While I expect Fi is accurately reporting that less than 1% of users as of January 2018 exceeded 22GB of use, the statement might mislead people. Until now, Fi didn’t try to entice heavy data users with an option it labeled as an unlimited plan.2

256Kbps is slow

Data at 256Kbps will be more usable than data at 128Kbps, but many online activities will still be impractical. I don’t think continuous video streaming will work even at fairly low resolutions. Many web pages will load extremely slowly. As mentioned earlier, imposing a max speed of 256Kbps does limit the maximum data subscribers can use. Even if a subscriber manages to transfer a full 256 kilobits every single second after using 22GB of regular data, she’ll still have a theoretical limit of about 100GB of data use each month.3

Market pressures

While I haven’t always been a fan of Google Fi’s prices, I have thought of Google Fi as being a company that’s offering wireless service in an unusually transparent and consumer-friendly manner. I’m sad to see Google Fi caving to marketing pressures. That said, I realize the pressures are real. So let me make something clear: most people are not heavy data users; most people do not need unlimited plans. If enough consumers recognize that, there will be less pressure for companies to offer silly, not-really-unlimited plans.