Today, Tello launched its “unlimited everything” plan for $39 per month. I’m frustrated by how Tello named its new plan. I say that as a fan of the company; Tello has some of the best options on the market for budget-sensitive consumers who don’t use a lot of data.
If subscribers on Tello’s unlimited everything plan use 25GB of data in a billing period, they will be throttled to sluggish, 2G speeds. As I’ve previously argued, unlimited plans at 2G speeds are bogus. Once the throttle kicks in, subscribers will find that data is unusable or barely usable for many purposes. While I’ve argued that many so-called “unlimited” plans are misnamed, Tello seems to have doubled down on its misnomer. Both “unlimited” and “everything” do a poor job of describing Tello’s new plan.
When carriers throttle data to 2G speeds, that usually means speeds are capped at 128Kbps. Imposing a maximum speed of 128Kbps puts a theoretical limit on total data use of about 65GB per month. In practice, few subscribers will use more than 26GB per month because the internet will be sluggish and frustrating use after the 25GB threshold is reached.
To Tello’s credit, the company does an unusually good job of disclosing the throttle. Here’s an example from the banner on Tello’s homepage this morning:
The carrier US Mobile recently released new unlimited plans. As with US Mobile’s old plans, customers can choose either the Super LTE network or the GSM LTE network. Super LTE runs over Verizon’s network while GSM LTE runs over T-Mobile’s network. Plans appear to be priced the same regardless of the network a subscriber chooses.
“Unlimited” is a bit of a misnomer for US Mobile’s new plans. The plans have limits, but the limits are dependent on which options subscribers select. Customers can choose either US Mobile’s “Fast” plan or its “Ludicrous” plan.
As I understand them, here are the limits on the Fast plan (base price of $40 per month):
Speeds are usually throttled to a maximum of 5Mbps
If 50GB of data is used in a single month, speeds are throttled intensely (15GB with GSM)
Hotspot use is not permitted (can be added for an additional $5 per month)
The Ludicrous plan has a base price of $50 per month. The Ludicrous plan does not have a 5Mbps throttle, and mobile hotspot is included. As with the Fast plan, data use beyond 50GB (15GB with GSM) is throttled intensely.
I use the phrase “throttled intensely” because US Mobile doesn’t disclose its policies clearly. On its website, the company writes:
Super LTE plans come with 50GB of high-speed data. A tiny fraction of heavier data users may notice reduced speeds afterwards.
While I appreciate the disclosure, I think there’s a lot wrong with it. While I interpreted it as indicating that speeds would be throttled intensely, a Reddit user thought the disclosure implied US Mobile customers normally would have high priority during congestion but would receive low priority after 50GB of data use.
A US Mobile agent I reached out to confirmed that there is a throttle after the threshold level of data use is reached. The agent seemed reluctant to mention a specific speed cap but explained that speeds would feel like 2G. Following the argument I made in Unlimited Plans At 2G Speeds Are Bogus, I think it would be more transparent if US Mobile called their plan a 50GB plan. Extra data at slow speeds could just be a little perk. That said, I understand the carrier caving to the pressure to call its plans “unlimited”.
I don’t love the phrasing of “A tiny fraction of heavier data users may notice reduced speeds.” It seems to suggest that only some of the people who pass the threshold will have reduced speeds. As I understand it, US Mobile is imposing a serious speed cap on everyone who passes the threshold of 50GB. I’d suggest an alternate phrasing along the lines of Heavy data users, who make up a tiny fraction of our subscriber base, will experience substantially reduced speeds after 50GB of use..”
Are The Plans Competitive?
US Mobile’s Super LTE unlimited plans look competitively priced for those who only need one or two lines and want service over Verizon’s network. Large families can probably get better per-line rates by purchasing service from Verizon directly (Verizon drops its per-line rates on unlimited plans as more lines are added).
AT&T has settled with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and agreed to pay out $60 million to current and past customers that may have been affected by misleading claims about unlimited data. The settlement is in response to the FTC’s 2014 accustation that AT&T failed to adequately disclose that customers on unlimited data plans could have their speeds throttled substantially. Here are a few bits from the 2014 FTC complaint:
The FTC’s complaint alleges that the company failed to adequately disclose to its customers on unlimited data plans that, if they reach a certain amount of data use in a given billing cycle, AT&T reduces – or “throttles” – their data speeds to the point that many common mobile phone applications – like web browsing, GPS navigation and watching streaming video – become difficult or nearly impossible to use…AT&T’s marketing materials emphasized the ‘unlimited’ amount of data that would be available to consumers who signed up for its unlimited plans…AT&T, despite its unequivocal promises of unlimited data, began throttling data speeds in 2011 for its unlimited data plan customers after they used as little as 2 gigabytes of data in a billing period. According to the complaint, the throttling program has been severe, often resulting in speed reductions of 80 to 90 percent for affected users. Thus far, according to the FTC, AT&T has throttled at least 3.5 million unique customers a total of more than 25 million times…consumers in AT&T focus groups strongly objected to the idea of a throttling program and felt ‘unlimited should mean unlimited.’
Here’s an excerpt from the FTC’s press release from today (emphasis mine):
As part of the settlement, AT&T is prohibited from making any representation about the speed or amount of its mobile data, including that it is “unlimited,” without disclosing any material restrictions on the speed or amount of data. The disclosures need to be prominent, not buried in fine print or hidden behind hyperlinks. For example, if an AT&T website advertises a data plan as unlimited, but AT&T may slow speeds after consumers reach a certain data cap, AT&T must prominently and clearly disclose those restrictions.
I’m glad to see the FTC cracking down on misleading practices. Bogus “unlimited” plans seem to be much more common today than they were in 2014.
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:
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.
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.
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.
Altice Mobile just launched with a tempting offer. Altice’s only plan, its “unlimited everything” plan, is only $30 per line each month. A lot of technology websites have been writing about the new offering, and most of them aren’t mentioning how many limits Altice puts on its subscribers. Altice Mobile is at fault here. The company has been unusually non-transparent about the limitations it imposes.
In my previous post, I was critical of Total Wireless for marketing one of its plans as an unlimited plan, even though it involved a significant limitation:
Total Wireless is at least is transparent in letting customers know that some limits do exist despite labeling the plan as unlimited. Altice Mobile doesn’t put a disclaimer or an asterisk next to its claims:
Altice’s press release is even more misleading:
Altice Mobile offers one simple plan with unlimited everything:
unlimited data, text, and talk nationwide,
unlimited mobile hotspot,
unlimited video streaming,
unlimited international text and talk from the U.S. to more than 35 countries, including Canada, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Israel, most of Europe, and more, and
unlimited data, text and talk while traveling abroad in those same countries.
Potential customers wanting to understand Altice Mobile’s limitations need to find their way to a web page full of legalese titled Broadband Disclosure Information. As it turns out, Altice has lots of limitations:
Mobile hotspot is typically throttled to a maximum of 600Kbps (a fairly slow speed).
Video is typically throttled to a maximum of 480p.
After 50GB of use in a month, video traffic and hotspot traffic are throttled to 128Kbps.
As I discussed in my last post, it’s silly to call a service unlimited while throttling to especially low speeds. The claim in the press release that Altice offers “unlimited video streaming” is particularly misleading. 128Kbps can’t support stable streaming of even low-resolution, 240p video. Turns out the claim of unlimited international data in 35 countries is also misleading. International data after the first gigabyte is throttled to 128Kbps.
Despite the limitations, there’s a lot that’s exciting about Altice Mobile. It might be a good option for people who live in the limited set of regions where it’s available. Even with its limitations, the service still has a competitive price. I hope we’ll see Altice move towards being more transparent with consumers. If you’re looking for alternatives to Altice, consider checking out my list of recommended low-cost carriers.
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. 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).