Unlimited data plans are a mess: here’s how to pick the best one

Above Unlimited. Unlimited &More. Unlimited &More Premium. These are the names of new mobile data plans introduced in just the last month by Verizon and AT&T. In an era without net neutrality, we’ve drifted far, far away from the days when “unlimited data” was a simple concept that meant you could use your smartphone to its full capabilities without any handcuffs or confusing limitations.

Carriers will tell you that the fundamental, underlying promise of unlimited data remains true in 2018: you can use your smartphone as much as you want without overage charges or being cut off once you’ve surpassed a specific threshold. And yes, that’s true. Consumers are generally in a better place now than they were a few years ago, back when Verizon, AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint were offering tiered buckets of data and charging $10 or $15 for every extra gigabyte above your chosen allotment. None of us miss those days.

We thought unlimited data was dead then. But some prodding from T-Mobile helped turn the industry around and left data buckets behind as an ugly memory. Even so, unlimited data today is much different than in the early days of the iPhone and Android smartphones. Now more than ever, carriers are aggressively policing their networks and implementing restrictions on video quality and hotspot usage. They continue to arbitrarily differentiate between the different types of data you’re accessing with your smartphone — whether it’s through an app or simply the mobile web.

The plans: What do words even mean anymore?

The confusing mess consumers face when choosing a smartphone plan in 2018 is partially due to the nonsensical branding that carriers have come up with to differentiate from one another. By name alone, it’s incredibly difficult to parse what you’re getting from each and what the downsides might be.

Would you be able to tell whether Verizon’s Above Unlimited or Beyond Unlimited is the more premium plan? No. How could anyone? Doesn’t it sound like Beyond Unlimited should be better than Above Unlimited? It’s actually the opposite, by Verizon’s logic.

Let’s review how the leading US carrier is currently dividing up “unlimited” and reserving the most useful features and the best speeds for the more expensive tiers:

Go Unlimited: You get unlimited data, but at any time, your service might be temporarily slowed down in favor of other customers when the network is busy or “congested.” Mobile hotspot speeds are restricted to just 600kbps. Video streaming off Wi-Fi is limited to 480p.

$75 single line / $130 for two lines / $150 for three lines / $160 for four lines

Beyond Unlimited: You get unlimited data free of potential slowdowns until you pass 22GB of usage in a month. The mobile hotspot feature offers full LTE speeds until you hit 15GB of usage. Video streaming is limited to 720p.

$85 single line / $160 for two lines / $180 for three lines / $200 for four lines

Above Unlimited: You get unlimited data free of potential slowdowns until you pass 75GB of usage in a month, which is probably a ceiling you’ll never hit. Hotspot is full speed LTE until 20GB of usage. Video, even on the highest plan, is still limited to 720p. Each month, Verizon tosses in 5 TravelPasses (good for 4G speeds until you cross 512MB of daily usage) that work in over 130 countries.

$95 single line / $180 for two lines / $210 for three lines / $240 for four lines

Verizon charges an extra $10-per-month fee if you want to stream 1080p video on your smartphone. This add-on is only available to Beyond Unlimited and Above Unlimited customers.

View full Verizon plan details here. Prices above apply only if AutoPay and paperless billing are enabled. Verizon’s unlimited plans can be mixed and matched on the same family plan account.

 Illustration by Alex Castro / The Verge

AT&T isn’t any better. The carrier has switched up its unlimited plans so frequently that even its most tech-savvy customers are getting confused and uncertain about what’s in their plan. Its previous unlimited plans included complimentary HBO, but that’s no longer the case. AT&T’s current offerings are Unlimited &More and Unlimited &More Premium.

AT&T Unlimited &More: You get unlimited data, but at any time, your service might be temporarily slowed down in favor of other customers when the network is busy or “congested.” Mobile hotspot is unavailable. Video streams at standard definition.

$70 for one line / $125 for two lines / $145 for three lines / $160 for four lines

AT&T Unlimited &More Premium: You get unlimited data free of potential slowdowns until you exceed 22GB of usage in a month. Mobile hotspot offers 4G speeds until you reach 15GB of usage and drops to 128Kbps after that. Video streams at 1080p Full HD.

$80 for one line / $150 for two lines / $170 for three lines / $190 for four lines

Both tiers include the company’s new WatchTV streaming service, but customers on the default Unlimited &More plan will not get complimentary HBO. If you’re on Unlimited &More Premium, you’ll get to choose one subscription service to receive for free each month, and those options are: HBO, Cinemax, Showtime, Starz, Pandora, and Amazon Music Unlimited. So if you pick something that’s not HBO, you won’t get that for free anymore either — even though AT&T now owns the network. The $15 discount on DirecTV Now (or traditional DirecTV for &More Premium customers) still applies.

Customers who currently receive free HBO can remain on their plan to keep it. So if HBO is more important to you than WatchTV (and I’d imagine it is for many), then don’t switch over to either of the new options.

View full AT&T plan details here. Prices above apply only if AutoPay and paperless billing are enabled.

John Legere 2017 stockPhoto by Chris Welch / The Verge

I’ll give T-Mobile slightly less grief because “unlimited” doesn’t actually appear in their plan branding. You pick between T-Mobile One and T-Mobile One Plus. But “the Uncarrier” is still saddling customers with some of the same annoying restrictions as its larger rivals.

T-Mobile One: You get unlimited data free of potential slowdowns until you pass 50GB of usage in a month. Mobile hotspot is limited to 3G speeds. Video streaming quality is limited to 480p.

$70 single line / $120 for two lines / $141 for three lines / $160 for four lines

T-Mobile One Plus: You get unlimited data free of potential slowdowns until you pass 50GB of usage in a month. Mobile hotspot offers full LTE speeds until 10GB of usage. Video streams at HD quality.

$80 single line / $140 for two lines / $171 three lines / $200 four lines

View T-Mobile plan details here. Prices above apply if AutoPay and paperless billing are enabled.

Sprint, meanwhile, for a long time went for simplicity with a single unlimited plan, which it called Unlimited Freedom. The $60-per-month plan included HD video and LTE hotspot speeds. But that all changed on July 12th, when Sprint announced it would instead offer two different unlimited data plans.

Sprint Unlimited Basic: You get unlimited data free of potential slowdowns until you pass 50GB of usage in a month. Included hotspot feature allows for full-speed LTE data only until you reach 500MB of usage. Video streaming is limited to standard definition. Sprint puts odd restrictions on gaming and music streaming data speeds, though most customers won’t encounter them.

$60 single line / $100 for two lines / $120 for three lines / $140 for four lines

Sprint Unlimited Plus: You get unlimited data free of potential slowdowns until you pass 50GB of usage in a month. Included hotspot feature allows for full-speed LTE data until you reach 15GB of usage. Video streaming at 1080p Full HD. Sprint puts odd restrictions on gaming and music streaming data speeds, though most customers won’t encounter them.

$70 single line / $120 for two lines / $150 for three lines / $180 for four lines

View Sprint plan details here. Prices above apply if AutoPay and paperless billing are enabled.

Mobile video is absolutely screwed

Video is the aspect of smartphone usage that’s getting hit hardest by today’s unlimited plans. On their most affordable unlimited data plans, all major US carriers are restricting video to 480p resolution, or what’s sometimes described as “DVD quality.” They’re able to do this by identifying common video sources — Netflix, YouTube, Amazon Video, HBO Go, etc. — and throttling down data speeds to limit maximum quality. Carriers can also very easily distinguish video data from other data your phone is using, so the 480p restriction stretches all over the web.

Meanwhile, the majority of modern smartphones feature incredibly sharp, pixel-dense displays that are capable of playing content at 1080p and above. But unless you’re on Wi-Fi or you’re willing to pay for a higher-cost unlimited plan, you won’t be able to stream video that does those screens justice. It wasn’t always this way. From February through August of last year, Verizon’s unlimited data plan didn’t put shackles on video streaming in any way. Once the company split that plan into different “unlimited” tiers, the trouble began. Now, you can’t even stream at 1080p on its most expensive plan unless you pay an extra $10 on top of your regular bill.

When we were stuck with data buckets, it made sense for carriers to (optionally) limit the quality of video on their end. But there is zero benefit for consumers when it’s applied to unlimited plans. You’re getting a worse experience. We’re supposed to believe that these carriers are fast-tracking towards 5G, connecting all the devices in our lives, and reaching ever-soaring speeds, and yet their networks can’t handle giving everyone high-definition video. Great.

The great mystery of deprioritization

For years, carriers have engaged in what’s called deprioritization. When a particular cell site is busy or “congested,” your data speeds might be slowed down for a period of time, while other people on that carrier in the same area won’t be. Deprioritization typically occurs during peak times of data usage and in cities; it’s less of a factor in rural areas. And it’s only temporary — as in hours or even just minutes — and not something that applies to your line for the rest of a billing period.

The big four providers have claimed deprioritization is necessary to keep things running smoothly for everyone and to prevent customers who are gobbling up large amounts of data from impacting network reliability and performance.

Some data plans (especially the most expensive ones) don’t start deprioritization until you’ve crossed a certain threshold of usage. T-Mobile and Sprint don’t do it until customers exceed 50GB in a single month, which is the most generous policy of them all. But people on AT&T or Verizon’s cheapest unlimited plans aren’t so lucky and face deprioritization for their entire billing cycle.

What’s worse is that there’s no easy way for consumers to tell when they’re being slowed down in the moment. Short of asking someone standing next to you to run a speed test on their phone and comparing results, there’s just no way to know. You might get a text when you’ve used enough data for deprioritization to kick in, but that’s it. You can’t open up your carrier’s app and check whether you’ve temporarily been moved to the slow lane. It could be that easy if carriers were more transparent about deprioritization, but they’re not. Are you being throttled, or is it just iffy coverage? From your carrier’s perspective, that’s a convenient question for customers to deal with — especially when they lack any practical way of answering it.

Look at all this free stuff!

Verizon: There’s… Go90. So, let’s just be honest with ourselves and say nothing. It’s frankly a little surprising to see Verizon offering so little when everyone else is tossing in a handful of extras and trying to blur the line between wireless carrier and content provider.

AT&T: Coming right on the heels of its completed Time Warner acquisition, AT&T’s brand new, skinny-bundle WatchTV streaming service (not to be confused with DirecTV Now) will come included with its latest unlimited plans. WatchTV lets you stream live channels including several that are now under the company’s ownership like CNN, TBS, TNT, and Cartoon Network. It also features other networks such as A&E, AMC, HGTV, Discovery, Food Network, and more. Comedy Central and a few other Viacom networks will be added soon. WatchTV is a free perk for customers on AT&T’s latest unlimited plans: Unlimited &More and Unlimited &More Premium.

As an added bonus for a higher monthly bill, Unlimited &More Premium customers can pick one streaming service to get for free along with WatchTV.

  • HBO
  • Showtime
  • Cinemax
  • Starz
  • Pandora Premium
  • Amazon Music Unlimited
  • VRV

Previously, HBO was included for free with both of AT&T’s unlimited plans. That’s no longer the case with the new plans.

AT&T customers are also eligible to receive a $15 monthly discount on either DirecTV Now or DirecTV satellite service. The latter only applies to subscribers on the more expensive plan.

T-Mobile: T-Mobile offers a free Netflix subscription if you’ve got at least two lines on your account under the T-Mobile One plan. Customers on the base plan get an hour of in-flight Wi-Fi from Gogo and unlimited messaging when in the air. If you step up to T-Mobile One Plus, your complimentary Wi-Fi is good for the entire flight. T-Mobile also offers a simpler, flat monthly bill that already includes the added taxes and fees other carriers add on top of their advertised pricing.

Sprint: Sprint’s Unlimited Basic plan includes a subscription to Hulu (with ads). Unlimited Plus adds onto that with a Tidal subscription — but only for the regular audio tier and not Tidal Hi-Fi.

…but also zero-rating

The FCC and carriers squabbled over it during the Obama presidency, but zero-rating rarely gets much attention nowadays since all major carriers have shifted focus to “unlimited.” But AT&T is still actively engaging in it. A spokesperson confirmed to The Verge that WatchTV and DirecTV Now don’t count against a customer’s data allowances. Does that actually mean much when the only “cap” that exists is the point where you hit deprioritization? Probably not from a customer perspective. But it’s still AT&T choosing favorites on its network, which doesn’t point to a healthy future for the mobile internet.

And there are still millions of people on older monthly plans that are no longer offered to new customers. In the case of T-Mobile, many customers remain on the company’s Simple Choice plans — and thus Music Freedom and Binge On still apply, which allow those subscribers to stream music and video from select services without it counting towards their monthly data usage.

Which is best?

As always, your first priority in choosing a carrier should be coverage and reliability. They’re all inching closer in these categories, but Verizon is still perceived as the leader when it comes to network scope and dependability. It’s also the most expensive of the four. So if T-Mobile or Sprint work well in your area and places you often travel, there’s less incentive to spend more. And they’re certainly hoping those freebies can make up for any coverage gaps. T-Mobile’s One Plus plan gets those perks, LTE hotspot, and the most runway before facing deprioritization.

But if you’re looking to support whichever carrier is best upholding net neutrality, well, among the big four, none of them are. Restricting video quality, limiting hotspot usage to some plans, zero rating, and other asterisks are clear evidence of that. Unlimited data is still technically unlimited, but somehow carriers have turned their services into a confusing mess.

And it’ll probably only get worse if T-Mobile and Sprint join up.

Update July 12th 2018: This story was originally published on June 28th, 2018 and has been updated to reflect Sprint’s new Unlimited Basic and Unlimited Plus plans.