Data Throttling - Are Unlimited Data Plans Truly Unlimited?

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Let's say you signed on for an unlimited wireless data plan with a new carrier. You conducted thorough research and made a review of independent critique from impartial sources.

Data is flowing like honey for the first few weeks. Then one fine day, you're using your mobile device and the data speed is slow as a turtle.

What's the deal?

Turns out, your new wireless carrier is throttling your data.

What is Data Throttling?

Typically, your wireless carrier slows your data flow once you hit a certain benchmark of monthly data usage, a practice known as data throttling. Technically, there is no limit on the amount of data usage per month, but there are limits on the speed of data flow at a certain point if you use enough data.

The four major wireless carriers, Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T and Sprint, all offer unlimited cell phone plans. And guess what, they all slow data speed once you hit their data usage benchmarks per billing cycle.

Let's take a look at how these companies use data throttling with their unlimited data plans. Then we'll outline the best techniques for handling the problem. Hint, it's probably not changing providers. There are better ways to game the system, and you don't want to incur an early termination fee.

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The Big Four & Data Throttling

Has the era of paying an overage charge for data use to come to an end? Yes, if you are willing to pony up funds for an unlimited plan. Anyone who has ever paid up to $15 per gigabyte for an overage fee, or put their phone into safety mode to avoid these fees may be happy to sign up for an unlimited plan.

This is especially true for those on family plans with multiple phones who have been hit with an access charge once they go over their data limit.

Let's use Verizon as an example to outline how major cell phone providers throttle your data.

The Verizon unlimited plan

For the Verizon customer with an unlimited data plan, there is indeed no limit on monthly data usage. But at a certain point each month, that flow of full speed data slows down. The Verizon plan delivers full speed 4G LTE each billing period until 22 GB of data is reached.

From there, your data speed slows. Verizon does not reveal what data speeds are available once they put the brakes on. In particular, when you are in a congested area with heavy demands on the network, you can expect slow speeds after you hit the 22GB cap.

Verizon does not spell out the specifics of how this works. There is unclear language at their website on this. The carrier states you'll experience slower data speeds in areas of network congestion.

You can delve into the fine print but you're as likely to get a headache as to find details on data speed after throttling kicks in. Feeling bold? Contact Verizon customer service for more details.

Read More: Learn more about Verizon cell phone plans here.

Full Speed Data Limits

Verizon wireless is not alone with being vague about their data throttling policies. All of the big four carriers avoid spelling out data speeds once you hit your high-speed internet cap for your monthly plan. But Verizon, T-Mobile, AT&T and Sprint unlimited customers at least know when the data caps kick in.

With unlimited plans at the big four, 4G LTE data speed may be throttled when data usage per billing period hits these amounts.

  • T-Mobile 28 - 30 GB
  • Verizon 22 GB
  • AT&T 22 GB
  • Sprint 23 GB

Related: You can compare cell phone plans across all major carriers using our comparison tool here.

Data Throttling Can Restrict Video Streaming

During times of network congestion, or peak hours, the data throttling you experience will almost always reduce the quality of videos streamed to your device. Although the major cell phone carriers have begun to ease their restrictions, the resolution of videos will be noticeably worse when your data is throttled. Typically, you can expect video resolution to be lowered to 480p--standard definition.

Users on a T-Mobile plan can actually control how much the resolution of videos is reduced during network congestion with the press of a button. T-Mobile subscribers can deactivate the "binge on" feature to disable video throttling. With a T-Mobile One Plus plan, you can even experience higher quality video streaming.

Users on an AT&T plan stream video at full resolution, the opposite of T-Mobiles approach. AT&T users can turn on the "stream saver" button to lower video resolution to slow full speed data flow. This can extend their access to 4G LTE data speed over the course of the month.

If you are a Sprint customer, the carrier limits video streaming quality, and indeed they slow music streaming to 1.5 Mbps and gaming to 8Mbps as well.

Mobile Hotspots Also Experience Data Throttling

Do wireless providers throttle data when you use your cellular phone as a mobile hotspot, also known as tethering? You bet they do, as soon as you use a specific amount of mobile hotspot data, internet speed slows for the rest of the billing period.

If you have an unlimited plan with Verizon, T-Mobile or Sprint, you get 10GB of high-speed tethered data for each billing period. Verizon and T-Mobile cut the flow to 3G speed afterward, with Sprint throttling you down to 2G speeds. AT&T recently joined the other three companies in offering 10GB of hotspot data.

Unlimited data with other wireless providers

Wireless provider Straight Talk is well-known for competitive pricing for data, but they also got in hot water with FCC enforcement (Federal Trade Commission) for marketing claims regarding unlimited data. Some customers may be eligible for a refund from Straight Talk or one of their subsidiary brands and can check the FTC website for details.

Metro PCS and Boost Mobile are key providers offering unlimited data plans, with both companies offering competitive pricing.

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Managing Your Data Usage

You did not sign on for an unlimited plan only to be stingy with data usage, but you can use it wisely in the face of data throttling. Let's explore how to get the most out of your unlimited plan.

There are several things you can do to monitor and minimize your data use while still enjoying your "unlimited" plan.

Consider that you can always turn off data and turn Wi-fi on your phone when you have access to it. An easy way to save data right off the bat is to enable WiFi calling.

Just remember to avoid banking and credit card use if you are on an open Wi-fi network. You can learn how to secure your WiFi here.

Learn More: How much data do you need? You can use our data usage calculator to determine that.

Apps that save data

Look for versions of popular apps that use the least data. For example, some map apps use less data than others. Map apps can eat up data as they generate driving directions and consult satellite data. Try the Google Maps and Apple Maps in their offline mode. With Apple Maps, you'll have to put your phone in airplane mode to get the app offline.

There are also popular apps that stream for free with the so-called zero rating, such as Pandora, Spotify and Apple Music. As consumers, we love this, but Wired magazine recently warned that the allowing zero rating affects net neutrality.

Do you use an efficient browser?

When you browse the web from your mobile device, you're gobbling up big chunks of data. Why not download an efficient browser to maximize your fast speed data flow with your unlimited plan?

Opera Mini is a mobile internet browser that works with iOS, Android and Windows phone. It compresses websites before they hit your phone. It also reduces buffering and optimizes video clips for more data savings, and allows you to voluntarily reduce video image quality. The Opera Mini app is easy to use, you can activate it by tapping the "savings enabled" button. Compare data usage with or without using Opera Mini, you'll be impressed with the difference.

When you access the internet via Wi-Fi, you can turn off Opera's data saving features.

You can also save data with the Google Chrome browser app, as follows:

  1. Open up the main menu by tapping the three dots
  2. Tap Settings
  3. Tap Bandwidth
  4. Tap Data Saver (to turn on or off)

With Data Saver on, Chrome will compress pages before they come up on your phone. Your download speed will be quick, and you'll save on data usage.

Speedtest your mobile device

You can test your cellular data speed from any location with the Ookla Speedtest mobile app. The app works with your iPhone, android device or Windows phone. Speedtest gives you accurate information on mobile connections over LTE, 3G, 4G, EDGE and EVDO networks.

You can generate your own information about how much your carrier throttles your data. Use the Speedtest app to run several tests at the start of your billing cycle, well before you hit the data limit for your carrier, listed earlier in this article.

Next, run the Speedtest app after you hit your monthly data limit. Try testing in the same locations and same time of day as the earlier tests to create an accurate comparison. You can examine your test results for a clear picture of your data speed before and after throttling kicks in.

Read More: Want to learn more about speed tests? Check out our speed test guide here.

Are Unlimited Data Plans Truly Unlimited?

The wireless carriers would say yes, even though they all practice data throttling. But in point of fact, once you hit each carrier's monthly data threshold for 4G LTE data speeds, your data flow is slower. Or to put it another way, it is limited.

Is data throttling legal?

Cell phone carriers are allowed to throttle data speed after you reach your monthly threshold of 4G LTE data, provided they duly notify customers. The providers are required by law to inform subscribers that their data speed slows at these predetermined thresholds.

The phone service providers may bury this information deep in their websites or printed materials, and they may employ unclear language in explaining just how it works, but the information is there.

Bear in mind that mobile broadband network services are not subject to common carrier laws, where fees for services are highly regulated. While the wireless carriers are required to disclose their terms, there is still a wild west aspect to what they charge and how they sell their product.

Are Unlimited Data Plans Worth It?

To summarize, the latest crop of unlimited wireless plans offer fairly high monthly caps on LTE 4G data speeds. If you are adept at gauging your data use, you can make it through the month without hitting your high-speed data cap. Find out how to check your data usage here.

The knowledgeable consumer knows their data needs and can make the call on whether it's worth paying for an unlimited data plan. They also keep an eye on the ever-changing wireless carrier market, keeping abreast of changes to the prices and structures of the plans offered.

For some more tips on how to reduce your mobile data usage, go here.

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