It's no surprise that unlimited internet plans are a hot topic of conversation these days. With internet prices continually creeping up - 21% over just a two-year period, as reported by CBS News - you're probably looking for every possible way to shave a little bit off of that monthly payment.
As your internet service bill is growing, technology marches on in the form of ultra-high-definition video streaming and other data-hogging applications. Americans are using more data than ever, while high-speed internet providers continue to penalize customers who go over their limit.
Unlimited home internet data is out there if you know where to look and how to get it. Below, I'll help you figure out whether you really need unlimited data, who offers unlimited internet plans, and how much it will cost you. I'll also touch on the best way to get unlimited cellphone data, which can be just as elusive as unlimited home internet.
How to Get Unlimited Data Internet Plans - In This Guide
Key Considerations Before Getting Unlimited Data Internet Plans
Data caps have been an issue of hot debate as of late, leading many to wonder - consumers and tech experts alike - what exactly is the future of unlimited home internet? Does it have a future? And what will the implications be, with online streaming media becoming higher and higher quality all the time?
Just the word "unlimited" may be enough to strike suspicion into your heart, as consumers have become a bit jaded by the fees continuing to pile up on their internet bills. Sit back and take a deep breath, because I'm going to demystify the issue of unlimited internet service for you a bit.
Data caps, UBP, overage fees, oh my! If you're not sure what these terms mean, don't worry, I'll explain.
- Data cap: a preset amount of data your internet provider allows you to use in downloading or uploading information on the web. If you exceed this amount, you may be asked to level up to the next plan tier, or you may be subject to...
- UBP: usage-based pricing, otherwise known as overage fees, is a system whereby your provider charges you an additional fee for exceeding your data cap.
Not all data caps come with UBP, but all UBP is the result of a data cap. In lieu of usage-based pricing, your provider may request that you scale back your data usage, or they may actually throttle your bandwidth (slow your internet down after you hit a certain amount of data).
Data caps are going up
Both AT&T Internet and Comcast Internet have recently raised their data caps. The majority of Comcast residential customers with Xfinity internet service now have a 1TB (terabyte) data cap. AT&T's caps go in graduated tiers, ranging from 150GB for their high-speed DSL up to 1TB for the higher tier cable internet plans. Charter Communications, which just acquired Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks, has been forbidden by the FCC to impose data caps for a period of seven years following the merger.
Related: AT&T Internet Plans
By now you may be asking yourself why data caps matter in the scheme of unlimited internet plans. Data caps are significant because historically speaking, unlimited internet was the norm. Even after the major providers put data caps in place they were seldom enforced. There is some concern among those who watch the communications industry that the fanfare surrounding these increased data caps may simply signal a move toward enforcement. Although, both AT&T and Comcast are allowing grace periods of two billing cycles during which you can exceed your limit without penalty.
Unlimited may not actually mean unlimited
You may have noticed that I didn't mention one of the main internet players in the above data cap section. That's because Verizon's internet plans are somewhat of a standout when it comes to unlimited home internet. Verizon's fiber plan, FiOS, is technically supposed to be "unlimited". That's the way it's marketed, anyway. Here's the thing, though - the company posted on its own blog in 2014 that it "doesn't cap usage in any way". In reality, it does cap usage - but only if your use is extreme.
According to DSL Reports, Verizon has sent warning letters to multiple customers stating that if they continued their excessive use, their accounts would be terminated. Granted, the offenders were using terabytes upon terabytes per month, which is highly unusual for a typical residential household. Still, if "unlimited" doesn't actually mean unlimited, it begs the question of whether the service should be advertised as such.
Who Needs Unlimited Internet Plans?
Fortunately, for most people, it's virtually impossible to use up all of the data they get in a month's allotment, even without unlimited home internet. According to Wired, Comcast says the mean usage among its customers is 75 MB per month. That's less than a tenth of the terabyte permitted. Even so, depending upon your household's usage, you may find yourself needing more than that. But do you truly need unlimited internet? The answer is...maybe, but probably not.
Fortunately, for most people it's virtually impossible to use up all of the data they get in a month's allotment, even without unlimited home internet.
Here's a look at how much data is eaten up by some common internet activities:
- Normal web surfing: 18 MB per hour
- Social media: around 50 MB per hour
- Video streaming - SD: three-quarters of a GB per hour, HD: 2 GB per hour, ultra-HD (4k): between 7 and 18 GB per hour
- Online gaming: 20 MB per hour
- Video chatting (Skype, etc): about a third of a GB per hour
Households which may benefit from an unlimited home internet plan:
- Those with a family member (or more) who work from home.
- Families with multiple devices streaming HD video on a regular basis.
- Households with a Smart TV capable of streaming ultra-HD (4k) video.
- Households which use video chat frequently, either for work or talking to long-distance family and friends.
The trick to determining whether you really need unlimited internet service is adding up all of the hours that each person in the household spends performing each type of activity. Of course, if you already know you're exceeding your limit (because you've been hit with overage fees) then you already know you at least need to move up a tier, if not move to an unlimited internet plan.
How Data Works and Why It Matters
One of the main reasons internet providers use for charging extra for unlimited data usage is "fairness". The CEO of Comcast, Brian Roberts, has - rather infamously - compared data transfer to gasoline and utilities. If you use more, you should pay more. That argument doesn't quite hold water, as it's actually quite cheap for internet providers to transmit data - whether it's 10 MB or 100 GB.
The biggest issue with the lack of available unlimited internet plans is that technology is advancing at such a fast pace that in no time, ultra-HD video streaming, online gaming, and things like virtual reality devices will easily eat up a large amount of data in a very short time.
There are times when increased usage causes providers to have to make minor infrastructure improvements, however, some argue that the costs do not justify the increased rate charged for excess data. That belief seems to be borne out in the fact that not all providers impose data caps. Regardless of the reasoning, cheap unlimited internet isn't as easy to come by as it used to be.
About Unlimited Internet Plans
Most major internet providers now impose some sort of data cap, with the exception of Charter Internet and Verizon. Here's a breakdown of five of the largest providers' policies:
- AT&T: Lower cable speeds get 300 GB of data, higher tiers get 1 TB. Overages are charged at a rate of $10 per 50 GB, with a maximum of $100 in overage fees per billing cycle. You get a grace period of three billing cycles before being charged overages. An unlimited internet plan costs $30 per month unless you combine your AT&T cable television and internet bill - then unlimited internet is free. The fiber plan includes unlimited data.
- Comcast: Most residential Xfinity customers receive 1 TB of data with their Comcast internet plans. Overages cost $10 per 50 GB with a maximum of $200 per month, and you won't be charged until your third month of exceeding the limit. Comcast offers an unlimited internet plan for $50 extra per month.
- CenturyLink: This provider imposes download limits rather than overall data caps. The cap is 150 GB for speed plans of 1.5Mbps or less, and 250 GB for plans over 1.5Mbps. While CenturyLink is currently trialing a usage-based program in Yakima, WA, the rest of their customers will not be charged for overages but may be asked to change to a higher tier.
- Cable One: Data plans range between 300 GB and 500 GB per month, based upon speed package. Cable One Internet claims not to charge overage fees, however, some users report being notified that they will be automatically upgraded if they consistently exceed their data limit.
- Cox: Cox Internet imposes a usage-based policy. All of their plans include 1 TB of data, with the exception of their fiber offering, Gigablast, which includes 2 TB. Overages are charged at $10 per 50 GB.
As you can see, unlimited high-speed internet plans are few and far between - at least when it comes to cable internet. The good news is that fiber optic internet is spreading as fast as the infrastructure can be installed, and most fiber plans come with unlimited data usage. Even the best satellite internet providers are offering increasingly popular unlimited internet plans.
A Note on Wireless
If it's unlimited internet plans on your cell phone that you're after, they're out there. For a time, these unlimited wireless internet plans seemed to go the way of the dinosaur. They're back, and some allow you unlimited access at the full 4G speeds you normally get.
Unlimited wireless internet plans range between $50 and $100. Sprint, for example, offers unlimited high-speed data for $60 per month, including 5 GB of mobile hotspot data. Once you reach the 5 GB limit, your mobile hotspot speed is restricted to 2G speeds. Boost Mobile goes one better with their unlimited high-speed data for $50 per month, including 8 GB of high-speed mobile hotspot use.
At the $100 price point sits AT&T. The caveat? You must also be subscribed to DirecTV or U-Verse television. It's not the best deal, but if you're already married to AT&T it's at least available to you. On a side note, the carrier got into trouble with the FCC recently and was hit with a $100-million-dollar fine. The reason? Failure to disclose to unlimited customers that they would be throttled to dial-up speeds after hitting a certain amount of data. As the Washington Post reports, AT&T is fighting the charge.
The biggest issue with the lack of available unlimited internet plans is that technology is advancing at such a fast pace that in no time, ultra-HD video streaming, online gaming, and things like virtual reality devices will easily eat up a large amount of data in a very short time. Internet providers will have to keep pace, either by further raising the data caps or by making unlimited access affordable.
If you're searching for local internet providers, then be sure to use our handy zip code checker tool to find the best provider available in your area.
In the meantime, find the best deal you can with a high data allowance, and utilize the tools provided by internet companies to track your data usage so you don't risk overage fees. If you're shopping for new internet service, be sure to use our zip code checker tool to see the speeds and prices available from the best internet providers in your area.