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What Happened to the Unlimited Data Plan


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If you haven’t been living under a rock for the last four years, you know what the iPhone is. You also probably heard the hype about it revolutionizing the cellular marketplace, rhetoric that has almost entirely faded from memory. At the time, the iPhone was revolutionary for its ability to reach out and grab data whenever and wherever, and also for the data plan that allowed it to do so. All-you-can-eat data? On a device that can use it efficiently? That you own outright and the carrier doesn’t subsidize from your monthly bill? It’s positively european. (Japanese phones of the time were notoriously awesome, but also notoriously difficult to use.) Unfortunately, it’s a sign of the times (the times, they aren’t a-changin) that you can now buy an ultra-low-end iPhone for $99 and continue to pay for it until the end of time courtesy of AT&T’s new data plans, which (assuming the sort of cheap bastard that buys an ultra-low-end iPhone also buys the cheap plan) costs you $15 for every 200 meg increment you use. So, for the same scratch you spent last year for unlimited data, you now get 400 megs. Consider, however, some problems with this bandwidth allotment – even if you get the 2GB/$25 plan, it’s still an issue (although less of one).

Ways to Eat Your Bandwidth:

Uploading photos to social media pages: AT&T promises fifty photo uploads on your allotment (500 if you spring for the two gig plan). Hulu streaming: HD at 7.2 MB/minute, or about 325 megs per one-hour show (assuming you spend no bandwidth on ads). Oops — that’s two months’ allocation per show. But Hulu Plus costs ten bucks a month on its own, so let’s say something cheaper, like Pandora? Pandora eats 56.25 megs per hour. That gives you three and a half hours of lo-fi music a month with a little left over to check the weather occasionally. On the expensive plan, you can watch a few episodes of TV (six episodes and change) without breaking the bank. If you listen to Pandora at work (say, six hours a day) and work doesn’t have wi-fi, you’ve got 168.75 megs a day. Work better pay well. If you resent paying for Hulu Plus, you can still get free TV on Joost. Unfortunately, Joost is P2P. For an hour of TV, it downloads 320 megs, and uploads 105 megabytes. 425 megabytes of transfer per episode. If you’re on the cheap plan, congratulations, you just spend $45 on the latest rerun of Lost. Not so cheap now, is it?

And the elephant in the room, tethering. Tethering is an OS feature that Apple wanted to give you in a software update, but AT&T will charge you $20 a month for the privilege of using it. Not $20 for some extra bandwidth, $20 worth of extortion. And god only knows how many ways there are to use up data on a laptop.

So if you haven’t given up your old “expensive” unlimited plan, it’s probably time to swear never to switch. I know I’ve been beating up on AT&T here, but they’re not the only ones pulling this lately, only the first to stick their neck out. On the other side of the Atlantic, O2 (Apple’s British partner) recently reduced their unlimited plan to 1GB a month without even a token price drop. Virgin Mobile is trying to do things the sneaky way; they don’t limit the number of bits you download, they limit what you can spend them on. You are explicitly permitted to use them on browsing and messaging and similar uses; you are explicitly prohibited from using video calling, peer-to-peer (Oops, Joost, you’re out!), and tethering — plus anything else that they deem degrades the service of anyone else on their network or consider to be “heavy” use, and you’re not allowed to use these plans as your backup plan should your DSL go down. Hilariously, Virgin uses the same terms of service on their MyFi mobile hotspots — devices that exist only to allow you to wirelessly tether your laptop to a cellular modem are only sold with a contract that prohibits their only practical use. Seriously, do they even read this stuff before they make you sign it? Verizon has been a holdout on unlimited data for a while, and users have been pining, clamoring, begging, and whining for a Verizon iPhone for years. It’s also been a great place to go for Android users, with the Droid series by Motorola. Unfortunately, and I quote, “We will probably need to change the design of our pricing where it will not be totally unlimited, flat rate.” That was Verizon’s CFO, John Killian. I haven’t heard anything about Sprint or T-mobile, the other two big carriers here, but I don’t trust them to keep treating the customer fairly out of the goodness of their black corporate hearts.

It Gets Worse

But wait – you don’t have to use cellular data, just plug a wi-fi node into your landline connection, and then you’re slurping down gigabits like drinking from the firehose. Well, I hate to be the bearer of bad news (well, actually, no I don’t), but the crap that’s starting in the mobile market is moving with startling swiftness into our living rooms. Comcast has continued to be the most hated company in the world by imposing a fairly generous 250 GB/month quota in addition to their remarkable talent for customer service (up to and including nearly burning a customer’s house down (at least twice!)). But they’re actually being pretty good about this. Time Warner has been kicking around a bandwidth quota of between 5 and 40 gigabytes per month.

“But wait,” says I. “I only browse the web and watch a few funnies on Youtube and get my mail. Why should I care?” Okay – a fair question. On the other hand, a lot of computer traffic isn’t user-initiated these days. Know what Patch Tuesday means? It means Microsoft is going to download a five-meg program to your computer that pulls down an unknown amount of data to make your computer continue to work and not join the zombie hordes. I’ve tried to figure out how big these patches are, but Microsoft won’t even publish an average or approximate figure. Apple is much more forthcoming; their last update (the 10.6.4 point release, really more of a service pack) was 888 megabytes. How many computers do you have at home? I’m going to assume two Macbooks and two Wintel towers, plus a HTPC of some sort in our readers‘ households. I’m also going to assume that Microsoft’s patches average 888 megs as well, lacking any better data. This comes to 3.5 gigs of updates a month before you load your first webpage. Apple’s updates typically come out every couple months but the schedule varies; one to three months has been the range for the last major release, but we must consider a worst-case confluence here. Why? well… do you play games? Do you have kids that play games? Do you ever use the internet to do anything fun? Your ISP wants you to, so they can charge you overage fees. Let’s assume that next month Apple releases an update, and Microsoft doesn’t skip a Patch Tuesday. Let’s also pretend that you haven’t played WoW in a little while, but you heard about Cataclysm coming out and your willpower finally slips. You log into WoW and… download a 1.2 gigabyte content update. Congrats – you’re now at 4.7 gigs of our hypothetical 5-gig plan. Hope you don’t actually play that game you just downloaded, or you’ll run out before you read your first email. So assuming a parents’ laptop, a college-kid laptop, a communal computer and a HTPC, just keeping them operable can use up a lot of data.

The next problem is something americans love to do. Last time I wrote, I wrote about cutting the cable – TV without paying for a hundred channels of nothing to watch. I was disturbed to discover the average american watches five hours of television per night — which means that somewhere, there are people watching two or three times that much. Based on Hulu staff members on-record comments, SD streaming uses 5MB/minute, and HD streaming clocks in at 7.2 MB. Multiplying by 60 gives you 432 MB/hour. Multiplying by five gives you 2.16 gigs a night, and multiplying by 30.5 gives you 66 gigs in an average month.

Okay, but infrastructure costs money to build:
Well, yes – you have to expect that telecom companies are going to have to pay their staff, keep the lights on, and upgrade their equipment. I don’t begrudge them that, and you shouldn’t either. Thats not the message I intend to send. On the other hand, they’re not bothering to do the job we’re paying them for – I could try to restate it, but Cringely says it far better than I could here. Pretty much, we gave AT&T $200 billion (Yes, billion with a “B”) to roll out 45 MBps bidirectional internet service, or at minimum 20 mbps HD-capable lines, but they decided 1.5mbps ADSL would be an adequate substitute and paid out the rest of the money as dividends.

Danny Choo, writer for BoingBoing, lives in Tokyo. He has two 100 Mbps fiber-optic connections, each costing $11 USD per month, uncapped, with no setup fee. Four days ago, Ars Technica announced that Virgin is making 100 mbps fiber connections available for $72 USD, and are taking flack because the plan is too expensive. To find something of comparable horsepower in the US, Comcast offers 50 mbps access in Chicago (only?), and Verizon offers 50 mbps connections via FiOS (where they can manage to put the fiber down without breaking water pipes, burning your house down, or even blowing it t o bits.) Note that the price for this service from Verizon is $145 a month, and Comcast charges $100 for customers who already overpay for cable TV from Comcast.

3 Comments... What's your say?

  1. Overcharged Matt

    I think people are missing the point. Imagine that you have a limit on freedom of speech , say a hundred words. Does it really matter that you get to say what you want, but then pay overage charges for everything over a hundred words ? Who the “f” decided that we the people would be limited to how much data we could use ? My family has the measly 10 GB plan and we go over our limit every month. Why? There is no “limit” for data in the real world .

  2. I actually gave up my unlimited plan when I upgraded to the iPhone 4. I kind of regret it, but I honestly hardly ever come close to going over. I stream Netflix on my phone, but that’s almost always at home, over wireless. When I’m, you know, out on the town I’m not watching TV. The main reason why I don’t do heavy streaming is probably because I want to conserve a resource more precious than bandwidth–battery. Although laptop tethering would be pretty sweet, I’m definitely not shelling out an extra $20 just for the privilege. Overall, I’m pretty happy with saving $5/month over the old unlimited plan.

  3. Most of your blog is displayed fine on my tablet except the menu.. works just fine in other sites..

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