Unlimited data plans: opening Pandora’s Box?

T-Mobile CEO
T-Mobile US CEO John Legere is latest to make use of the unlimited message for mobile data plans.
EC pic

In response to recent launches of “unlimited” mobile data plans by T-Mobile US and Sprint, CCS Insight said it “would be premature to label ‘unlimited’ as a Pandora's Box that will grow out of control.”

The analyst company was commenting on the potential impact that such “unlimited plans” could have on an operator’s precious spectrum resources and network management. It concluded that subscribers ultimately tend to act rationally, “and irrational behaviour by carriers is unlikely to change that.”

However, the term “unlimited” has been abused to such an extent by the mobile industry that perhaps it is time to draw the line under what is often an inaccurate marketing label. So-called unlimited plans rarely live up to their promises, with fair usage policies in place and threats that data speeds will be throttled once certain limits have been reached.

Indeed, many plans are described as unlimited because subscribers can continue to use data at GPRS speeds once certain caps have been reached. I think we all gave up pretending a long time ago that GPRS was really much use to anyone -- least of all in these data-hungry times.

Three UK has presented something of a beacon of light in the wilderness of unlimited data promises. Unless I’ve missed something, the company really does not appear to have any usage limits in its all-you-can-eat plans. However, as CCS Insight also pointed out, Three UK faces a challenging time ahead because of limited spectrum resources, and there are already signs that it is starting to pull back. For instance, it already limits tethering -- albeit to a now more generous cap of 30 GB -- and has gradually been launching more plans with mobile data caps.

The mobile industry would be no worse off if the unlimited tag fell by the wayside; far better to have plans such as those offered by mobile operators in Sweden that offer whopping allowances of 100 GB. Not many subscribers would complain about that amount of data. Perhaps it is now time to stop playing the unlimited game and be a bit more honest about what is actually available -- not least because operators can’t really afford to let all their subscribers have full rein on their data networks anyway.--Anne