One thing’s guaranteed to be limited in “unlimited” smartphone plans: their lifespan on the market.
AT&T, the latest to retire old mostly-unlimited plans, did so only 20 months after the June 2018 introduction of its previous offers.
The new ones – announced days before the Federal Trade Commission fined AT&T $60 million for not disclosing speed limits on plans sold five years ago as unlimited – require factoring in the same three variables as the other nationwide carriers’ unlimited-ish deals.
First comes the threshold at which your data speeds may slow if the network gets congested – aka “deprioritization.” How much less priority? AT&T users on Reddit have reported sub-3G speeds, down to 1 Mbps. That should be the most important factor, since it directly affects your ability to do much online on your phone – as in, it limits your use of “unlimited” data.
Then there’s how much data you can share with nearby devices via your phone’s mobile-hotspot function. I rank this second because breathing bandwidth into a tablet or laptop is so immensely convenient. But you may not need much of a hotspot allocation: Since July, the most I’ve used in a month is 699 MB.
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Last comes the top resolution of video streamed over the cellular connection. All four carriers limit that to a DVD’s 480p standard-definition resolution on cheaper plans, which you may not notice on a smaller screen.
Here’s what AT&T now touts, with prices reflecting automatic-payment and paperless-billing discounts:
- Unlimited Starter, from $65 for one line to $140 for four: no priority data, no mobile hotspot, SD streaming;
- Unlimited Extra, $75 for one line or $160 for four: 50 GB priority data, 15 GB mobile hotspot, SD streaming;
- Unlimited Elite, $85 for one line or $200 for four, available “in the coming weeks”: 100 GB priority data, 30 GB mobile hotspot, HD streaming, free HBO.
Compared to AT&T’s two former unlimited-ish plans, Starter represents an easy money-saver over Unlimited &More ($70 for one line or $160 for four, no priority data, no mobile hotspot, SD streaming), unless you’re attached to that old plan’s bundled WatchTV streaming service.
But Extra may not be worth saving $5 from Unlimited &More Premium ($80 for one line or $190 for four, 22 GB priority data, 15 GB mobile hotspot, HD streaming) if you value high-def video and its free option for one of such premium streaming TV channels as HBO or Showtime on top of WatchTV.
And the other three carriers?
Sprint offers the cheapest kinda-unlimited plan with its basic Unlimited, $60 for one line to $140 for four (after discounts expire). That gets 50 GB priority data, 500 MB mobile hotspot and SD streaming. Sprint also sells the biggest hotspot allowance: 100 GB with Unlimited Premium, $80 for one line or $220 for four post-discounts, with HD streaming and Amazon Prime thrown in. But Sprint’s network remains a fourth-place contender with particularly slow uploads.
T-Mobile offers as much priority data as Sprint’s Unlimited on a better network at about the same price with its Magenta plan: $70 including taxes and fees (or $140 for four lines) for 50 GB, 3 GB mobile hotspot and SD streaming.
If you’re in one of the few areas with 5G coverage, Verizon’s Play More Unlimited, $80 or $180 for four lines, provides that along with 25 GB priority data, 15 GB hotspot, HD streaming, and an Apple Music subscription.
(Disclosure: Pegoraro also writes for Yahoo Finance, a media property of Verizon.)
Rob Pegoraro is a tech writer based out of Washington, D.C. To submit a tech question, e-mail Rob at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter at @robpegoraro.