Guide to Unlimited Cellular Data Plans: Understanding the Limits

Many RVers, cruisers, and nomads are seeking a home internet replacement so they can work remotely, stay in touch with loved ones and even keep entertained.

Unlimited cellular high-speed data plans are in high demand for the mobile community who would like to affordably use hundreds of GBs of data a month.

Unfortunately, none of the cellular carriers yet have the resources to provide home internet service if everyone cut the cord - so their plans are designed around the assumption that their customers have a DSL or cable connection for their primary internet usage.

Their cellular phone plans are designed for use when traveling away from the home or office.

So while all of the carriers proudly advertise unlimited data plans, they have redefined the term “unlimited”  to try to find balance between capacity and consumer desire.

These days 'unlimited' basically just means no automatic overage charges.

Unfortunately that means "unlimited" plans come with limitations and gotchas.

Understanding these restrictions is the key to determining if an unlimited data plan will meet your needs, especially if you're seeking a home internet replacement on the road.


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Understanding Unlimited Plan Restrictions

The most typical restriction on unlimited plans is the practice of slowing down the speeds delivered either always, or after a specific point of usage. Sometimes, unlimited high speed data is only provided for certain activities.

For a quick (5m) video overview of the differences between Network Management & Throttling - and Mobile Hotspot Caps:

Slowing Speeds Down

Slowing down speeds can get a bit confusing. Don't let terms like Throttling and Network Management trip you up.

  • Throttling: Is when a carrier or reseller always slows down speeds. This might be for the entire month, or only after a certain amount of data is used. Here are some examples:
    • Verizon's 'Safety Mode' on their tiered data plans slows speeds to 128kbps after the data cap is reached to help customers avoid overage charges.
    • Many carriers include 10-20 GB of high speed mobile hotspot use, which is then slowed down to super slow speeds for the rest of the month once used.
  • Network Management: Is when a carrier reserves the right to de-prioritize the traffic of high bandwidth users. They generally have a threshold before this kicks in (22-75GB of usage in a month). Some carriers may refer to the data before this threshold as 'premium data'. Once data is subject to network management if you're on a cellular tower that is experiencing congestion, data speeds might be slowed down. Once the tower is no longer congested, full speeds should resume. You might not even notice it, especially if you travel in non-congested areas.
    • Example: Think of it as if you were driving on a highway that has a high occupancy / car pool lane. During normal traffic, all lanes are at full speed because there's not much traffic. But during rush hour, if you qualify to use the car pool lane, it's beneficial to avoid bumper to bumper traffic in the 'normal lanes.' Network management is like this - after you hit your threshold, you can no longer use the carpool lane. That will only matter during rush hour.
    • Both AT&T and Verizon are now calling their pre-network management data "Premium 4G LTE" probably as an attempt to better distinguish this threshold.  It also allows the carriers to more easily differentiate plans with different management thresholds, as is the case with Verizon's Above Unlimited plan with a 75GB threshold.

Mobile Hotspot / Tethering Restrictions

The hotspot capability on carrier direct unlimited plans assumes you have a primary internet provider for most things - such as cable or DSL. The carriers clearly do not want their customers using these plans to replace those sorts of connections - which is unfortunately precisely what many nomads need. Cellular data often is our primary internet source.

What is mobile hotspot and tethering?
  • Personal Mobile Hotspot is using a smartphone or tablet's cellular connection as a modem to get other devices (like laptops, tablets or streaming devices) online by creating a WiFi hotspot on the smartphone or tablet device.
  • Tethering is using a USB cable to directly attach the phone/tablet to a computer or router.

Both activities are treated the same by the carriers in terms of how data is categorized as hotspot use. Many unlimited data plans limit how much data can be used for this purpose at high speed, as unlimited data is only included for 'on device' usage on a smartphone or tablet.

If the carrier offers a dedicated mobile hotspot device to add on to the unlimited plan (such as a Jetpack/MiFi), a hotspot data restriction might even apply to that line.

The good news is, there are 'alternative' unlimited data plans without these restrictions that we track, which you can learn more about below.

Video Throttling

Streaming video over the internet has become one of the most data intensive things people do on the internet. And the carriers have been trying to capitalize on that demand while managing their resources.

Did you know that one hour of streaming HD video can consume 3-4 GB of data? That's a lot of data!

Most unlimited plans these days include unlimited video streaming on your smartphone or tablet. - but video resolution might be restricted to 480p, 720p or 1080p to save on bandwidth.

Check out our guide to TV & Entertainment on the Road for a lot more details on utilizing cellular data for video streaming, including the best practices for legitimately getting around your mobile hotspot cap to view video on your larger TV screen.


The US Cellular Carrier's Unlimited Plans Options

Of course, before you get too far into researching the unlimited data plans offered by each of the carriers, you should also consider which carriers are most ideal for YOUR needs. Each of the carriers varies quite a bit in the coverage they offer. For those relying on mobile internet, we usually recommend having at least two carriers on board (redundancy.)

We keep a separate guide updated comparing the carriers for nomadic use:

Top Pick Data Plans

Here's our current top pick data plans for each carrier - while they might not all necessarily be unlimited, they have been selected for delivering the most amount of high speed hotspot data (or on device tablet data) for the most affordable costs.

Current Best Pick Data Plans for RVers & Cruisers for Each Carrier:

Quick Video Overview with our top picks (updatedNov 26, 2018):



Got Coverage?

These top picks focus on plans that provide the maximum amount of high speed hotspot-enabled data (or on device for a tablet/PC) for the lowest cost.

Last update: 11/15/2018

Verizon

 

Monthly Cost
Device Type
High Speed Hot Spot Cap
Network Management
How to Obtain

Prepaid Unlimited

Monthly Cost : $65
Device Type : Jetpacks
High Speed Hot Spot Cap : Unlimited
Network Management : Always
How to Obtain: Verizon Prepaid

Postpaid "Unlimited"

Monthly Cost : $20-80
Device Type : All
High Speed Hot Spot Cap : 15GB
Network Management : 22GB
How to Obtain: Verizon Postpaid

Visible

Monthly Cost : $40
Device Type : iPhones
High Speed Hot Spot Cap : All at 5 mbps
Network Management : All at 5 mbps
How to Obtain: beVisible.com

Legacy Unlimited / gUDP

Monthly Cost : $45-249
Device Type : All
High Speed Hot Spot Cap : Unlimited
Network Management : None
How to Obtain: Not Easy / Read On

AT&T

 

Monthly Cost
Device Type
High Speed Hot Spot Cap
Network Management
How to Obtain

Wireless Home Internet

Monthly Cost : $100
Device Type : Wireless Internet Device
High Speed Hot Spot Cap : 100GB
Network Management : Never
How to Obtain: AT&T Postpaid

Tablet Prepaid Plan

Monthly Cost : $29.99
Device Type : Tablets
High Speed Hot Spot Cap : None
Network Management : 22GB
How to Obtain: AT&T Prepaid

Rental/Lease

Monthly Cost : $60-199
Device Type : Data Devices
High Speed Hot Spot Cap : Unlimited
Network Management : Never
How to Obtain: 3rd Party Vendors

T-Mobile

 

Monthly Cost
Device Type
High Speed Hot Spot Cap
Network Management
How to Obtain
Monthly Cost : $85
Device Type : Smartphones/Tablets
High Speed Hot Spot Cap : 20GB
Network Management : 50GB
How to Obtain: T-Mobile Postpaid

Rental/Lease

Monthly Cost : $70-250
Device Type : Data Devices
High Speed Hot Spot Cap : Unlimited
Network Management : 50GB
How to Obtain: 3rd Party Retailers

Sprint

 

Monthly Cost
Device Type
Hot Spot Cap
Network Management
How to Obtain

Non-Profit Plans

Monthly Cost : $10-33
Device Type : Mobile Hotspots
Hot Spot Cap : Unlimited
Network Management : Never
How to Obtain: Non-Profits
Monthly Cost : $49.99
Device Type : Mobile Hotspots
Hot Spot Cap : Unlimited
Network Management : Always
How to Obtain: FMCA Members Only

Unlimited Premium

Monthly Cost : $90
Device Type : Smartphones
Hot Spot Cap : 100GB
Network Management : 50GB
How to Obtain: Sprint Postpaid

Sprint Hotspot Plan

Monthly Cost : $50
Device Type : Mobile Hotspots
Hot Spot Cap : 50GB
Network Management : None
How to Obtain: Sprint Postpaid

Postpaid "Unlimited" Plan Options by Carrier

The direct postpaid carrier options are where you'll see many of the restrictions detailed above.

Each carrier currently offers an "unlimited" data plan for smartphones and tablets. This chart offers a quick comparison summary of the limitations & pricing.



Got Coverage?

For full details on each carrier's direct unlimited plans & policies, click on the carrier you're interested in to view all of the current and recently retired postpaid plan options offered:

Alternative Unlimited Plan Options

In addition to carrier direct plans - there are alternative plans available which are covered below for each carrier. These options might not have the restrictions outlined above.

For more on understanding the differences between prepaid, MVNO and resellers options - refer to this guide:

Considerations for Selecting Cellular Data Plans

Verizon

Here are some alternative options for unlimited data on Verizon's network:

Verizon Prepaid Unlimited Data Plan

On November 6, 2018, Verizon rolled out a new prepaid unlimited plan for Jetpacks. For $65/month (after autopay discount) you can get unlimited data with no high-speed hotspot caps on a Jetpack/Mifi. Phones and tablets on this prepaid unlimited plan do not include ANY mobile hotspot/tether data.  Also, all use for all devices is subject to network management at all times, and video is reduced to 480p resolution for phones and 1080p for tablets and Jetpacks.

Grandfathered/Legacy Unlimited Data Plans

To learn more about these options ranging from $5-249/month refer to our Guide to Verizon Unlimited Data Plans. At present time we consider these option very risky, as there's ongoing terminations for rental/leases, flashed devices and owned lines.

Unlimited Rental/Lease Vendors

Dealing with Third Party Vendors and Why the Pricing Range? Verizon reseller plans tend to be based on business/corporate accounts and sometimes reselling government or non-profit plans.

As with all third party resellers, consider that the vendor may NOT have an official relationship with the carrier and service could be terminated with little notice. This is especially true of Verizon unlimited plans, which usually do NOT allow for resellers or leasing - and Verizon has a solid history of terminating these sorts of accounts.  Please follow up with the Verizon Unlimited guide linked above for more information on this. 

Listings here are for informational purposes, and not endorsements or advertisements for these resellers. Resellers may show 'out of stock' depending on current inventory and availability.

  • LivinLite: Offers unlimited Verizon plans for $140/month
  • Timbuktu Wireless: Offers unlimited Verizon 'Red' plans at $149.99/month, with no stated data caps.
  • 4GData.net: Offers unlimited plans at $150.00/month, with no stated data caps.
  • UnlimitedtoGo: Their 'red' plan is listed at $179.99/month with no data caps.
  • TacCom Data: Offers unlimited plans at $175/month with not stated data caps.
  • Konnected Technology: Offers unlimited plans at $195.00/month
  • Unlimitedville: Offers Verizon rental option at $249/month.

PopData (Tiered Data Plans)

For those on tiered postpaid Verizon data plans post-October 2016, the carrier allows customers to purchase 30 minute ($2) and 60 minute ($3) unlimited data sessions, giving a lot of flexibility for consumers to handle large file transfers when needed.

Verizon 'Unlimited' Post-Paid Data-only Plan

This plan is not advertised in the "plans" section of Verizon's website, but is listed as the default plan in the online store for data-only devices for new post-paid accounts.  The cost is $80/month before any discounts.  It includes unlimited on-device data (15GB of high-speed data following by unlimited at 600kbps) with a network management threshold of 15GB. It also includes 15GB of full-speed mobile hotspot data (also reduced to 600kbps), unlimited HD (1080p or 720p depending on your device) on-device streaming, unlimited 2G domestic roaming, 512mb international roaming followed by unlimited 2G, and unlimited texting.

This plan is primarily designed for people who have data-only devices on Verizon and no other lines of service.  Additional data-only devices can be added to this plan for $20/month.

Visible

Visible is Verizon's newest prepaid brand offers unlimited data reduced to 5mbps for $40/month. Hotspotting of all data is permitted at 5mbps, but you can only hotspot to a single device at a time. Visible customers are prioritized behind postpaid Verizon customers. Currently iOS only.

Xfinity Mobile & Spectrum Mobile

These home based cable services offer special plans on Verizon to their customers. On device data is 'unlimited' - with the first 20GB being at full speed. Mobile Hotspot however is restricted on both plans - only 5GB at high speed on Spectrum's plan, and all at 600 kbps on the Xfinity plan (new policy change as of July 2018).

US Mobile 

US Mobile is a prepaid MVNO that offers unlimited data plans on the Verizon network, however, speeds are throttled after 14GB of use in a month.

FMCA

The Family Motor Coach Association offers an "unlimited" data plan with Verizon to their members for $49.99/month. It includes 25GB of highspeed mobile hotspot use, then "2G speeds" afterward - and we have multiple confirmed reports of unusable speeds after the 25GB. This plan does require a 2-year contract with Verizon and and an active 2-year FMCA membership.

AT&T

Here are some alternative options for unlimited data on AT&T's network:

Unlimited Rentals/Resellers

Dealing with Third Party Vendors and Why the Pricing Range?

Some plans are based on postpaid business data only lines with no stated limitations, and some are plans based on the prepaid  plans that might be subject to limitations like network management, lower priority service, lack of roaming or video throttling. As with all third party resellers, consider that the vendor may NOT have an official relationship with the carrier and service could be terminated with little notice.

Listings here are for informational purposes, and not endorsements or advertisements for these resellers.

Lowest Cost Resellers (Members Check for Discounts):

Note: We have communicated directly with both of the above, and they both claim they have direct reseller relationships with AT&T, and the plans are on AT&T's prepaid network (ie. no domestic or international roaming included) - and are not subject to throttling or network management.

More Resellers:

Connected Car Plans

If you have a vehicle with the Onstar system built in, you can generally qualify for an unlimited standalone $20/month data plan through the Connected Car department. This plan only works when the vehicle's ignition is on. The plan is no longer available for aftermarket devices like the Mobley.

The Harman Spark is AT&T's current aftermarket connected car device, and there is a $30/month plan available for unlimited data - however it intended only for use in moving vehicle (and is pretty well locked down to that purpose)

Tablet Prepaid Unlimited Plan

 AT&T offers a prepaid unlimited tablet plans for $29.99 with autopay (or $35 on a month-to-month as needed basis). The plans are subject to network management after 22GB of usage, and do not include any mobile hotspot use. A great option if your needs can be met with a tablet.

These plans are specifically meant for cellular enabled tablets, however many report the SIM card works just fine in an AT&T compatible hotspot device or router. This is a violation of terms of service that could be enforced in the future. You will find some vendors, particularly on eBay, that will set one of these lines up for you using a spoofed tablet IMEI number - and then you take over the payments directly with AT&T. There's no telling how these plans might endure in the future.

AT&T Prepaid Smartphone

AT&T offers two prepaid smartphone plans with unlimited on-device service. One does not include any mobile hotspot use, and their higher tiered level plan includes 10GB of high-speed mobile hotspot.

Cricket Wireless

Cricket Wireless is a prepaid brand owned by AT&T, has unlimited data plans for smartphones that one that is always slowed to 3mbps speeds and one that is full speed on device. Both are subject to network management after 22GB of usage in a month. Customers can add on 10GB of high speed hotspot use for $10/month on select phones on either unlimited plan. (While SIM cards from unlimited Cricket plans do work in hotspot devices with unlimited service, Cricket has started to enforce their terms of service for unauthorized use. We have reports starting in late 2017 of text messages being received and now termination of accounts starting in early 2018.)

Skyroam

Skyroam is an international global SIM provider prominently advertises 'Unlimited Data' for $8/day or $99/month on their proprietary hotspot device. While intended for international travel with automatic roaming, in the US Skyroam uses AT&T as the carrier. However, read the fine print - Skyroam throttles speed to '2G' after 500mb of usage in a day, or 15GB in a month.

T-Mobile

Here are some alternative options for unlimited data on AT&T's network:

Unlimited Resellers/Rentals

Most of these resellers offer plans based on the 'T-Mobile One' smartphone plan and those plans are subject to the same limitations including video throttling (SD/5Mbps) and Network Management at 50GB.

As with all third party resellers, always assume that the vendor likely does NOT have an official relationship with the carrier and service could be terminated with little notice.Listings here are for informational purposes, and not endorsements or advertisements for these resellers.

T-Mobile Prepaid Smartphone

T-Mobile Prepaid offers a prepaid One unlimited plan for $75/month with unlimited 4G LTE data on device, and mobile hotspot data at 3G speeds.

Metro by T-Mobile Smartphone / Hotspot

Metro by T-Mobile is a T-Mobile prepaid subsidiary offering two unlimited on device plans with 4G LTE data on device, and either 5GB or 15GB of mobile hotspot data for $50 or $60/month. A dedicate mobile hotspot device can be added to smartphone lines for $35/month that provides 10GB of high speed data.

Project Fi

Project Fi is Google's cellular plan that combines T-Mobile, Sprint, and US Cellular. Their 'Bill Protection' feature is advertised as unlimited. Pay a max of $60/month for data (billed at $10/GB) and use up to 15GB a month at full speed. After 15GB, speeds are reduced to 256 kbps - or you can opt into $10/GB billing for high speed.

Sprint

Here are some alternative options for unlimited data on AT&T's network:

Rental/Lease Vendors:

As with all resellers, always assume service could be terminated with little notice. Listings here are for informational purposes, and not endorsements or advertisements for these resellers.

Non-Profit Low Cost Unlimited 4G Plans

Due to terms of how Sprint purchased Clear a few years back, they inherited terms to provide unlimited data plans to non-profits. By joining non-profits like Calyx Institute (open to all) or PCsForPeople (low income qualified) you can get access to Sprint unlimited data plans for as low as $10/month.

2-in-1 PC Devices & Tablet Plans

Sprint has an unlimited on device data plan for select 2-n-1 Snapdragon based PC-like devices and BYOD tablets for $15/month. Plans include 480 video streaming and 10GB of LTE mobile hotspot use.

Boost Mobile Smartphone Plans

Boost Mobile is a Sprint MVNO and their unlimited smartphone plan includes 20GB/month of hotspot usage and is subject to network management after 23GB of usage a month.

Virgin Mobile Smartphone Plans

Virgin Mobile is Sprint's prepaid subsidiary. No hotspot usage is included in the base price, but 2G per month can be added for an additional $10/month on their unlimited plans.

Project Fi

Project Fi is Google's cellular plan that combines T-Mobile, Sprint, and US Cellular. Their 'Bill Protection' feature is advertised as unlimited. Pay a max of $60/month for data (billed at $10/GB) and use up to 15GB a month at full speed. After 15GB, speeds are reduced to 256 kbps - or you can opt into $10/GB billing for high speed.

Data Vendors & Brokers:  Want to be listed? Please be in touch at info@rvmobileinternet.com and introduce yourself and what you offer. We take absolutely no listing fees, advertisement dollars or kickbacks for listings. And you must host your own web storefront (eBay not eligible) where customers can transparently learn about the details of your offering.


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