Many RVers these days are not just on vacation - they're living on the road full time or seasonally.
Some are working remotely, homeschooling, keeping in touch with friends & family and desiring streaming entertainment over their favorite video source.
Fact of the matter is, the small data caps that come with most cellular plans just aren't enough to replace a home connection.
Large data caps are ridiculously expensive (50GB on a modern Verizon plan starts at $225/month!)
Affordable, unlimited data is the need most often expressed by RVers we talk with, so we're constantly tracking the options.
Some carriers actively advertise unlimited data plans. Others have grandfathered plans that might still be available.
Not all unlimited plans are created equally (you'd think 'unlimited' means 'unlimited' - but it doesn't.)
Spectrum, or the amount of bandwidth available for the carriers to deliver, is a limited resource that needs to be managed. As such, the carriers work to protect their bandwidth. As the demand for data is increases, truly unlimited data plans are becoming more and more scarce.
Over the years, the carriers experimented with different plans. They introduced plans with caveats or restrictions to try to find balance between capacity and consumer desire.
Typical Unlimited Plan Restrictions
The two most typical restrictions on unlimited plans are banning mobile hotspot use or slowing down the speeds delivered. Sometimes unlimited data is only provided for certain activities.
Mobile Hotspot / Tethering is using a smartphone's cellular connection as a modem to get other devices (like laptops, tablets or streaming devices) online by enabling the Personal Hotspot feature. Or, it could be directly tethering the phone to a computer or router via USB cable to use as a data connection. Many unlimited data plans limit how much data can be used for this purpose, as unlimited data is really only intended for 'on device usage'. For more information: Using Cellular Data as WiFi.
Slowing down speeds gets a bit more confusing, and you'll see terms like Throttling, Network Management and Streaming Optimization. Here's the differences between the three:
Throttling: Is when a carrier slows down speeds after a certain usage. All carriers now sell plans with a set high speed data amount, and then 'unlimited' data at super slow speeds until the end of the billing period (eliminating overage charges.)
Network Management: Is when a carrier reserves the right to de-prioritize the traffic of high bandwidth users on unlimited data plans. They generally have a target data amount (20-28GB of usage in a month), and after that is exceeded, if the customer is on a cellular tower that is experiencing congestion, their usage might be slowed down. Once the tower is no longer congested, full speeds resume. For RVers visiting heavily populated areas with overused towers, this might feel like like throttling in practice at times. But when on underused towers, you may never experience it.
Streaming Optimization: Newer to the scene are unlimited data plans that 'optimize' streaming of video, music and/or gaming. When doing these sorts of activities, your resolution may be decreased to lower levels to save bandwidth. Video may still be very watchable, particularly on a smaller smartphone screen - but when mirroring that image to a larger screen you may notice more pixelation. Some plans include the option to 'upgrade' to HD video streaming.
This article will go over options available on each of the major carriers, including their network management & mobile hotspot usage policies.
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Tiered Data - Always At Advertised Speeds
If you purchase a data plan with any of the carriers that has a pre-stated data allowance, data up to that usage amount should always be at the advertised full speed. All direct plans with the carriers now offer 'unlimited' data after the initial allowance is used up, but at slow 128 kbps speeds.
Some resellers and prepaid options may have plans that have capped data speeds in place. This is usually clearly advertised in the plan's offering.
Network management practices apply to data plans advertised as 'unlimited' - not to specific data amount purchases.
Unlimited Data Plans
Here's a summary of the network management policies and costs of the unlimited options for the four major carriers:
Which Carrier is Best for RVers?
Of course, before you go too far researching 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 for redundancy.
We keep a separate guide updated comparing the carriers for RV use:
Verizon once had the only truly unlimited data plan offering for LTE that is accessible to consumers. While they no longer sell the plans, they continue to grandfather in the older plans and you can obtain one either by renting/leasing a line from someone or assuming liability of one.
Obtaining your own line can be the most cost effective route (typically $45-65/month versus $120-250/month for a rental) for those desiring a long term solution, and has the most protections should Verizon change the plans in the future.
Warning: This past summer, and again in January 2017, Verizon took action to terminate some unlimited data plans. If you're considering this path, please check our latest advisement in our Verizon Unlimited Data Plan guide.
Due to how complex these plans are, we cover them in more detail at:
- Throttling & Network Management: Due to the way Verizon purchased their 700MHz spectrum, which came with open access strings attached, Verizon does not implement any throttling or network management on their unlimited data plans.
- Mobile Hotspot / Tethering Use: At the current time, Verizon allows unlimited customers to place SIM cards in dedicated mobile hotspot devices, use third party tethering apps, or utilize tethering on their smartphones by purchasing a specific add-on plan. However, plans used in home routers with phone jacks, like the T1114, have been terminated.
- PopData: New as of October 2016, the carrier allows those on tiered data Verizon plans 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.
AT&T has experimented with unlimited data plans for a long time. They have options for smartphones, tablets, and connected cars. There are also some occasional rental options that come up.
Smartphone & Connected Car 'Unlimited Plans'
At present time, DirecTV (owned by AT&T) customers can obtain an unlimited smartphone, tablet or connected car plan. However, there are some caveats you have to understand about this option.
- Throttling & Network Management Policy: On non-congested towers, unlimited customers get full speeds no matter how much data they use. On congested towers, they may be pushed into the slow lane (relative to all other AT&T customers) after 22GB of usage a month. The relative speeds of the fast and slow lanes will be entirely dependent on the tower load - the slow lane will not run at a preset punitive throttled speed.
- Mobile Hotspot / Tethering Use: AT&T continues to not officially support personal hotspot or tethering on these plans, and there are reports of them starting to crack down on unauthorized work arounds. Their connected car option does include hotspot use, however the equipment eligible for these plans generally requires the vehicle's ignition be on in order to be active (which makes them not overly useful as a full time internet solution).
AT&T started offering an unlimited data plan again to subscribers of DirecTV & U-Verse in January 2016, and they continue to grandfather in service from customers who kept the plans after they discontinued them in 2010.
Up until summer of 2015, AT&T actually throttled all usage after 5GB of usage. After the new network neutrality rules kicked in it seems that AT&T has at last eased off the hard throttle and has increased the de-priotization threshold from 5GB to 22GB.
iPad Unlimited Plans
For a brief time after the iPad was first released, AT&T offered an unlimited data plan for $29.99/month. You can find these sometimes for sale for assumption of liability, costing upwards of $800-$2000 to obtain.
- Throttling & Network Management: At the present time, these grandfathered in iPad unlimited plans remain completely unthrottled and are not subject to network congestion management.
- Mobile Hotspot & Tethering Use: The data on these are on device only, and mobile hotspot/tethering is not enabled. There as has been success with tethering workarounds and using the SIM card directly in a mobile hotspot. However, should AT&T catch those doing this, it would be painful to lose one of these coveted & rare plans.
Prepaid & Alternate Options:
AT&T has a couple prepaid smartphone plans with unlimited data, and they clearly state how much of that is offered at high speed before slower speeds occur.
- Unlimitedville: Offers a rental/lease of $250/month for AT&T (Blue) lines that they claim are not subject to network management or throttling.
- You'll find occasional rental lines on places like eBay or through vendors such as Your Expedited Delivery. Some are rental business data only lines, and some are plans that have work arounds for AT&T's data tethering block.
- Cricket Wireless: A prepaid brand owned by AT&T, has an unlimited data plan for smartphones that is always slowed to 8 mbps speeds (very suitable for most online tasks, including streaming video). However, they are very clear that they do not allow any mobile hotspot use with the plan, and they are making moves to thwart unauthorized use as mobile hotspots.
- 4G Antenna Shop: Occasionally has a Cricket and AT&T data only plans - check for current options.
- Mobile Solutions: Offers an unlimited LTE AT&T plan for $69.99/month with a required purchase of their mobile hotspot.
In September 2016, T-Mobile began offering T-Mobile One plans with included unlimited data. Starting on January 22nd, 2017, T-Mobile One (unlimited plan) will be the ONLY plan available for postpaid tablets and smartphones directly from T-Mobile. However, there are caveats to this plan to consider.
- Throttling & Network Management Policy: Customers on T-Mobile's unlimited data plan who use more data than what is used by 97% of their customers (based on recent historical averages) might, in some cases, have their data usage prioritized below the data of other consumers during times and places of network contention. As of late October 2016, they state their network management number is at 28GB a month.
- Mobile Hotspot / Tethering: Unlimited tethering is included at 3G (512 kbps) speeds. Customers can upgrade to One+ for $25 extra per line per month, and get full high speed tethering. However, the carrier reserves the right to de-prioritize mobile hotspot use over on device use, and high data users who are primarily using the plan for tethering may be contacted by the carrier to discuss options.
- Video Resolution Throttled: All video streaming will be throttled to DVD quality (or 480p). Customers may purchase day passes for HD video streaming, or redeem unlimited passes if they are One+ subscribers.
- Hotspots (device) are NOT eligible for the unlimited T-Mobile One plan.
Customers who have an existing Simple Choice unlimited plan are grandfathered in, and will need to opt into the new T-Mobile One plan. These older Simple Choice unlimited plans included optional Binge On (video optimization) and 14GB of mobile hotspot use at high speed, but tethering usage will be slowed down.
For more information: T-Mobile One Plan
Prepaid & Alternate Options:
- Unlimitedville: Offers a rental/lease option for T-Mobile (Pink) at $200/month on a month-to-month basis. It is advertised as unthrottled, not subject to network management and truly unlimited. For more information: Unlimitedville.com Offers T-Mobile Unlimited Data Plan
- Mobile Solutions: offers a $70/month T-Mobile based 4G/LTE mobile hotspot plan.
- 4G Antenna Shop: Offers business plans on the T-Mobile network. Their pricing varies quite a bit, so check in to see what they currently offer and be sure to read the fine print.
Smartphone Unlimited Plans
All of Sprint's data plans are technically unlimited. On their tiered data plans (those in which you purchase a bucket of data for each month), after the cap is reached, speeds are throttled for the rest of the billing period to 2G speeds.
Sprint also offers an unlimited smartphone data plan to consumers, an ability to add on an unlimited tablet plan to any line of service, and there are options for unlimited data plans lurking around.
- Throttling & Network Management Policy: Customers on an unlimited smartphone plan who use more data than what is used by 97% of what all customers use in a given month, stated to be an equivalent of 23GB/month, might in some cases have their data usage prioritized below the data of other consumers during times and places of network contention.
- Mobile Hotspot & Tethering Policy: Sprint's 'Unlimited Freedom' data plans include 5GB a month of mobile hotspot & tethering use. Their unlimited data plans prior to August 19, 2016 included only 3GB.
- Video, Music and Gaming Throttled: On Sprint's newer 'Unlimited Freedom' plans, all video streaming will be throttled to DVD quality (or 480p), all music streaming throttled to 500kbps and all gaming traffic throttled to 2mpbs.
Prepaid & Alternate Options:
- Unlimitedville: Offers a rental unlimited data only plan (Yellow) for $100/month, that is not subject to throttling.
- Boost Mobile: In February 2016, this reseller added mobile hotspot usage to all of their smartphone plans. Their unlimited smartphone plan includes 8GB/month of hotspot usage and is subject to network management after 23GB of usage a month.
- 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. Several are now offering plans as low as $10/month.