Understanding Unlimited Cellular Data Plans: Network Management, Throttling & Mobile Hotspot Usage

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unlimited-cellular-data-options-guide-for-rversAffordable, unlimited data is the need most often expressed by RVers we talk with, so we're constantly tracking the options.

All of the major carriers actively advertise unlimited data plans.  Others also have grandfathered plans that might still be available. And some resellers have managed to find ways to offer unlimited data plans to consumers.

Not all unlimited plans are created equally, however (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 increases, the term 'unlimited' as been redefined.

The carriers have experimented with different plans over the years, introducing caveats and restrictions to try to find balance between capacity and consumer desire.

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

Understanding Unlimited Plan Restrictions

The most typical restrictions on unlimited plans are slowing down the speeds delivered. 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, and you'll see terms like Throttling and Network Management.  Here are the differences:

  • 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's some examples:
    • AT&T's Unlimited Choice plan always slows speeds to 3 mbps
    • Verizon's 'Safety Mode' on their tiered data plans slow speeds to 128kbps after the data cap is reached, to avoid overages.
    • Many carriers only allow 10GB of high speed mobile hotspot use, which is then slowed down to super slow speeds for the rest of the month.
  • 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 (22-32GB of usage in a month). After that threshold is reached, 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.
    • 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.

Mobile Hotspot / Tethering Restrictions

This restriction is the one that matters most to RVers trying to replace a home internet connection, especially those who need to work remotely or homeschool. The caps implemented on carrier direct unlimited plans are intended for occasionally getting a laptop online while away from a typical home or office internet connection. The carriers clearly do not want their customers using these plans to replace cable or DSL internet connection.

But first.. 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 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. Many unlimited data plans limit how much data can be used for this purpose at high speed, as unlimited data is really only intended for 'on device usage'.

If the carrier offers a dedicated mobile hotspot device to add on to the unlimited plan (such as a Jetpack/MiFi) - the mobile hotspot restriction might even apply to that line. Be sure you know the terms of your carrier (hint: Verizon has this restriction, AT&T does not)!

Additionally, any video streaming allowed by the carrier is for on device only - trying to connect a streaming device (like Apple TV, Chromecast, etc) via mobile hotspot will count against mobile hotspot caps. Using a HDMI cable out of the device to mirror it to a larger TV gets around these restrictions.

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


 

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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:


Unlimited Data Plans

Each carrier now offers an unlimited data plan for smartphones (and tables & mobile hotspots as add-ons). There are also 'alternate' options offered either by finding an older grandfathered in plan or via a reseller.

Here's a summary of the network management policies and costs of the unlimited options for the four major carriers:

 

Verizon

Verizon has two different unlimited data plans - those that are grandfathered in from when they were first offered before 2011 (which have pretty much no limitations), and their newly launched unlimited smartphone plans beginning February 13, 2017.

The NEW Unlimited Data Plan

Verizon announced in February 2017 they are bringing back their own unlimited data plan. But the plan has some major gotchas you need to understand.

Policies:

  • Throttling & Network Management: The plans are subject to network management after 22GB of usage in a month.
  • Mobile Hotspot / Tethering Use: The plans include 10GB of high speed mobile hotspot use in a month, and then speed for mobile hotspots are reduced to 3G levels (defined as 600 kbps) for the remainder of the month.  Jetpacks & MiFis can be added to the plan, however only include 10GB of high speed mobile hotspot use too.
  • Video Optimization: HD Video streaming is allowed on device.
Alternate Options:

There are some other options for unlimited Verizon Data:

  • Grandfathered/Legacy Unlimited Data Plans:  Back in 2011, Verizon discontinued their trully unlimited data plan that was never subject to throttling, network management and allowed mobile hotspot use. They continue to grandfather in the older plans if they've remained under contract and you can obtain one either by renting/leasing a line from someone or assuming liability of one. Prices range from $45-249/month - and the options for acquiring these plans vary quite a bit. Verizon has been aggressively shutting these plans down starting in 2016, so make sure you fully understand the risks of this option in our linked guide.
  • PopData: For those on tiered postpaid Verizon data plans, new as of 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 Prepaid Unlimited Data Plan - Verizon directly offers an unlimited smartphone plan, but only includes unlimited data on the smartphone and no mobile hotspot use. Also, all use is subject to network management at all times, and video is reduced to 480p resolution.

AT&T

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.

ATT-Logo1'Unlimited' Smartphone Plans

 

  • Throttling & Network Management Policy: The plans are subject to network management after 22GB of usage in a month.
  • Video Optimization: With Unlimited Plus, HD Video streaming is allowed on device, but 'Stream Saver' needs to be manually turned off to get HD. With Unlimited Choice, video is restricted to SD quality.
  • Mobile Hotspot / Tethering Use: Unlimited Plus will include 10GB of high speed mobile hotspot use on smartphone and tablet lines, that then drops to 128kpbs (2G speeds).
    • Mobile Hotspot Devices Exemption: If you have a data first device (like a mobile hotspot, home base or connected car) - it does not have this high speed data cap, just the network management. (Yes, that means it has unlimited high speed data except at times of tower congestion.) We also have several confirmed reports of data first devices being activated as stand alone single line plans (without a smartphone on the account) - if you find a representative willing to do it.
    • Unlimited Choice (their lower cost unlimited plan) includes no mobile hotspots on smartphones & tablets, but mobile hotspots get unlimited at 3 mpbs speeds.

History:

AT&T started offering an unlimited smartphone data plan again to subscribers of DirecTV & U-Verse in January 2016 (in February 2017, they removed this restriction).  In March 2017, they also added mobile hotspot allowance to their Unlimited Plus plans. They have also introduced Unlimited Choice plans for less money, but speeds always capped to 3 mpbs.

Their original unlimited plans (without mobile hotspot use) continue to be grandfathered in service for customers who kept the plans.

For a brief time after the iPad was first released, AT&T offered an unlimited data plan for $29.99/month that they grandfathered in for customers who kept paying the bill. However, starting in May 2017, those plans will be subject to network management too. This impacts many of the rental plans available on AT&T, as they were strongly based on this iPad plan.

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.

  • Connected Car 'Stand Alone': AT&T's connected car unlimited plan for $20/month is quite attractive. The equipment eligible for these plans generally requires the vehicle's ignition be on in order to be active. Using the ZTE Mobley Device with a power adapter can get around this - and as a special promo through July 2017, you can activate a Connected Car account with out needing a base smartphone line. Making this unlimited option for $20/month well worth considering.
  • Tablet Prepaid Unlimited Plan: AT&T has brought back their unlimited tablet plans on a pay-as-you-go basis for $29.99. The plans are subject to network management after 22GB of usage, and do not include any mobile hotspot use.
  • Rentals: You'll find rental lines on places like eBay (vendors: KRLL and ProShop LLC) or through storefronts Your Expedited Delivery and Unlimitedville- these can generally be found for $100-199/month. Some are rental business data only lines with no limitations, and some are plans based on the old iPad plans that are now subject to network management. Shop carefully.  (Members, please check your Member Discounts page for some special offers from some vendors.)
  • GoPhone: AT&T's own prepaid subsidiary, GoPhone offers an unlimited call, text, and data plan that is always slowed to 3 mbps speeds, and is subject to network management at 22GB. All streaming is at 480p. Mobile hotspot/tethering is not permitted. This plan does, however, allow free roaming in Canada and Mexico.
  • 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) and starting April 2, 2017 will be subject to network management after 22GB of usage in a month. 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, or give them a call (sometimes they have a wait list for the AT&T lines if you're a current customer of their T-Mobile based service.)
  • AT&T Wireless Home Internet & Phone Rural - While not unlimited, in some markets AT&T offers a 250GB for $60 or 500GB for $100/month plan to rural customers. The plans do work nationwide however. Some RVers have been able to snag these regardless if they're in those markets.

T-Mobile

T_Mobile_logo_Magenta_lowT-Mobile One

In September 2016, T-Mobile began offering T-Mobile One plans with included unlimited data. Since launch, they have made several modifications to the plan to meet customer demands and in response to other carriers.

However, there are caveats to this plan to consider.

  • Throttling & Network Management Policy: The plans are subject to network management after 32GB of usage in a month. They change this threshold several times a year based on what represents the top 3% of customer usage.
  • Mobile Hotspot / Tethering: The carrier offer three tiers of plans, each with their own mobile hotspot features:
    • One (base plan): Includes unlimited hotspot use at 3G speeds.
    • One+ ($5/month): Includes the first 10GB of mobile hotspot at full 4G speeds per line, and then drops to 3G speeds afterwards (512 kbps).
    • One+ International ($25/month): Unlimited 4G mobile hotspot use (and 3G speeds internationally). 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: One plans include free video streaming at 480p resolution. One+ plans include HD video streaming.

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 may be slowed down.

For more information: T-Mobile One Plan

Prepaid & Alternate Options:
  • Unlimitedville: Offers a rental/lease option for T-Mobile (Pink) at $199/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
  • 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.
  • Millenicom: Offers their Ultimate LTE plan for $70/month, with unlimited 4G hotspot use in North America (Canada/Mexico included) - but video streaming reduced to 512kbps speeds (lower resolution). The plan can be upgraded to HD video for $25/month.
  • Unlimited LTE Advanced: Offers an unlimited T-Mobile data only plan on mobile hotspot for $75.99/month that includes full 4G/LTE hotspot use and HD video in the US only (no international use included)
  • 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 PCS: T-Mobile prepaid subsidiary offers an unlimited plan with 4G LTE data on device, and 8GB of mobile hotspot data for $60/month.

Sprint

Sprint LogoSmartphone 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: The plans are subject to network management after 23GB of usage in a month.
  • Mobile Hotspot & Tethering Policy: Sprint's 'Unlimited Freedom' data plans include 10 GB a month of mobile hotspot & tethering use. Their unlimited data plans prior to August 19, 2016 included only 3GB, and prior to February 17, 2017 they only included 5GB.
  • Video Resolution Throttled: All video streaming is at HD quality.
Prepaid & Alternate Options:
  • Unlimitedville: Offers a rental unlimited data only plan (Yellow) for $99/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. By joining non-profits like Calyx Institute, 4GCommunity or PCsForPeople you can get access to Sprint unlimited data plans for as low as $10/month.
  • Virgin Mobile: In March 2017, this Sprint's prepaid subsidiary added an unlimited plan option to their line-up. No hotspot usage is included in the base price, but 2G per month can be added for an additional $10/month.

Our Full Video Guide to the Unlimited Data Plans for each carrier:

Related News Stories:

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