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.

Understanding 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 

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.

For more Information on this: Ways to Use Cellular Data To Get Online: Jetpack, Smartphone or Router?

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'.

This restriction is the one that generally 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.

This makes carrier direct unlimited data plans great smartphone plans, but not the ideal central mobile internet solution for an RVer.

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.

We recommend most RVers seek out one of the 'alternative' unlimited data plans or investigate high data limit plans to meet their mobile internet needs.

Slowing Speeds Down 

Slowing down speeds gets a bit more confusing, and you'll see terms like ThrottlingNetwork Management and Streaming Optimization.  Here are the differences between the three:

  • Throttling: Is when a carrier or reseller always slows down speeds. This might be for the entire month (example: Cricket Wireless, an AT&T prepaid plan, always slows speeds to 8 mbps) or it might be only after a certain amount of data has been used (example: Carriers that offer tiered data plans tend to just slow speeds to 128kbps after the data cap is reached, to avoid overages.)
  • 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 (22-28GB 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, and already quickly disappearing, 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.

All carriers currently apply these thresholds to each individual line on the account.


 

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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.

So let's look at them both:

The NEW Unlimited Data Plan (effective 2017):

In reaction to all other carriers offering an official unlimited data plan, Verizon has announced they are bringing back their own unlimited data plan. But this time, it has some gotchas:

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 are subject to these same restrictions.
  • Video Optimization: HD Video streaming is allowed on device.
  • PopData: For those on tiered 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.

Grandfathered 'Original' Unlimited Data Plans (last offered in 2011):

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 if they've remained under contract 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 monthly route (typically $45-65/month versus $120-300/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 OUT of contract 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:

Navigating Verizon Grandfathered Unlimited Data Plans

Policies:

  • Throttling & Network Management: Due to the way Verizon purchased their 700MHz spectrum, which came with open access strings attached, Verizon does not currently implement any throttling or network management on their grandfathered 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 are at risk of termination.

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-Logo1Smartphone & 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: The plans are subject to network management after 22GB of usage in a month.
  • Video Optimization: HD Video streaming is allowed on device, but 'Stream Saver' needs to be manually turned off to get HD.
  • 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.
    • Connected Car: Their connected car unlimited 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. 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 $40/month well worth considering.

History:

AT&T started offering an unlimited data plan again to subscribers of DirecTV & U-Verse in January 2016 (in February 2017, they removed this restriction).

And they continue to grandfather in service for customers who kept the plans after they discontinued them in 2010 however they have increased the price twice to now match the newer plans. Up until summer of 2015, AT&T actually throttled all usage after 5GB of usage. They now only implement network management after 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 ever choose to enforce this restriction, 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 $249/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, 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 28GB 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 now includes the first 10GB of mobile hotspot at full speed, and then drops to 3G speeds afterwards (512 kbps). Customers can upgrade to One+ International for $25 extra per line per month, and get full high speed tethering (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: All video streaming is at HD quality.

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 $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, which is essentially the T-Mobile One plan sold for data only devices.

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.

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