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PSA: Unlimited may not really be unlimited

So you're sitting back, enjoying your the new Windows phone you received over the holidays. Downloading apps, emails, and sending text messages to your hearts content on that "unlimited" data plan? Did you know that there may be a restriction on your "unlimited" plan? Restrictions, if violated, could result in your service being terminated?

We checked the fine print with the four major carriers in the U.S. market and found some interesting language as it relates to unlimited packages. Language that many may not be aware of and we felt it important to pass it on. A public service announcement of sorts. Ease on past the break to see what limits are in place.

The good news is that in reading the extremely wordy terms of services/customer agreements from the four carriers (AT&T, Sprint, Verizon, and T-Mobile) as long as you stay "on-network" your unlimited data, voice and messaging plans are really unlimited. The bad news is that if you go off network (e.g. roaming) you're unlimited packages aren't necessarily unlimited.

Here's how the fine print breaks down by carrier.

AT&T

AT&T gets the award for the most wordiest clause. According to the Terms of Service (opens in new tab), when you move off-network, your usage allowance is "equal to the lessor of 750 minutes or 40? of the Anytime Minutes, the lesser of 24mb or 20% of the data included in your plan or the lesser of 3,000 messages or 50% of the messages included in your plan." If you exceeds these limits during any two consecutive months, AT&T may terminate your service, deny you access to off-network coverage or impose off-network fees. AT&T does indicate they'll notify you before any action is taken.

Sprint

Sprint has a similar policy to AT&T's policy but includes on-network data as well as off-network data. Sprint "reserves the right to limit throughput speeds or amount of data transferred, and to deny, terminate, modify, disconnect, or suspend service if usage either exceeds (a)5gb a month in total (unless specified otherwise) or (b) 300mb a month while off-network roaming.

Update: In re-reading the fine print the limitations noted above only apply to mobile broadband cards, USB modems, embedded modems and phones-as-modem use.  We did find language that indicates Sprint reviews heavy data usage (other than broadband cards, usb modems, etc.) on a case by case basis, not setting limits.  The Terms of Service reads, "We reserve the right to limit, suspend or constrain any heavy, continuous data usage that adversely impacts our network performance or hinders access to our network.".  Tip of the hat goes to Stephen for bringing this to our attention.

T-Mobile

T-Mobile's data Terms and Conditions (opens in new tab), puts the limit at 10gb during a billing cycle before restrictions may kick in.  The restrictions include limiting, suspending or terminating your data access.  T-Mobile doesn't distinguish off/on network and T-Mobile reserves the right to change the limit.

I also found language in the Terms of Service (opens in new tab) that reads, "We may limit or terminate your Service without prior notice if more than 50% of your voice and/or data usage is off-net for any three billing cycles within any 12 month period."  The effective date on this stipulation is June 28, 2008 and the 10gb limit appears to be the more current policy (no date present on that policy).

Verizon

I couldn't find any specific language from Verizon on restricting unlimited packages but in the Customer Agreement (opens in new tab), Verizon notes, "There may be higher rates and extra charges (including charges for long distance, tolls or calls that don't connect) for roaming calls, depending on your Plan." Verizon also notes in their Call Plan Information (opens in new tab) for their unlimited data plan that, "Verizon Wireless' requirements for such usage, which may be changed from time to time." I wouldn't be surprised if more specific language is located somewhere deep within Verizon's website.

Granted it will be difficult for some to exceed the limitations in these terms over consecutive months but I also never thought my son could generate 2,000 text messages in a two week period. Carriers are battling network strains caused by the increased data usages and they may start enforcing these terms with a little more diligence or lower the thresholds. While it may be painful, stumbling across these conditions makes it all the more important to read the fine print.

George is the Reviews Editor at Windows Central, concentrating on Windows 10 PC and Mobile apps. He's been a supporter of the platform since the days of Windows CE and uses his current Windows 10 Mobile phone daily to keep up with life and enjoy a game during down time.

12 Comments
  • Huh. I consistently use about 2GB of Sprint data every month on my Treo 800w. Guess I should be careful.
  • Got to reading the ToS, the AT&T was too long and havent finished it, so I moved to Sprint ToS; Does "embedded modem" mean the phone's data usage and not PAM? If not, then the Sprint ToS could be interpreted to state that there is no limitation on data usage of the phone so long as Phone-As-Modem is not being used, which I understood as being phased out. As for AT&T I remember about 3 years ago getting a letter stating I was roaming too much and that my serivce would be disconnected in 30 days. I ccalled and asked what I could do to stay (I was happy with the service at the time), but they basically told me to look for service from someone else.
  • Oh yes, over in the UK the (ab)use of the word 'unlimited' has long been a sore topic. The word is often qualified with an asterisk, and the small print will then spell out the 'fair use' amount you're actually allowed to use. Virgin Mobile UK for example advertises that you can use unlimited* internet on their pay-as-you-go tariff for 30p a day. (* with a fair usage of a whopping 25MB...) Nice one. I quite like the way it's put in this article:
    http://www.mobileindustryreview.com/2008/11/virgin_mobile_more_abuse_of_...
  • Yeah, that they're allowed to do that is absolutely obscene. Thank god I don't live in the UK.
  • The 5GB limit on Sprint only applies to mobile broadband cards... phone usage is truly unlimited as long its on the sprint network... PAM is not supported on Simply everything and Everything Data plans.
    I have an Everything Data plan with a Touch Pro 2, and regularly use 6gigs a month... i use Sprint TV, skyfire to watch CBS, and kinoma play to stream stuff from my home PC on a daily basis...
  • You're right. Missed the distinction in the small print that notes the 5gb limits are for the broadband cards, USB Modems, embedded modems and phone-as-modem services. Sprint does state towards the end of the TOS that, "We reserve the right to limit, suspend or constrain any heavy, continuous data usage that adversely impacts our network performance or hinders access to our network. If your Services include web or data access, you also can't use your Device as a modem for computers or other equipment, unless we identify the Service or Device you have selected as specifically intended for that purpose (for example, with "phone as modem" plans, Sprint Mobile Broadband card plans, wireless router plans, etc.)." Looks like they take it on a case by case basis. Again, thanks for pointing out the distinction.
  • Indeed. I stream radio and video via Orb pretty much all day every weekday and regularly go over 5GB. However the 5GB cap usually refers to data cards as they don't want people using those to stream Netflix, Hulu, etc as that type of super heavy activity can saturate the network and quickly go well over 5GB (just one movie on Xbox Live I was looking at the other night was nearly 2GB.
  • Yeah, the lack of language on Sprint phone data plans has long led to the discovery that so long as you're not taking gross advantage of them by tethering, they pretty much leave you alone. I'm actually surprised by your anecdote. I always figured the tethering hammer would slam down if 5 GB was exceeded. Personally I tether only on trips where there's no WiFi. It nets me maybe an extra 50 MB per cycle, tops. Been doing that for years without issue.
  • wow for 3 months starting in may my data was over 5gb. my service was never interrupted and no letter was sent. my take is that if u stay on network at least with sprint and you have "unlimited" data them you'll be alright. but this article is very interesting. congress should look into this, it seems like the cell phone companies are false advertising and the government should step in before the class action lawsuits kick in. then again maybe the carriers are smart enough not to enforce these loop holes. in any case this practice seem shady.
  • Y'know, some people want them to be specific about what "Unlimited" means. In marketing terms, for 99% of users, 5 GB is unlimited for phone access. Tell the average Joe they "only" get 5 GB, and their eyes will likely glass over as they just turn away and ignore you. It's still false advertising, but it makes sense that they do it. But give it a few more years, and that 5 GB line may seem far less "unlimited" for even the average user.
  • In the AT&T section, what do they mean by "off network"?
  • NM, I should read more carefully :P