☲☰CRYPTED
Editor’s Note: For most of us, the wide world of technology is a wormhole of dubious trends with a side of jargon soup. If it’s not a bombardment of startups and tech trends (minimum viable product, Big Data, billion dollar IPO!) then it’s unrelenting feature mongering (Smart Everything! Siri!). What’s a level-headed guy with a few bucks in his pocket supposed to do? We’ve got an answer, and it’s not a ⌘+Option+Esc. Welcome to Decrypted, a new weekly commentary about tech’s place in the real world. Writer Darren Murph, the former Managing Editor of Engadget and a Guinness World Record holder for number of blog posts published, will spend some weeks demystifying and others criticizing, but it’ll all be in plain english. So take off your headphones, settle in for something longer than 140 characters and prepare to wise up.

“Unlimited” is such a funny word, is it not? So funny, in fact, that Capital One has had to enlist Samuel J. Jackson to appear on your television screen and shout it to the rooftops — Pulp Fiction-style — to get you to believe it. Humans have a tendency to assume that there’s a secret asterisk tailing every mention of the word, and for good reason. As it applies to your smartphone’s data plan, the word has been bandied about for years, but things have just recently reached peak confusion.

Throttling is a term that has snuck up on laypeople all of a sudden, particularly applying to how mobile data is delivered. Rather than just cutting users off altogether once a certain usage level is reached, carriers far and wide are instead putting a chokehold on the speed at which data is delivered. In other words, those who consume too much lightning-fast LTE data may find their emails loading much slower until the next billing cycle. That’s better than no data at all, but it’s a very poor user experience that you’d be wise to avoid.

Peek any major TV ad for a mobile carrier, and you’ll likely hear a spokesperson proclaim that any postpaid plan includes unlimited talk and text. Which is 100 percent true for domestic communications. The issue, of course, is that you don’t really care about talking and texting — at least not like you used to. While carriers could at one point justify charging a quarter per text message and several dollars for a minute of calling, those days are long gone. Instead, we’ve been conditioned to expect calling and texting to be thrown in gratis, with the real value being the associated data plan.

The modern mobile currency is data, not talk or text or anything else. This has led various carriers to sell that data in various ways, oftentimes conflating the word “unlimited” — and, more recently, bending the limits of net neutrality, complicating things further. To make matters worse, most folks have no concept of how easy it is to burn through a megabyte, a gigabyte, or any other kind of byte. For perspective, streaming just one hour of HD footage on Netflix will consume up to 2GB of data, while spinning a playlist on your favorite music app eats up 60MB per hour. Loading a simple website can consume between 1MB and 5MB, while online gaming typically devours 5MB per hour. (For a more detailed breakdown, Verizon has a nifty calculator.)

Here’s the real scoop on what “unlimited” really means, how different carriers are handling the data crunch, and how you can guard yourself from unexpected bill shock.

T-Mobile

There’s something about small fonts that we as a society just hate, but seriously, check out the detail in your contract. With most modern T-Mobile plans, “unlimited data” grants you full-speed LTE or 3G access, but only on the phone itself. If you tether, you’ll be throttled after you chew through 5GB in a billing cycle. Plus, those caught using their phone’s connection for peer-to-peer sharing will see their speeds cut down. (For those unaware, P2P sharing typically involves “torrent” files, whereby music, software, TV shows, and other massive chunks of data are continuously sent and received all over the world. To a carrier, this is a never-ending data suck that is very much frowned upon.)

To combat negative backlash from this, the T-Mobile has cut a deal with select music streaming services whereby any data used on said services won’t count against that initial high-speed bucket. In other words, you can stream 1GB of Spotify and it won’t count against your high-speed allotment. There have been rumors that carriers are negotiating similar deals with highly valued social networks (think Facebook and Twitter), but as of now, no other “data free” partners have emerged.

The situation I’ve laid out above has pros and cons. On one hand, it’s great that you can rock out indefinitely without any data consequences. On the other, this is a brutal blow to the concept of net neutrality. Soon, we’ll become conditioned to music services not counting against our data plan; if a new music startup emerges without a similar carrier deal in place, no consumer in their right mind will even try it out. It puts future innovators at a monumental disadvantage, and it gives existing players the ability to boost prices without fear of being undercut by newcomers.

Sprint

Sprint’s unlimited plan is truer, but sneaky snags remain. The fine print makes clear that video streaming can be capped at 1Mbps — which is barely enough to view HD-quality material from Netflix — and that “other plans may receive prioritized bandwidth availability.” In other words, you’re not guaranteed a fast lane to stream and download as you see fit; Sprint retains the ability to pull back on your speed in order to provide higher speeds elsewhere on its network. Oh, and if you use data on one of Sprint’s partner networks within (yes, within!) the United States? Best not exceed 100MB of usage per month, else you may find yourself throttled or cut off completely. Granted, things may change a bit once newly appointed CEO Marcelo Claure settles in to his role, but that’s the story for now.

AT&T and Verizon

Neither AT&T nor Verizon currently offer unlimited plans as it pertains to data, but those grandfathered into unlimited data plans should be extremely careful. Those not grandfathered in may be throttled if they exceed 3GB per cycle on a 3G/4G handset, or 5GB on an LTE handset. The only way for grandfathered users to retain their unlimited data package is to pay full price for their next phone. If they cave and accept an upgrade subsidy, their unlimited data is gone forever. Moreover, VZW has recently stated that it too will begin throttling its heaviest unlimited laggards — if you consume 4.7GB or more per month, that could be you.

The Others

If you don’t mind a limited device selection, a couple of new carriers are looking to seriously disrupt the big boys. FreedomPop offers unlimited talk, text, and data (on Sprint’s network) for just $20 per month. The only major catch is that your data speeds will be throttled to “3G” levels once you surpass the first 1GB of usage, but that’s far superior to being throttled to “2G” (or EDGE) — a tactic used most everywhere else.

Republic Wireless takes a similar approach, but could be a solid option for heavier users. Its $40/month plan allows for unlimited talk, text, and 4G LTE data (again, on Sprint’s network) up to 5GB. Once you reach that, you’ll be throttled down to an undefined rate. (Blessedly, this only happens the second month you have an overage, and if you make it six months without one, you earn yet another free pass.)

Here’s hoping that mobile infrastructure advances to a point where data is viewed similarly to voice minutes, where we can use whatever we need, whenever we need it, without fearing an overage charge. Till then, it’s on you to be mindful of your contract’s terms and to choose the carrier that’s most suitable for your usage habits.

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