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Worst of the Week: T-Mobile, Sprint and AT&T show unlimited data love … for a price

WOTW looks at this week’s avalanche of ‘unlimited’ data offers from T-Mobile, Sprint and AT&T, and declares excess the real winner

Hello! And welcome to our Friday column, Worst of the Week. There’s a lot of nutty stuff that goes on in this industry, so this column is a chance for us at to rant and rave about whatever rubs us the wrong way. We hope you enjoy it!
Well, it was an exciting week for consumers who cannot get enough cellular data, and for carriers that have become increasingly adept at finding ways to charge customers for that fix.
In the span of two days, AT&T Mobility, T-Mobile US and Sprint all pushed out new “unlimited” data initiatives showing that no matter what has been said in the past, there will always be a place for unlimited data … for a price.
Now, I highlight the word “unlimited” because as we all know none of these carriers really offer unlimited cellular data. They instead offer slight caveats on that term, which I believe they have learned from watching other industries.

In fact, if I were somehow in charge of the use of the word “unlimited” I fear it would be spent most days telling wireless carriers “no.”
But, since my only real power is the ability to use this column to point out what I feel are some ridiculous industry trends, I will do that instead.
First, the AT&T Mobility announcement was really not much of a surprise in terms of what it included, but was a surprise in how long it took AT&T Mobility to do what it usually does in lining up its rate plans with Verizon Wireless.
As for what AT&T Mobility is now offering, it’s nice to see all the nationwide carriers now on board in terms of cutting lame overage fees on data usage, even if it cuts data speeds in order to provide such a feature. This has sort of become standard industry practice and, despite the occasional lawsuit or Federal Communications Commission fine, seems like a good trade-off for consumers.
In an unusual move for the carrier, T-Mobile US kept a tight lid on its Un-carrier 12 announcement, only teasing plans for a press conference the day before the event. For a company and executive team that seems to need the limelight to survive, I applaud the showing of candor.
That applause – regardless of its sarcasm content – is actually warranted as the announcement of “unlimited” data plans looked to be quite significant. While T-Mobile US has continued to offer unlimited data options, and has actually been pretty open in promoting those options, its most recent efforts have been focused on capped data plans, which for the “un-carrier” always seemed a bit off.
We all know people want access to unlimited even if they never intend to use anything near unlimited. Or at least no one outside of that dang 3% of top users who have wrecked the whole unlimited notion for the rest of us.
Finally, Sprint nearly took all the wind out of T-Mobile US’ sails by announcing basically the same features at somewhat lower pricing mere minutes after Un-carrier 12. Beyond what was part of the Sprint announcement, you gotta at least give them props for being on the ball, even if it might have been forced.
What was more awesome about the Sprint announcement was its somewhat under-the-radar inclusion of unlimited standard-definition video streaming, which is similar to T-Mobile US’ wildly popular and controversial Binge On service. Sure, this is just Sprint copying something T-Mobile US did nearly a year ago, but one could argue Sprint’s previous practice of limiting video streaming to 3G speeds was really the originator of the service.
Now, what do all of these changes really mean?
They mean consumers in some cases have more access to unlimited data services, which is good, but also that in many cases consumers will be having to cough up more dough each month to take advantage of these new offers, which is – well – good and bad.
I give wireless carriers full credit for even promoting such unlimited data offers in light of their incessant whining about how they really can’t support such offers as real unlimited use will crash networks purposefully built to not handle unlimited data usage. Of course, that’s where the threat of data throttling comes into play, which, while still following the tenants of unlimited data, is not really what the average consumer would consider to be unlimited. Some carriers are being quite cavalier in throwing around the word “unlimited” when in fact they are keeping a ruler behind their backs ready to rap the knuckles of those consumers taking them on their word.
But, I am a bit surprised there wasn’t more of the “price hike” backlash heaped upon Verizon Wireless, which was forced to offer up its “MythBusters” defense of its rate plan changes.
To access any of these new rate plans will require some customers to pony up additional cash each month, in some cases paying extra for features that were once included in lower-priced plans. That is not really a crime as at the end of the day customers will continue to have the ultimate choice as to whether they want to spend more money with a specific carrier or look elsewhere. I would not go so far as to call it anti-consumer, but it’s unquestionably a creative way to confuse some consumers.
From a business perspective, I know all carriers are seeing a dip in consumer spending and thus are trying to find ways to bolster that important metric. It has become quite apparent that the notion of lower-rate plan pricing would be more than made up for by having consumers pay full price for devices, has instead resulted in consumers keeping their handsets longer and not the financial windfall hoped for by carriers.
So, I guess in the end the real winner this week is excess. Consumers can get all they want if they are willing to pay all the carriers want.

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