Remember when 3G data starting coming out in the mid 2000’s? (Sometimes call EVDO / HSPA depending on your carrier, EDGE was more like 2.5G). Data plans were growing in popularity back then, but they were very limited… For a while at least
Then soon came a massive widespread roll out that covered most of the country. Many people had Blackberries, some poorly designed Windows Mobile phones and a few other semi-smart flip phones. Then in 2007, Apple launched the iPhone which forever changed the course on data usage. Data usage wasn’t just checking email and stock prices anymore. News later came out, the iPhone changed data usage forever so much that Verizon turned down the device for quite some time because they realized the network couldn’t handle that level of data usage. They didn’t pick up the iPhone until early 2011. Unlimited data plans became quite popular during this time, but due to the speed restrictions of slower networks users couldn’t download more than a fairly reasonable few-ten gigabytes a month; That is until 4G LTE came about and the unlimited plans started to go away.
Fast forward to 2016, unlimited data is being heavily promoted once again. But it’s more accurately described as “unlimited data” or better yet ‘no limit’ data usage with lots of superscript numbers and asterisks. Cellular companies began waking up to the fact customers’ don’t like getting a bill that’s double normal because their kid watched high definition YouTube videos three hours a day. Now, instead of billing customers for overages, cell companies severely limit data speeds after initial allotment of data in the fine print gets used up. Guess who’s yelling now, it’s your kid trying to watch YouTube videos on what’s now effectively a dial-up speed connection. Kinda genius move by the cellular companies.
Not only did cell companies shift blame and appease regulators, at the same time they set themselves perfectly for something called network management. When companies quit offering unlimited data, many high usage users were smart enough to keep unlimited data plans. So companies like AT&T started reducing speeds on the users in the name of “network management”. Now in theory network management should be a good thing. Think about it like a tile main. There’s only so much capacity for drainage (data), but if it’s sized right and well laid out, everything should get drained (downloaded) in a reasonable amount of time and orderly fashion. AT&T must not have liked spending more money tile mains, or in their case, the backbone to the data network at cell towers.
The whole network management situation got bad enough, our massively overreaching federal gov’t got involved, among other lawsuits. So instead of free market forces (customers switching companies or habits), we got more regulations and most likely higher cell bills. What cellular companies are doing here is really smart. They’re sizing the data backbone (think tile main) just big enough, all while keeping customers’ data speeds more or less under their control. And probably keeping to gov’t out of things at the same time. Less cost, more profit. Genius again.
Now there are actually some benefits to these so-called new unlimited data plans(*). No surprise bills for one thing, but also some companies (Tmobile, etc) are allowing certain apps/services like Spotify music streaming and Netflix to not count against your data usage, but with degraded quality that results in less data usage and yet more network management. I’m not going to get into it at all, but if you want to research Net Neutrality, you may some legal/ethical issues here.
So long story short, you still get what you pay for; Including those prepaid phones at Walmart that put you at the absolute end of the line of network management. Now there’s still a few people grandfathered into somewhat true unlimited data. And I’m still holding onto my recently price increased Verizon Unlimited Data plan, but even Verizon is now starting to give the boot to users that exceed 100 gigabytes. Competition and technological innovation may bring back true unlimited data again someday, but until then beware your options and use WiFi when you go down the never ending black hole of auto-play YouTube videos.