Head to head: Comparing AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile & Verizon's 'unlimited' wireless plans for ...

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in iPhone edited February 27
All four of the big U.S. wireless providers once again have unlimited plans available to smartphone users. AppleInsider looks into the four, and gives you the data you need to make the best choice possible if you're in the market [updated with latest info].




The first thing most users look at in a wireless data plan is the basic price of the plan. Sales or special promotions vary, and expire, so full prices of plans as offered on Feb. 27 without time-limited promotions are included here.




The first graph only includes plan costs, and doesn't include taxes, or pre-requisites for service.

The big differentiator between the two AT&T unlimited plans are speed -- the less expensive Unlimited Choice has a maximum speed of 3 megabits per second, where the more expensive Unlimited Plus is limited only by network congestion.

Also, T-Mobile's plan encompasses all taxes and fees, where the others don't. This varies somewhat by location, but an assumption of an extra 10% because of the line-items may not be precise, but isn't absurd to assume for the others.


Video streaming

For AT&T subscribers after Feb. 27, video streaming resolution defaults to 480p with Unlimited Plus, but upgrading to 1080p is no additional charge -- at least for now. Unlimited Choice users are limited to 480p, with no option for higher resolution as the 3 megabits per second hard speed cap won't support anything higher.

If you have any of the previously mandatory DirecTV services, they come "zero rated," so any video streamed from the service won't count against the soft cap. Additionally, users who bundle DirecTV Now with one of the new Unlimited plans get a $30 bill credit -- but the discount can't be applied to early subscribers on the $35 per month "Go Big" tier.

After an update late on Feb. 16, Sprint has removed it's charge for HD streaming. Verizon and T-Mobile also include HD video streaming at no cost.

A variety of streaming services, including Apple Music, are zero-rated with Verizon and T-Mobile as well.

Caps? Not exactly unlimited, but close.

The numbers are similar across all four carriers: AT&T and Verizon limit full speed to the first 22 GB of data consumed, Sprint waits until 23GB, and T-Mobile's limit is 28GB. How much the 6GB swing between highest and lowest matters depends on the user.




We couldn't get representatives from any of the four to give us a firm rule on when the throttling takes place after the cap is exceeded. Generally, the limits appear to kick in during times with the most users are occupying a small area, using the most data.

Tethering

Sprint includes 10GB per month of mobile hotspot data per line, with Verizon and T-Mobile granting 10GB in total.

In an update on Feb. 27, AT&T is including 10GB of Mobile Hotspot data per month per line at full speed with Unlimited Plus. Data consumed after the 10GB is cut back to 128 kbit per second. Unlimited Choice users are not able to use tethering at all.

Device costs

At some point in a mobile device's lifespan from release to discontinuation, there are myriad promotions and sales. We feel that this is a dead heat between the big-four, regardless of when in the cycle you buy.

You've still got homework to do.

What numbers or graphs can't determine in this case is how well the assorted wireless networks perform in your particular area, and this alone may eclipse any other consideration. Overall performance is best determined by talking to colleagues, inspecting coverage maps, and getting a feel from (possibly apocryphal) accounts of the situation.

All of the major networks have done a lot of work in the last few years on coverage and speed, so older reports should be taken with a grain of salt.
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Comments

  • Reply 1 of 43
    sog35sog35 Posts: 12,215member
    T-mobile's coverage is getting better every year.

    My current plan is 2 lines, Unlimited LTE for $99.  Unfortunately T-mobile does not offer this plan anymore but I'm grandfathered in
  • Reply 2 of 43
    Not sure how helpful this article was; I didn't feel like anything was explained
    eightzerotgr1mtbnutretrogusto
  • Reply 3 of 43
    Please make the graph color keys tinier. They're way too large.
    edited February 16 larryazroger73tomkarlbaconstangbeowulfschmidtmike1
  • Reply 4 of 43
    Small note: AT&T doesn't require DirecTV to gain access to the unlimited plan any more. 

    http://www.businessinsider.com/att-announces-unlimited-data-plan-2017-2
  • Reply 5 of 43
    If you are based in the US and travel abroad, t-mobile free texting and data overseas is alone worth switching to get.  I used it all over Japan and my daughter used hers in France and the U.K.   4 lines for $120.  It rocks. 
    berndog
  • Reply 6 of 43
    sog35 said:
    T-mobile's coverage is getting better every year.

    My current plan is 2 lines, Unlimited LTE for $99.  Unfortunately T-mobile does not offer this plan anymore but I'm grandfathered in
    I got the same plan when it was available a couple of years ago. I've always liked T-Mobile ever since switching to them from Sprint (who, by the way, still refuse to unlock my iPhone 4s).
  • Reply 7 of 43
    smiles77 said:
    Small note: AT&T doesn't require DirecTV to gain access to the unlimited plan any more. 

    http://www.businessinsider.com/att-announces-unlimited-data-plan-2017-2
    Yeah- we prepped this yesterday. We've just updated it.
  • Reply 8 of 43
    gerard said:
    Not sure how helpful this article was; I didn't feel like anything was explained
    What specifically were you looking for?
  • Reply 9 of 43
    Got it !
    Clear as mud !!

    So the better unlimited plan depends on where you, what you need and when you order?
    And ask your friends and family for input, too !

    ….ok, then
    edited February 16
  • Reply 10 of 43
    Just a realization everyone has to do their own homework. Once you reach the cap with AT&T anything requiring an internet connection is useless until your next bill cycle. Verizon rep I spoke with states they don't throttle speed; difference is others under the cap or on limited plans get connected first. The hotspot is unlimited as well; after 10gigs speeds downgraded to 3G 
  • Reply 11 of 43
    MplsPMplsP Posts: 108member
    We switched to T Mobile several years ago when they were among the first to de-couple device from the plans and have been very happy. I've found their billing and plans to be much easier to understand (i.e. not designed to deceive) than AT&T & Verizon's plans. The texting and Data in Europe is a big plus for us, too. Another minor, but nice feature is they put the change from last month's bill right at the top, so you can see easily if charges have been added.

    Overall, I've found T-moble to act more like you would hope a cell provider would act.
    Mikeymike
  • Reply 12 of 43

    I saw a study which said the average users does not use more than 5G/month. On our family plan I remember a time when we were topping out at 10G with 3 people so I could not believe most people we using less then 5G/month. I went back and looked at our history and we now have 5 phones on the family plan with 15G limit. For the most part we have been less then 5G with 5 phones and have 10G rolling over every month so we have 25G always available to use. At first I could not figured out how we were using less comsidering we have months I was turning off my kids data plan 5 or 10 days before the end of the month. What change is far better access to WiFi. I have Comcast internet access so any time a phone is near a Comcast hotspot it is connected to Wifi. The only time we use LTE data is while in a car the balance of the time all data is coming over WiFi.

    I believe this is why the carries are jumping on the unlimited with soft caps again, most people never use it but they think they are getting more free stuff.

  • Reply 13 of 43
    I'm sticking with Verizon even if it's not the best deal. I've rarely had a dropped call and the network is everywhere and reliable.
    Nuff said.
    dasanman69
  • Reply 14 of 43
    I'm on AT&T and have 10gb a month but during a promo you got15gb with rollover so usually I have around 25gb to use every month which I rarely go above 6gb. I can also use a hotspot for my iPad which isn't available with this new "unlimited plan?"
  • Reply 15 of 43
    jvmbjvmb Posts: 40member
    I understand that you don't post special offers, but for someone decided today it would be good to have the current offers. 
    edited February 16
  • Reply 16 of 43
    Sprint transcodes all video to "DVD quality" regardless of source at no charge -- but if you want HD, that's an additional $75 charge for a single line.
    I think this is outdated. Sprint just announced today that they are jumping on the same bandwagon as T-Mobile and Verizon by offering unlimited HD video too. From the press release:

    http://newsroom.sprint.com/news-releases/sprint-launches-best-unlimited-hd-plan-ever.htm

    "HD video streams at up to 1080p"
    edited February 17
  • Reply 17 of 43
    sog35 said:
    T-mobile's coverage is getting better every year.

    My current plan is 2 lines, Unlimited LTE for $99.  Unfortunately T-mobile does not offer this plan anymore but I'm grandfathered in
    "Starting February 17th and for a limited time at T-Mobile, you can get 2 unlimited lines of T-Mobile ONE with taxes and fees INCLUDED for only $100 per month with Autopay!
    Plus, you can add HD video streaming and 10GB of high-speed Mobile Hotspot data at no extra charge.
    https://www.t-mobile.com/offer/T-mobile-one-2for100FAQs.html?icid=WMD_TMNG_Q117TMOONE_KTN8BXADQ97683"

    So with taxes and fees included, that could be significantly cheaper than you old plan.

  • Reply 18 of 43
    mpantonempantone Posts: 1,276member
    gerard said:
    Not sure how helpful this article was; I didn't feel like anything was explained
    I think the main takeaway here is that AppleInsider summarized some of the major pluses and minuses of each carrier's recent unlimited plans.

    Everyone's situation is different: not just the number of lines, but how family members use cellular services, etc. This article gives some direction where further investigation is justified. It is not meant to be a comprehensive analysis of every single "unlimited" plan.

    I signed up for prepaid T-Mobile service several years ago that would fall under the "unlimited" moniker. It is guaranteed 5 GB of 4G service, then throttled back. It used to be a flat $30 per month, but recently, they have been tacking on some taxes/fees (less than 10%). There is no multi-line option, the plan is only for individual customers. That works for me, many of these unlimited plans largely benefit families of four (or more).

    You still need to investigate whether or not any given carrier's offerings fit your household's needs. You will also need to assess the quality of service (cellular reception strength, etc.) in your decision making process. 

    I have never gone beyond 2 GB of cellular data in a month, so spending more dollars on more data makes zero sense for me.

    Articles like this one aren't intended to hand you an answer on a silver platter, they are written to make you think about what you need to consider the next time you compare cellular offerings.
    edited February 17
  • Reply 19 of 43
    sog35 said:
    T-mobile's coverage is getting better every year.

    My current plan is 2 lines, Unlimited LTE for $99.  Unfortunately T-mobile does not offer this plan anymore but I'm grandfathered in
    Not too far back, on T-mobile I used to pay $100 for 4 lines with unlimited text/talk and 2.5GB/line of 3G/4G high speed than drop to 2G but no data overage. Problem with all these unlimited Data is if you don't have coverage or good signal than half the time you are not able to use data at 4G.
    edited February 17
  • Reply 20 of 43
    Sprint transcodes all video to "DVD quality" regardless of source at no charge -- but if you want HD, that's an additional $75 charge for a single line.
    I think this is outdated. Sprint just announced today that they are jumping on the same bandwagon as T-Mobile and Verizon by offering unlimited HD video too. From the press release:

    http://newsroom.sprint.com/news-releases/sprint-launches-best-unlimited-hd-plan-ever.htm

    "HD video streams at up to 1080p"
    And, sadly, no special offers for current customers. I just switched my plan to their new unlimited family plan last month, which includes 5GB of hotspot per phone. There's a $5 per month per phone Autopay discount available, but I can't do that since I have someone who pays their portion of the bill on my plan. My days of paying the whole bill and waiting for that person to pay me back are long over. Plus, it's easier for her to pay over the phone with her credit card. 

    I will say one thing about Sprint: their customer service has been very good. I had 2 iPad Air 2s that came off lease last month, so I called to inquire about return kits. After 10 minutes on the phone with a very nice rep, I ended up with a good deal. Sprint waived the $200 per iPad owed to buy them off the lease, in exchange for me agreeing on 6 month contracts for 25MB of data at $2.50 each per month (I don't use the data anyway), making it a $370 discount versus paying the lease buyout. 
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