How bitterly should I cling to my unlimited data plan?
November 4, 2012 8:04 AM   Subscribe

How strongly should I feel about hanging on to my grandfathered AT&T unlimited data plan?

It's time for a new phone contract. I currently have the $30/mo. unlimited AT&T plan on my iPhone 3g, and my wife has a non-smartphone. With the renewal, I'll upgrade both phones on the line to smartphones (probably an iPhone 5 and an iPhone 4S.)

There are various ways I can do this. I can keep my current unlmiited plan and add a 300MB/mo data plan for my wife's phone; this will total $110/month.

On the other hand, if I junk my current plan and go with one of the new shared tiered plans, I could get 1GB/month shared between both phones for $130 on either Verizon or AT&T, or 4GB/month for $150.

Why would I even be considering paying more money for capped data usage? 1) Verizon has LTE here in Madison, and AT&T doesn't -- presumably they will someday but it's not clear how near-term that is. Switching to Verizon means giving up the unlmiited plan. 2) The unlimited plan doesn't allow tethering, which sounds like it would be useful, since my laptop is the device I actually like using and I'm often in places with no wi-fi signal; and 3) looking back at my usage pattern, I have never used more than 330MB of data in a month, and am almost always below 200 MB. I use my phone mostly for receiving e-mail, web surfing, and podcast listening, but seldom or never stream movies or music. (Listening to baseball games on MLB AtBat is probably my heaviest data usage.) So it's not clear to me that "unlimited" and "1GB" are meaningfully different for us.

Relevant questions, then, are:

a) If you switched from an older, slower phone like an iPhone 3G to a newer, faster one, how much did your data usage increase? Is 1GB/month actually a low limit with a 2012 phone? What about 4GB/month? (It sounds like my "unlimited" data plan would throttle to painful slowness after 5GB anyway, so it's not clear how unlimited it actually is.) What are people who use 5GB per month doing -- is the primary load coming from streaming video, or are there other data-intensive practices that I haven't thought of and that I'll want to use once I have a phone that can handle them?

b) How much am I going to notice the difference between HSPA+ (which is what AT&T now offers in Madison) and LTE? (I assume both will be notably faster than the 3G I'm using now?)

c) How much should I care whether I can tether? It is certainly not uncommon for me to find that I wish I had a wi-fi signal so I could e.g. send someone a file that's on my laptop, or get all my current e-mail into my OS/X mail app so that I can answer it with a real keyboard instead of a touchscreen. (In other words, it's not my practice to use my phone as my primary work device and I don't think it's likely I'll adopt this practice, even with an updated phone.)

d) Am I right that this entire question is completely independent of the question of whether to stay with iPhone or switch to Android? (e.g. I am sort of vaguely aware that there's an entirely different approach which I don't really understand involving Android phone + Straight Talk + Google Voice.)
posted by escabeche to Technology (17 answers total) 11 users marked this as a favorite
I use under 1GB/month, and probably a lot of that is streaming music. I recently lost my unlimited data (Verizon won't let you keep it when you upgrade), so my dad and I now share 2GB/month and that's a good amount for us. If you have WiFi at home/work, hook your phone up to that -- it's generally faster, and doesn't use your data. I switched from an older (but high-end) Droid to an iPhone 4S almost a month ago. Despite using my phone on WiFi most of the time, my data usage is only reduced by maybe .1 GB. We could probably get away with 1GB/month, but 2GB is more comfortable and allows for random extra usage.

The most I ever used was 3GB in a month, and that's because I was on a road trip and using my phone as a GPS for 2 weeks.

For tethering -- that will increase your data usage a lot, so it's something else to think about.
posted by DoubleLune at 8:26 AM on November 4, 2012

The new AT&T shared data plans make no sense until you have at least about 4 people on the account, and even then it's really pushing it. Now that the top-end tiered data and the unlimited data are the same price, there is NO REASON to drop the unlimited. I was about to do this a couple months ago when we upgraded.

With a more capable phone, you WILL use more data. What I like about unlimited data is that I don't have to wait for wifi to download things like podcasts, app updates, etc. I don't have to worry about flipping my wifi on at home, or running my tasker task to do it for me.

Our current setup is a SGSIII and an HTC One X. My sgsIII has unlimited data, I've rooted and rom'd the phone, and I tether it whenever necessary. My fiancee's OneX has the 300Mb plan, but I have her running Onavo Extend, which is currently saving her ~80% bandwidth a month with no noticeable speed difference.

If we go on trips, I can always turn on my tethering and let her hop on, which we have done before. It's not uncommon that my phone will have tethering on, and the nexus7 tablet and her phone are mooching bandwidth. I should add that AT&T isn't ok with this.

It's also worth looking into whether or not AT&T may have employer discounts for either of you. About 4 years ago I worked for a grocery store, haven't worked there since, but I still get the 20% monthly discount associated with that chain.
posted by TomMelee at 8:34 AM on November 4, 2012

To be honest, the few times that I bumped over 3 gigs of transfer in a month (due to how AT&T only counts packets transmitted from the tower, not packets received by the phone, my heavily congested office means my data availability is shaky at best), having my 3G signal rate limited to edge means that the "unlimited" plan is sort of a sham, and I wouldn't worry too much about going anywhere else as long as their answer to overages isn't to send you a $7000 bill.
posted by Kyol at 8:37 AM on November 4, 2012

You cannot FaceTime over 3G or LTE with a grandfathered unlimited plan. This is something all my coworkers recently discovered.
posted by These Birds of a Feather at 8:53 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

I've found that AT&T seems to throttle even the unlimited grandfathered plan. There were a few times near the end of the month that all the streaming I'd done during the month (office work, no access to wi-fi) that I must have hit their unofficial cap.

Needless to say, I found that annoying.

I do wish I could tether, though I'm usually within Wi-fi range.
posted by dreamling at 8:57 AM on November 4, 2012

I needed tethering in a bad way so I switched about a year ago. Before, with the unlimited plan, I was never even nearing the 200M mark each month. Now that I tether I usually hit near 3G each month. If I haven't used my 5G allotment, I also feel compelled to push it right up there in the last few days.

My point is tethering will dramatically increase your data usage. It's also terrific and lets me wander freely and without fear of crappy coffee shop wifi. I've also used it at home if my regular internet service is busy with a large download.

You may want to think about getting a MiFi device instead. It might be cheaper for you but you'll need to do that calculus yourself. No commitment MiFi devices are pretty cheap and it might be a more flexible way to go.
posted by chairface at 9:09 AM on November 4, 2012

Response by poster: By the way, my vision of tethering is not that so much that I'd use my laptop through the phone as if I were in wi-fi range, but rather that I'd tether for a couple of minutes in order to get the e-mail onto my laptop, compose all answers and put them in the outbound queue, then re-tether to let all the e-mail out. But is that an unrealistic vision of what my actual usage would be?
posted by escabeche at 9:19 AM on November 4, 2012

I have Sprint and like the unlimited/cheap price, but it doesn't get good reception in a lot of places. Basements, some buildings I just don't get reception in at all once I enter them (and for that matter, I only get somewhat good reception in my own living room and the rest of the place gets next to none), out in the country, most of Nevada, half of the Hawaiian islands... So keep that in mind if you go that route. It's unlimited, but the reception is not super great compared to AT&T, which seems to get reception anywhere you like.
posted by jenfullmoon at 9:59 AM on November 4, 2012

The AT&T "unlimited" plan is a scam; it's no longer unlimited, AT&T heavily throttles you if you go over a couple of gigs a month. In obscure cities like New York and San Francisco all of AT&T's service is terrible; it's so unreliable as to be unusable. I switched to Verizon and now have an iPhone that can actually make phone calls and load web pages reliably. I don't know the situation in Madison; I'd pick the carrier that has the most reliable service over small details of plan terms.

You should be able to look at your AT&T bill online and see how much data usage they think they delivered to you in past months. That will give you an idea of what you really need. For me with my iPhone 4S, 2GB/month is plenty.

Tethering is an interesting option but if you don't have it now, do you need to get it? Verizon sells tethering bundled with an upgrade from 2GB to 4GB/month.
posted by Nelson at 10:04 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

They probably really want you off that plan. Call them up and see if you can negotiate a better deal than the advertized options.
posted by theora55 at 10:20 AM on November 4, 2012

I can keep my current unlmiited plan and add a 300MB/mo data plan for my wife's phone; this will total $110/month.

This is what my husband and I did, and it has worked out really well for us. I don't use as much data as him, and we've never had any problems with AT&T in the DC area, despite the fact that everyone around here complains about how bad AT&T service is. I've never had any dropped calls and data has actually been really fast. He doesn't use that much data every month, but every once in a while will decide he wants to watch a movie or something and so the unlimited is nice to have just in case. Sorry I don't really have answers to any of your questions, just that anecdote!
posted by echo0720 at 3:04 PM on November 4, 2012

Honestly, I've been holding on to my unlimited plan, but I don't think I've ever used more than a 1.5GB in a month. As time passes, i think faster CPUs, LTE, higher quality video and photos, etc. make it easier to burn though gigabytes, but i still have my doubts about how long it will be before I'd hit breakeven on the unlimited plan, especially over the lifetime of my contract.
posted by Good Brain at 4:38 PM on November 4, 2012

> an iPhone that can actually make phone calls and load web pages reliably

But can the Verizon/Sprint phone do both at the same time? My understanding was that you still couldn't do voice + data at the same time, even on the iPhone 5. I still find myself on the phone and pulling up my email/calendar/map/etc to forward something/add an appointment/double-check something too often to give that up.
posted by clerestory at 5:20 PM on November 4, 2012

As someone who is currently grandfathered into an unlimited data plan with AT&T, I would advise you strongly to ditch AT&T.

Not only has the reception been way worse than anyone I know who's with Verizon, but the "unlimited" plan is nothing but a joke! As soon as you hit 3GB for the month, your connection gets throttled to laughable speeds—I'm talking slower than 56K dialup. Here is the warning message they sent me:
ATT Free Msg: Your data usage is near 3GB this month. Exceeding 3GB during this or future billing cycles will result in reduced data speeds, though you'll still be able to email & surf the web. Wi-Fi helps you avoid reduced speeds. Visit or call 866-344-7584 for more info.
I used to think I was "lucky" to have been grandfathered in, and that it's some kind of privilege for being a long-time customer, but it's nothing but a hook to keep you paying for an inferior network. I'm an AT&T customer since 2005 and have 3 lines with them, and I'll be switching away this year despite the hassle. Go with any other network and you'll thank yourself.
posted by Nameless at 6:46 PM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]

But can the Verizon/Sprint phone do both at the same time?

No. At least not on the 3G CDMA. I'm not sure about LTE, haven't tried it. On the other hand, the AT&T phone can't reliably do either a phone call or data by, forget trying to do both at once. They have 3x the dropped call rate of any other cell carrier. AT&T's network is terrible, putting up with some limitations on Verizon is worth it.
posted by Nelson at 7:51 PM on November 4, 2012

Response by poster: Stuck with my unlimited plan on AT&T -- so far, so good! Thanks for all the helpful answers.
posted by escabeche at 4:45 PM on December 22, 2012

Response by poster: Still happy with my choice almost a year later. Definitely use more data with the faster phone, but still less than 1G most months.

You cannot FaceTime over 3G or LTE with a grandfathered unlimited plan. This is something all my coworkers recently discovered.

This is not true, at least not on an AT&T iPhone 5. I have the grandfathered unlimited plan and use FaceTime.
posted by escabeche at 11:49 AM on September 4, 2013

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