One thing is guaranteed to be limited in the "unlimited" plans for smartphones: their lifespan in the marketplace.
AT&T, the latest to retire old, mostly unlimited plans, did so only 20 months after introduction of its previous offers in June 2018.
The new ones – announced days before Federal Trade Commission fined AT&T $ 60 million not disclosing speed limits on plans sold five years ago as unlimited – requires factoring in the same three variables unlimited offers from other national carriers.
First comes the threshold at which your data speeds may slow if your network becomes congested – Also known as "deprioritization". The less priority? AT&T Reddit users reported speeds below 3G, up to 1 Mbps. This should be the most important factor, as it directly affects your ability to do much online on your phone – as it limits the use of "unlimited" data.
Then there is how much data you can share with nearby devices via your phone's mobile access point function. I rate this second because breathing bandwidth on a tablet or laptop is immensely convenient. But you may not need much access point allocation: since July, the maximum I've used in a month is 699 MB.
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Lastly, comes the maximum video resolution transmitted over the cellular connection. All four carriers limit this to the standard 480p definition resolution of a DVD on cheaper plans, which you may not notice on a smaller screen.
Here is what AT&T now releases, with prices reflecting automatic payment discounts and paperless billing:
- $ 65 unlimited starter for one line to $ 140 for four: no priority data, no mobile hotspot, SD streaming;
- Unlimited Extra, $ 75 for one line or $ 160 for four: 50 GB priority data, 15 GB mobile access point, SD streaming;
- Unlimited Elite, $ 85 for one line or $ 200 for four, available “in the coming weeks”: 100 GB priority data, 30 GB mobile access point, HD streaming, free HBO.
Compared to AT&T's two previous plans, Starter is an easy money saver with Unlimited & More ($ 70 for one line or $ 160 for four, no priority data, no mobile hotspot, SD streaming), unless you are linked to this old plan included WatchTV streaming service.
But Extra may not be worth saving $ 5 for Unlimited & More Premium ($ 80 for one line or $ 190 for four, 22 GB priority data, 15 GB mobile access point, HD streaming) if you value high definition video and your free option for one of these premium streaming TV channels like HBO or Showtime in addition to WatchTV.
What about the other three carriers?
Sprint offers the cheapest half unlimited plan, with basic Unlimited, from $ 60 for one line to $ 140 for four (after discounts expire). That stays 50 GB Priority Data500 MB mobile hotspot and SD streaming. Sprint also sells the largest hotspot offering: 100 GB with Unlimited Premium, $ 80 for one line or $ 220 for four post-discounts, with HD streaming and Amazon Prime. But Sprint's network remains a fourth place candidate with particularly slow shipments.
Mobile tee offers as much priority data as Sprint Unlimited on a better network for the same price with its Magenta plan: $ 70 including taxes and fees (or $ 140 for four lines) for 50 GB mobile hotspot and 3 GB streaming SD.
(disclosure: Pegoraro also writes for Yahoo Finance, a media property of Verizon.)