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Why are 'unlimited' data plans not actually unlimited?

Two words: fair usage.

The lure of 'unlimited' data is always tempting for smartphone owners, but it's worth checking the small print first to see what it really means.
The lure of 'unlimited' data is always tempting for smartphone owners, but it's worth checking the small print first to see what it really means.
Image: AP Photo/Steffi Loos

IT HAPPENS WHEN you’re looking for a new deal or data plan. Unlimited calls, texts and data deals are thrown about and when you consider how much you pay for contract deals, it’s easy to take it at its word.

Yet most people are surprised when they find that an unlimited deal isn’t what it appears to be. Most of us use smartphones and with 4G slowly growing in popularity, it will mean we will be using them for downloading larger files and streaming HD video.

The entire concept ties into the fair usage policy, that is what a company defines as an ‘acceptable’ level of usage.

Comreg describes it as such:

A number of telephone and broadband packages being offered are described as ‘unlimited’. In this context the word ‘unlimited’ would normally be taken to mean that a subscriber, having agreed to pay a set price, may make as many calls or spend as much time online as he or she wishes.  However, some service contracts qualify the meaning of ‘unlimited’ by stating that it is subject to an ‘acceptable’ or ‘fair’ level of use by the subscriber. This is referred to as a “fair usage policy” in some advertising.

In layman’s terms, it means that there’s a cap to how much data you can use in a given period before you have to pay extra for it, or in the case of broadband connections, penalised for it.

The reason the term unlimited is used is because it feels like the amount you’ve been provided is unlimited (i.e. you won’t go over whatever data limit is provided) through normal use.

And it’s ‘normal use’ that defines these limits. Whether it’s a broadband or mobile connection, it’s defined by what the average person would use over a certain amount of time.

Actions that would qualify under normal usage would be using services like Facebook and Twitter, loading up YouTube videos, and on the rare occasion, downloading large files like games and films (the latter would apply more to broadband than mobile).

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If you do things like download films or games every day, then you would be classified as a heavy user and will be notified about it if it happens over a prolonged period.

The same principles apply to mobile like calls, texts and data usage. If you go over it regularly, you will be notified about it with action only really taken if it continues.

How much data you have to play around with really depends on the service, but before you do anything, the best thing to do is to check the small print first. Better yet, when you’re checking out the terms and conditions behind a deal, hit Ctrl + F (or Command +  F if you’re a Mac user) and type in ‘fair usage’ to find the relevant lines. In some cases, it’s better to be safe than sorry.

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About the author:

Quinton O'Reilly

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