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When Unlimited Wireless Data Is Not Really Unlimited

By Jeff Kagan
Aug 29, 2018 12:47 PM PT
wireless customers should never have data slowed down so much they can't use their smartphones

Verizon Wireless made a big mistake last week. Like it does with all users who go above their wireless data thresholds, it slowed the wireless data connection to firefighters battling blazes on the West Coast. Errors such as this are becoming a growing problem as we depend more on smartphones and wireless service.

I was caught in an awkward position with wireless service myself last week. I used up my smartphone's wireless data allowance. What that means is my fast connection slowed to an agonizingly slow crawl. For the rest of the month, my smartphone was like a brick, with no access to wireless data.

This is not a problem with every carrier or MVNO provider. Some have a clear wall. When you reach that usage wall, your service does not get turned off, but it gets turned down to such a slow level that is might just as well be off.

If you run into this problem, you have other choices in the marketplace. Some carriers have a higher limit, but all have a limit. Some carriers have an upper limit, but still don't slow the user down unless there is congestion in the network where they are located. This is a much better alternative.

However, as we grow more dependent on our smartphones and wireless data for everything in our lives, we must have a guarantee we won't be slowed down at any time during the month.

Avoiding Wireless Data Slowdown

One obvious solution for data providers is to do what cable-TV companies generally do when you reach their upper limit. They charge you for an additional block of fast service. That leaves it up to the customer, and that is a perfect solution.

Unlimited should mean simply that you are never cut off. However, depending on the wireless data plan you buy and the carrier you use, when you go past that data limit, your speed is slowed down so much that the service becomes unusable.

There are several different levels customers can buy at different price points. That's good. It gives customers a choice. However, a customer who has the largest data plan but still goes over that limit is left out in the cold for the rest of the month. That is not good.

Some carriers automatically upgrade the service plan to the next level if you cross over the line. That's good. However, even many of these types of services have an upper limit, and that is bad.

Video Devours Data

In the case of my recent overage, I believe YouTube was the culprit. If you use YouTube on your wireless devices, be careful -- video eats wireless broadband like no tomorrow.

You can watch all the YouTube videos you like when you are connected to WiFi. At your home, it uses the Internet service from your cable TV or telephone company. It's also available at many coffee shops and other public locations.

What we need is true, unlimited wireless data. The smartphone and wireless industries are becoming more crucial to our lives every day. We need to be free from the worry that we won't have service when we need it.

When you are not using WiFi, you are using your wireless data plan from your cellphone carrier, and the carriers have limits that you can reach very quickly if you are not careful.

While all wireless carriers send warnings to users, they don't tell them what to avoid using to save wireless data. Users need to understand which apps are sucking their data bucket dry. They don't. They send warnings telling when you are running low, but they don't help you understand what to avoid.

The lesson I learned was not to use YouTube to listen to music on my daily walk. Listening to the radio on a service like TuneIn Radio or iHeart Radio uses much less data.

Wireless Carriers' Responsibility

Carriers always should give users the option to buy an additional data allowance to maintain fast service through the entire month.

Another solution would be for carriers to not slow down usage so much that the smartphone becomes unusable for wireless data. If it must be slowed down, it still should be fast enough to use.

The wireless industry, carriers and smartphone makers have spent the last decade getting consumers more integrated with wireless devices. Today, we are more dependent than ever before. These are not just toys we can live without for days.

So, cutting users off is unacceptable. Having your smartphone become unusable for wireless data is a price no one should be forced to bear. Being without wireless data could mean you can't order an Uber or Lyft to get home.

If the industry wants us to continue to embrace these devices as an important part of our lives, we can never be cut off. Never. If this problem is not corrected, the industry will hurt itself when users are forced to go cold turkey.

The answer is to give customers a choice: Either go without high-speed data service until the month ends, or buy an additional block of usage to make it to the end of the month.

This would let carriers earn more from their user base, and it prevent users being left out in the cold. Why this has not happened with every carrier is a good question. Fortunately, there is an easy solution, but the carriers must act on it.

The opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of ECT News Network.


Jeff Kagan has been an ECT News Network columnist since 2010. His focus is on the wireless and telecom industries. He is an independent analyst, consultant and speaker. Email Jeff.


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