US wireless carriers are finally reversing the worst trend in mobile data

Stream, Snapchat, go nuts.
Stream, Snapchat, go nuts.
Image: AP Images for Verizon/Stuart Ramson
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Verizon is offering unlimited data. Again.

The US wireless carrier—one of the nation’s largest—eliminated unlimited data plans for new customers in favor of usage-based offerings back in 2011, as it and other carriers struggled to cope with customers’ skyrocketing data usage. It was one of the last major providers to nix the offering, following rivals AT&T and T-Mobile.

Since then, unlimited plans have made a comeback. Carriers are using them to undercut one another on price and poach customers from the competition.

Verizon said it will once again offer unlimited data, talk, and text to new and existing customers starting on Feb. 13, in addition to its 2GB-, 4GB-, 5GB-, and 8GB-a-month data plans. The offering also includes HD video streaming, a mobile hotspot service that turns phones and tablets into WiFi hubs, calling and texting to Mexico and Canada, and up to 500MB per day of roaming in Mexico and Canada.

AT&T currently only sells unlimited data plans to customers who also subscribe to the company’s DirecTV or U-Verse TV service.

All four major US wireless carriers—AT&T, Verizon, T-Mobile, and Sprint—now each offer some version of an unlimited plan. But while unlimited data is back, but it may no longer be the great bargain it once was. For one thing, it’s more expensive.

In 2011, the last year Verizon offered unlimited data, the plan was $29.99 a month for a single line. That was later bumped up to $49.99 a month for grandfathered accounts. Now, Verizon is offering unlimited data, talk, and text for an introductory price of $80 a month for a single line, or $45 a month per line for four lines.

To get those rates, customers need to sign up for paperless billing and automatic payments. Otherwise, the service will cost $85 per line per month. A spokesperson for Verizon did not say how long the introductory pricing would last.

The higher rates might be worth it for customers who burn through a lot of data. It is cheaper than the “extra-large” data buckets the company was previously touting. Verizon’s 16GB and 24GB plans (which have reportedly been replaced by the unlimited offering) were $90 and $110 per month, respectively.

At the introductory rate, it’s also a little cheaper than AT&T’s unlimited data offering for TV subscribers, which is $60 per month, plus $40 per line. But it’s more expensive than Sprint’s Unlimited plan, which is $50 per month for a single line, and goes as low as $90 for five lines. T-Mobile also offers four lines for $40 each, including taxes and fees, when subscribers sign up for automatic payments.

Unfortunately, Verizon’s data plan also isn’t as unlimited as its name suggests. Verizon said that it may throttle speeds for customers who use more than 22GB of data on a line during any given billing cycle, like AT&T does. (T-Mobile defaults to lower quality video streams on its unlimited plan, and slows speeds for the top 3% of data users who use more than 28GB per month, when the network is congested.)

To be fair, that’s a lot of data. The average US wireless customer reportedly uses around 2GB of data per month. But that threshold is likely increasing with the proliferation of streaming services like Netflix and Spotify, and improved video and sound quality.