Do We Really Need Unlimited Cellphone Data Plans?

Do We Really Need Unlimited Cellphone Data Plans?

Jason Yang
May 20, 2011

Consumers bemoaned the death of AT&T's "unlimited" data plan when it was dropped in favor of plans in the amounts of $15 for 250 MB and $25 for 2 GB of data. How much data do we really need though? For the past few months we've set our phones to use WiFi when available and monitored how much data we're really using. You and your wallet might be happily surprised with the results!

Having owned an iPhone for a few years, everyone on our family plan was grandfathered in to the old unlimited plan, which at $30/month was only $5 more than the 2 GB plan. I was regularly using 2-3 GB of data per month, liberally using the internet because I didn't have to really worry about usage overages. When my girlfriend joined our family plan, the unlimited option wasn't available to her so she was stuck with the 2 GB of data for $25/month. She (and many others) complained about her inability to have unlimited data, and I questioned whether she actually really needed more than 2 GB of data per month in the first place.

Checking our usage statistics at AT&T's website showed that she wasn't coming anywhere close to her limits, averaging around 500 MB for the first few months of her plan. She countered that she was limiting her usage because of her data cap, to which I argued that she was still nowhere close to her limits. Thus began a few months of testing and comparing, all in the name of a gentleman's bet.

First we had her go ahead and run amok with her data usage. As a safeguard I would be constantly monitoring her usage so I could warn her if she came close to her limits and wouldn't incur an overage charge ($10 per additional GB). In two months, she never came close to her 2 GB limit, averaging maybe 1 GB per month. So with her $25 2 GB plan, she was saving $5 per month ($60 per year) over the $30 unlimited plan. At $10 per extra GB in overage, she could exceed her 2 GB cap for 6 months out of the year if absolutely needed and it would be the same as the unlimited plan, but her data usage trends were showing she wasn't coming close to needing it, and $60 saved is $60 saved. While the idea of not having limits or caps is nice, sometimes you just don't really need to pay for the extra (says the guy who always gets suckered into the super size drink).

Second we tested my own usage. I was already averaging 2-3 GB per month for the past year and more, so I knew that the 2 GB limit wouldn't work for me. In my case at this point I would have to stay with my grandfathered unlimited plan. Looking at how and where I actually used data though, I realized that a good portion of my time using data was either at home or at the office, both locations which I have speedy WiFi readily available to me. Previously I had always left WiFi off on my Iphone for fear of draining my battery needlessly, but with newly implemented techniques for always having a charge I decided to give it a shot. For the last two months I've tested with WiFi always on to see how it affected my 3G data usage as well as my battery life.

While my battery life was definitely taking a beating (I regularly was in the red by noon), I got into the habit of plugging my phone in early on during the day at the office. A plugged in phone isn't always the most convenient for talking on the phone, but adding a dedicated Bluetooth headset to my desk it actually made conversations more convenient. So the battery issue became a non-issue, although over the weekends or when I'm on extended trips away from the home or office I make sure to turn WiFi off if I'm going to be away from a charger for a while. It's a shame the WiFi settings are buried in the iPhone settings - makes me want to Jailbreak to create shortcuts to easily toggle WiFi (and Bluetooth and brightness - you get the picture on Jailbreaking benefits).

How did my data usage fare? In two months of WiFi use, my 3G data usage dropped from 2-3 GB to only 500 MB per month! That's a whopping 1.5 GB to 2.5 GB less per month than I was using before on 3G only. The two months of normal usage showed that I could easily drop down to the 2 GB $25 per month plan and save myself $5 per month. It may sound small, but that $60 per year over two years covers over half the upgrade cost to the next iPhone over a two year contract. It's a shame that AT&T doesn't offer something in between their first $15 200 MB plan and their $25 2 GB plan, or there might even be more savings for both of our data usage rates.

Check out your own usage and let us know how much data you're using per month and what plan you've got. It might be worth it to say goodbye to unlimited data when it's there simply for unlimited data's sake.

(Images: Flickr member brandon.papworth licensed for use under Creative Commons)

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