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“Unlimited” is a big word in the mobile world. Everyone wants a data plan with no limitations. That’s why carriers love to use the word, but “Unlimited” rarely means truly unlimited. There are a few reasons for that.

There was a time when unlimited data plans were truly unlimited. You paid a certain amount every month and you could use as much data as you wanted. However, as more of the world has adopted smartphones, these plans have gone away.

RELATED: Should You Pay for an Unlimited Data Phone Plan?

Throttled Speeds

The biggest catch in most “unlimited” data plans is speed limits. It’s common practice for unlimited plans to only allow access to high-speed data for a set amount, such as 25GB. After you use that much data, your speed gets throttled down.

In reality, the only thing that’s actually “unlimited” is how much data you can use. It says nothing about the limits placed on the data speeds. You’re more than welcome to use more than those 10GB, but the connection is going to be much slower after that.

Video Quality Caps

YouTube logo on a smartphone
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Another common tactic that “unlimited” plans use to limit your data usage is video streaming quality caps. Certain “unlimited” plans won’t allow you to watch YouTube or Netflix at their highest quality.

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It makes sense from the perspective of the carrier. Streaming video at 1080p or 4K resolution uses a lot more data. By capping the quality they can offer “unlimited” data while still limiting how much data you use.

De-Prioritization

What happens when a lot of people are trying to access a network at the same time? That’s when de-prioritization kicks in. Carriers will throttle speeds to ease the congestion on the network, but it’s not always fair.

This is typically more of a problem on MVNOs than it is on major carriers. However, it’s still a way to limit how much data you’re using. If you’re on a lower tier of “unlimited” plan, you may be de-prioritized in favor of those who pay more.

What’s Actually “Unlimited”?

data usage chart

Clearly, there are a lot of limits on these “unlimited” plans. Limits on speed, limits on video quality, and limits on priority. So what part of it is truly unlimited? As mentioned, it’s typically only the amount of data you use.

There could be nothing stopping you from burning through 50GB of data in a month, but that doesn’t say anything about how you get to that 50GB. It could be on slow speeds with 480p video and constantly being de-prioritized for higher-paying customers.

Do Truly Unlimited Plans Exist?

Does all of this mean there are no truly unlimited plans available? No, but they’re harder to find and they’re not cheap. For example, AT&T has a truly unlimited plan that has no data speed limit or video quality caps. The catch? It’s $85 per month for one line.

Carriers are willing to offer truly unlimited plans, but you’re going to pay a lot for it. The “unlimited” plans are cheaper and often sound better to most people. Just make sure you know what you’re paying for.

RELATED: How to Save Money On Your Cellphone Bill with an MVNO

Profile Photo for Joe Fedewa Joe Fedewa
Joe Fedewa is a Staff Writer at How-To Geek. He has been covering consumer technology for over a decade and previously worked as a News Editor at XDA Developers. Joe loves all things technology and is also an avid DIYer at heart. He has written thousands of articles, hundreds of tutorials, and dozens of reviews.
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