For many years, my iPhone had been on an AT&T data plan where I got 4GB of data a month, and my wife had 2GB/month. Most of the time, that was sufficient for us. But for the last few months, there have been times when we have gone over, especially when traveling and away from Wi-Fi. Every additional 1GB cost another $10, and I got tired of paying that. Thus, I recently switched to one of AT&T's brand new unlimited data plans. The price of the new plan was not much more than my old plan, and was actually cheaper overall by letting me avoid those $10/month overage charges. If you are an AT&T customer and you are also thinking about taking advantage of one of these new unlimited plans, here are my thoughts.
The history of unlimited data
When the iPhone first went on sale in 2007, AT&T was the only carrier choice, and there was unlimited data. At the time, Apple CEO Steve Jobs said in a June 27, 2007 press release: "We want to make choosing a service plan simple and easy, so every plan includes unlimited data with direct Internet access, along with Visual Voicemail and a host of other goodies." AT&T stopped offering an unlimited data plan in 2010. Folks who had it could be grandfathered in to the old unlimited data plan, but there were limitations. For example, I eventually gave up my unlimited data plan because I wanted the ability to tether my iPad to my iPhone, which was not an option with an unlimited data plan. In 2016, AT&T brought back an unlimited plan, but it was only available to DirecTV and U-Verse subscribers.
After other major carriers offered unlimited data plans in 2017, AT&T brought back unlimited data as an option for everyone. Initially, AT&T was not allowing tethering under the unlimited plan, so you couldn't use your iPhone to connect an iPad or computer to the Internet. AT&T changed that on March 2, 2017 when it introduced a second unlimited data plan with new features. I signed up for the expanded plan and I've been using it for about two weeks now.
The current plans
There are currently two ways to get unlimited data on AT&T: the Unlimited Choice plan, and the Unlimited Plus plan. Both plans offer unlimited voice calls and text messaging, and both plans offer unlimited data — subject to some restrictions, noted below.
The Unlimited Choice plan costs $60 for the first phone, $115 for two phones, and then $20 a month for additional lines. But that plan has some important limitations: (1) no tethering, (2) video streaming is limited to standard definition 1.5Mbps (about 480p, similar to DVD quality), and (3) the speed is capped at 3Mbps. To get rid of those limitations, you have to select the Unlimited Plus plan, which costs $90/month for the first phone, $145/month for two phones, and $20/month for each additional phones.
Notwithstanding the "unlimited" in the name, there are still some limitations with the Unlimited Plus plan, but I consider them reasonable limits. First, after you use 22GB a month, AT&T reserves the right to throttle your speeds. That's a lot of data for an iPhone to use unless you plan to stream a large amount of video. I suspect that it will be a very long time before I ever get close to that much data every month.
Second, although you can get HD video with the Unlimited Plus plan, you need to manually turn it on by disabling the "Stream Saver" feature. AT&T touts this as a convenience to customers, the idea being that standard definition DVD-like quality is probably just fine for a smaller iPhone screen, and this smaller stream size means that you use less data (taking you longer to hit that 22GB) and the video starts playing faster. I actually do think that AT&T has a point here, but I'd prefer to get the best video quality possible, so I turned off Stream Saver. You can do so on the AT&T website, but it is even easier to do so via the myAT&T app on the iPhone:
Third, tethering on the iPhone works great until you hit 10GB in a month. After that, your tethering speed is limited to 128Kbps, which is quite slow. If you plan to tether your laptop computer to your iPhone every day, I'm sure that you would hit that limit. If you are like me and you see tethering as a more occasional thing to do — using it for a few days while you are out of town — then I suspect that 10GB will be more than sufficient.
The other advantage of the Unlimited Plus plan over the Unlimited Choice plan is that your iPhone data speed is not capped at 3Mbps. The actual speed will vary tremendously during the day and night just depending upon network traffic, how close you are to a cell tower and any interference, where you are in the country, and many other factors. Even with the Unlimited Plus plan, there have been times when my speed has been slightly less than 3Mbps. But there have also been times when I have gotten over 100Mbps here in New Orleans, and most of the times that I have checked my speed, it has been over 50Mbps. Suffice it to say that I've been satisfied with the speeds that I have been seeing with AT&T — the same speeds that I was seeing before I upgraded to the Unlimited Plus data plan.
Please note that I've heard that AT&T service is faster in New Orleans than many other cities. If you are already an AT&T customer, then you can test yourself to see what the data speeds are in your area. According to the latest report (February, 2017) from OpenSignal, the average AT&T 4G (LTE) speed is the United States 13.86Mbps, which is just slightly slower than the T-Mobile and Verizon average in the United States (around 16.7Mbps).
What I think
Even though I'm only a few weeks into this new Unlimited Plus plan, I can already tell that I like it. I get the same AT&T speed that I had seen before, which as noted above can be very impressive and is often faster than Wi-Fi. For example, at my house, I have a Cox internet plan which gives me 300Mbps, so the AT&T service isn't as fast at my home Wi-Fi if I am close to a router. But there are some locations in my house where the Wi-Fi doesn't reach as well, and in those spots, AT&T is faster.
As for the limits to the "unlimited" plan, I don't think that they will be a problem for me. I just don't see myself using 10GB/month for tethering, nor do I see myself hitting 22GB/month overall. As noted above, I have been living with a 4GB/month plan for years now, and I think I only went over 5GB/month once.
More importantly, I love the freedom of no longer having to be worried about using data when I'm not on Wi-Fi. I can stream songs from Apple Music as much as I want. I can watch all the videos that I want. And if I am in a part of my house where the Wi-Fi isn't reaching very well and is thus slow, I can just turn off Wi-Fi on my iPhone and use the fast AT&T data without worrying about going over my previous 4GB/month limit.
Looking to the future, AT&T says that you can add a wearable device to this plan for an additional $10/month. Apple doesn't currently sell a wearable device that has a chip to use cell data, but if Apple adds this to the Apple Watch in the future — which I can see happening — AT&T already has a price for this.
If you are an AT&T customer and the idea of virtually unlimited data is appealing to you, I recommend that you check out these new plans. The new plans may not cost much more than you are paying now (and may even be cheaper if you are currently paying for overages), and it is a real advantage to no longer have to worry about using too much data.