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Brier Dudley's blog

Brier Dudley offers a critical look at technology and business issues affecting the Northwest.

August 21, 2012 at 9:01 PM

T-Mobile rolls out truly unlimited 4G data plans

The largest wireless companies are moving toward shared data plans but T-Mobile USA is heading a different direction.

Instead, the Bellevue-based company is countering with new, aggressively priced unlimited data plans that it’s rolling out on Sept. 5. The plan also positions T-Mobile for the holiday season, during which it plans to release a number of new 4G smartphones.

Under its new “Unlimited Nationwide 4G Data” plans, smartphone users will pay $20 to $30 per month for unlimited data access with no overage charges or throttling. Subscribers with “value” voice and text plans will pay $20 for unlimited data, while those with “classic” plans will pay $30 for data.

T-Mobile is offering consumers an alternative to “costly, confusing and punitive” plans from other carriers, according to Kevin McLaughlin, T-Mobile’s vice president of marketing.

Consumers just figured out how to measure their voice minutes “and they don’t really know what a megabyte is,” yet more than half are now using smartphones and consuming and sharing more data, he said.

“What we found is there’s this kind of groundswell where consumers are really looking for unlimited data,” he said.

T-Mobile will continue to offer its current, tiered plans and customers won’t have to switch.

Unlimited 4G data plans are the marquee offering of T-Mobile’s closest competitor, Sprint, but T-Mobile is claiming that it’s providing more extensive 4G coverage.

While they battle for the unlimited crown, the largest carriers — AT&T and Verizon Wireless – are moving toward plans that offer monthly data allotments that can be shared across multiple devices.

T-Mobile had offered “unlimited” data plans until May 2011, but they weren’t really unlimited because the company throttled down speeds after people crossed usage thresholds.

The company then moved to tiered data plans. For example, it offers a “classic” plan with 5 gigabytes of data per month, plus unlimited voice minutes and text messages, for $94.99 per month. With a new unlimited data plan, it would cost $89.99 per month.

A key difference is that smartphones using the new, unlimited data plans cannot be used to “tether” other wireless devices and share the phones’ data access.

T-Mobile’s new, unlimited data plans are available only for smartphone plans and won’t apply to tablets or mobile hotspots. They are available with new phones and customer-owned phones brought to the network.

It’s unclear whether the same terms will be offered for service on the new LTE network that T-Mobile plans to begin operating in 2013. McLaughlin said the company hasn’t yet “worked through” its LTE pricing plans.

Although T-Mobile’s facing the challenge of selling against the new iPhone that other carriers are expected to have this fall, McLaughlin said that wasn’t a factor in the timing of the new unlimited offering.

There is also a footnote to the “unlimited” promise. T-Mobile reserves the right to take action against customers who abuse the service with excessive data consumption.

“We’re not changing our terms and conditions as far as the way we allow our current customers to use our network … as long as they’re not abusing they’ll be able to get what they need from it,” McLaughlin said.

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