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Consumer Beware: 'Unlimited' 3G Service Has Strict Limits

If you're tempted by what some cellular operators are calling "unlimited" 3G cellular data service, read the fine print.

Three U.S. cellular operators that currently offer fixed-price 3G service -- Verizon Wireless, Cingular and Sprint -- typically use terms like "unlimited" in their marketing material to describe the nature of your access. However, a close look at the fine print makes it clear that the cellular operators are putting significant limits on their so-called unlimited service.

These limits are stated in the terms of use documents that the operators apply to their 3G service, documents that strictly spell out what you can -- and can't -- use 3G service for. Reading those documents, it is obvious that the operators are imposing these limitations to make sure you don't use too much 3G service or use 3G to replace existing wired broadband and Wi-Fi hotspot services.

Virtually all access providers have terms of use documents that limit usage and are aimed at preventing abuse such as spamming and network slowdowns caused by, say, running a business over a home cable connection. Cellular operators in particular are understandably conservative about use of their bandwidth. After all, wireless spectrum is finite and overloading it could cause overall network slowdowns for voice and data. Plus, they undoubtedly want to preserve bandwidth for their own premium offerings, which will generate additional revenue.

However, the cellular operators seem to have taken those limits to new levels despite their use of marketing terms such as "unlimited." And they seem to be enforcing those limits from time to time by cutting off service. Perhaps the particular users who were cut off abused their service beyond reasonable levels. The point is, before you jump into 3G, read the fine print. You might be surprised at what you find.

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