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

Tempted by 'unlimited' 3G service? Look closely at the fine print and you'll find strict limits on some of the things we all expect to do on the Internet.

November 30, 2005

4 Min Read
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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.The Three Things You Can Do

Cingular and Verizon enumerate three specific legitimate activities that you can use their 3G services for: what they both call “Internet browsing,” e-mail; and intranet access. Verizon's terms of use explicitly ban other uses, including streaming media, applications in which the host acts like a server and voice-over-IP. The terms of use language also particularly forbears replacing a wireline connection like DSL with EV-DO.

Verizon's agreement notes that it can limit throughput and data transferred or cancel an account without notice whenever they think terms are violated or when a legitimate use affects their network adversely. On discussion forums such as, a small number of users have reported being cut off by Verizon Wireless for overusing 3G.

Cingular’s latest language for its UMTS service limitations is much looser than Verizon’s, noting just, “other uses (e.g., telemetry and automatic data feeds, select streaming audio/video content, games or other downloads) are an extra expense.” The “select” part seems to refer to their own offerings which are still in development.

Cingular doesn’t mention discontinuing service, but warns that mileage may vary. But they also refer to a set of Terms and Conditions that are more extensive but not available anywhere -- as of this writing -- on the public part of their Web site.

What About Sprint?Sprint's terms of service were the hardest to find. After spending 90 minutes reviewing their Web site and coming up empty for specific terms on their new EV-DO service, I used their online chat feature to talk to a salesperson. I didn’t identify myself as a reporter, but said that I wanted to find out Sprint’s EV-DO conditions of use as Verizon Wireless had made theirs clearly available on their site.

After lengthy delays as the salesperson attempted to find the material I requested, pointing me three times to pages that either didn’t cover EV-DO or were about pricing for add-ons not terms and conditions, the salesperson gave up and said the information was not available online.

The closest detail I was able to find described what wasn’t allowed, which wasn’t as restrictive as Verizon or as loose as Cingular. Sprint PCS’s branded Vision plan can’t be used for services, whether “host computer” or “server devices,” can’t replace wireline connections, and can’t drive continuous traffic or ongoing data sessions. Sprint says it can terminate without notice for any violation.

3G’s increasing user base may more frequently bump up against the limits that these three operators have encoded. The “no VoIP” restriction in an age of Skype may thoroughly peeve Verizon’s customers, and all three services could cancel someone’s service when, say, their copy of Windows XP decides to automatically grab a 40 Mb update. None of the three particularly allows this and Verizon outright bans it.

I contacted all three cellular operators about the reasons behind the strict limitations. Sprint and Cingular have not yet responded. A Verizon Wireless spokesperson said that their terms and conditions were designed to make sure that average users don't degrade network performance for all users, and noted that businesses with specific needs could obtain less-restrictive service at higher cost.One thing is clear, though: 3G subscribers should watch their step. They could download one PowerPoint slide too many and be out on the street.

Links to Terms and Conditions or Terms of Service:



Sprint PCS Fleishman opines daily on Wi-Fi issues at Wi-Fi Networking News and contributes regularly to Mobile Pipeline. He's based in Seattle, one of the most cellularly and Wi-Fi-ily-connected places in the U.S.

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