How unlimited is your “unlimited mobile internet”?

April 29th, 2010

What does “unlimited internet” really mean? In the world of mobiles, it means download limits and usage restrictions. Ken’s Tech Tips reveals the “fair usage” policies of the networks.

Just one from all the gems
Creative Commons License photo: © Ahmed Amir

What does unlimited mean? According to the dictionary definition: “having no restrictions or control” or “having or seeming to have no boundaries”. We’ve previously highlighted the fact that this isn’t mobile internet is never unlimited in that sense – all networks have fair usage policies. Today we want to place the spotlight on “unlimited internet” packages. Just how limited are they and what are the penalties for exceeding the limit? We will look at several important issues:

  • What is the fair usage limit? Across networks and tariffs, they range from 200MB to 3GB.
  • What happens once I reach the limit? Some networks will automatically start charging you per megabyte, other networks will cut you off. Some networks just “reserve the right” to restrict your usage.
  • Can I use instant messaging services such as MSN? Some networks restrict instant messaging services so they can make money from texts.
  • Can I use voice over IP? Very few networks will allow you to use voice over IP services on their mobile network. They take away from the money they make from voice calls.
  • Can I tether my phone to a computer? Our research found that none of the major networks allow you to tether your phone to a computer.

Key Conclusions

There are some interesting conclusions we drew from this study.

Firstly, there is a huge variation in the fair usage limit: from 200MB to 3GB. The networks also differ on what happens when you reach that limit. Three will cut off your internet connection whereas other networks such as O2 and Virgin are happy for you to continue: but they’ll charge you up to £3/MB for the privilege. Other networks such as Orange and T-Mobile say they won’t charge you for exceeding the limit – but they’ll let you know when you’ve reached it and they may restrict your usage.

We also looked at the restrictions which networks made on what you could actually do with your data connection. Voice over IP is prohibited by every network except from Three and Vodafone (if you have an unlimited plan). And none of the networks will let you tether – presumably that would hurt their mobile broadband business.

The comparison between the networks

Firstly, a word of warning. The networks have offered a range of data tariffs in the past – for example if you signed up for a data tariff several years ago you might have a limit of 1MB/month (yes, they did exist at one point…). This is only a guide to highlight the differences and to help you choose a network. Please double check the terms and conditions for your tariff before using data services (we have provided the relevant links to terms and conditions pages).

If you want information on other fair usage limits (minutes, texts, etc.) see our earlier article on fair usage allowances.

Three

  • What is the fair usage limit? There is no fair usage allowance with The One Plan’s “all-you-can-eat” data. 1GB for other tariffs.
  • What happens once I reach the limit? N/A for The One Plan; for other plans you’ll be charged 10p/MB.
  • Can I use instant messaging services such as MSN? Yes! In fact, 3 actively advertises this as a feature of their tariff. You can use Windows Live Messenger with a limit of 10,000 messages per month.
  • Can I use voice over IP? Yes! 3 actively promote the fact you can use Skype on their network. This comes with a fair usage of 5,000 minutes per month.
  • Can I tether my phone to a computer? Yes, tethering is included with The One Plan. For other tariffs: No, this is expressedly prohibited by their terms and conditions.

Source: 3 Terms and Conditions

Tariff information: 3 Store

O2

  • What is the fair usage limit? From 500MB for Pay Monthly tariffs from June 2010; 200MB for web bolt-on, 500MB for Text and Web
  • What happens once I reach the limit? You’ll be charged standard O2 data costs. £1/day for contracts, £3/MB for Pay As You Go.
  • Can I use instant messaging services such as MSN? Not prohibited in the Terms and Conditions – drop us a comment below if you’ve had experiences.
  • Can I use voice over IP? No; prohibited by Terms and Conditions
  • Can I tether my phone to a computer? No; prohibited by Terms and Conditions

Source: O2 Terms and Conditions

Tariff information: O2 Shop

Orange

  • What is the fair usage limit? 750MB for “unlimited internet” the Panther tariffs (note some Panther tariffs have a 500MB limit and are not advertised as “unlimited”)
  • What happens once I reach the limit? Orange will notify you that you’ve exceeded your limit. They say that they may apply network protection control. (note that if you are on the 500MB limit tariff, you will be charged for extra usage automatically)
  • Can I use instant messaging services such as MSN? No; prohibited by terms and conditions.
  • Can I use voice over IP? No; prohibited by terms and conditions.
  • Can I tether my phone to a computer? No; prohibited by terms and conditions.

Source: Orange Pay Monthly Terms, Orange PAYG Terms, Orange Pay Monthly (Panther) Terms

Tariff information: Orange Shop

T-Mobile

  • What is the fair usage limit? 500MB on all tariffs starting from February 2011 onwards (1GB with their unlimited internet booster, or 3GB if you’ve got an Android phone for contracts before February 2011).
  • What happens once I reach the limit? T-Mobile explicitly state that you will not be charged but they may impose restrictions.
  • Can I use instant messaging services such as MSN? No; prohibited by terms and conditions (bizarre as the T-Mobile HTC Desire ships with Google Talk installed)
  • Can I use voice over IP? No; prohibited by terms and conditions.
  • Can I tether my phone to a computer? No; prohibited by terms and conditions.

Source: T-Mobile Fair Use Policy

Tariff information: T-Mobile website

Vodafone

  • What is the fair usage limit? 500MB on their pay monthly contracts.
  • What happens once I reach the limit? Vodafone will notify you when you reach your limit. From June, Vodafone customers will be charged £5 per 500MB once they exceed their limit.
  • Can I use instant messaging services such as MSN? Not prohibited by terms and conditions.
  • Can I use voice over IP? Yes; according to the Vodafone T&C providing you have an unlimited plan.
  • Can I tether my phone to a computer? No.

Source: Vodafone webpage, Vodafone “Your Plan” Terms and Conditions

Tariff information: Vodafone Store

Virgin Mobile

  • What is the fair usage limit? 1GB per month on the Pay Monthly contracts.
  • What happens once I reach the limit? You’ll be charged £2 per MB.
  • Can I use instant messaging services such as MSN? Not prohibited by fair usage policy.
  • Can I use voice over IP? No; prohibited by fair usage policy.
  • Can I tether my phone to a computer? No; prohibited by fair usage policy.

Source: Virgin Mobile Fair Usage Policy

Tariff information: Virgin Mobile

    

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About Ken

Ken Lo

I'm a freelance writer specialising in mobile technology. I've been blogging at Ken's Tech Tips since 2005 with the aim of demystifying mobile technology for the rest of us.

Before writing about mobile technology, my background was in space & atmospheric physics. I have also worked in software development. Nowadays, I help companies to explain mobile technology to their customers. Please check out my portfolio or get in touch for more information. I'm also on Google+.

Your Comments

We'd love to hear your thoughts and any questions you may have. So far, we've received 27 comments from readers. You can add your own comment here.

  1. Sarah said:

    I’m currently on t-mobile and a restricted to 500mb. Usually this lasts about 1/2 month for me. Whilst I can still check my mail, fb, browse etc. it is heavily restricted. If I pay for an extra Internet booster will that increase my usage amount? Or will I still be under the 500mb “unlimited” plan? I am using pay as you go, as I am new to the UK and unable to get a contract here yet. Please let me know what is best to do. Changing companies?

  2. Damian said:

    I’m on pay as you go with vodafone and signed up to a package which gives you free texts calls to vodafone and “unlimited internet” the screen that allows you to change to this package from my previous didn’t advise me of the terms and conditions and never had a link to them. it seems I went over the usuage and Vodafone charged me over €40. I never even received so much as a Text from them to advise that I was close to this so called limit and that I could be charged. Can they do this or should they have at least advised me of this.

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Damian,

      I'm afraid I don't know the legal situation here – although I would recommend getting in touch with Vodafone Customer Services and explaining your situation to them. They may be able to waive the charges if there was an error or a misunderstanding somewhere.

      Ken

  3. Stevie G said:

    giffgaff and three also offer unlimited data. 3 will allow tethering on their One Plan

  4. VJTheDJ said:

    TalkMobile are stating that unlimited is UNLIMITED, but not sure if they have disbled wi-fi tehrering on handsets offered for £12/month.

  5. alan said:

    what is tethering ?

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Alan,

      Tethering means connecting your mobile phone to a computer and using it as a 3G modem. More info here.

      Hope this helps!

      Ken

  6. David said:

    I have a question about instant messaging and VOIP, above it says the vodafone allow peer to peer and VOIP which is great however this is only on a unrestircted data plan, vodafone no longer do any unrestricted plans or unlimited plans they are either 500 750 or 1024mb, so where do i stand.
    Iv asked vodafone for help but they just say it should be fine…which i dnt think would stand up if they charge me and i try to claim i dnt need to pay it.
    Iv asked at carphoneware house, phones4u and no one had any idea that the terms and conditions even existed to quote section 15 of the terms and conditions;
    15. If you are on an unrestricted data price plan or you have an unrestricted data bundle, you are permitted to use the mobile internet for:

    a. calls over the internet (voice over IP); and

    b. Peer to Peer Communication services.

    If you are on a restricted price plan without an unrestricted data bundle we will block access to these services, restrict network performance and / or charge you for this use at the full published rates as set out online at the link provided below.

    So where do i stand i want to get a phone but i want peer to peer and VOIP.
    I want a HTC Desire HD so the easy option would be to go on 3 but i have no 3 network coverage in my area, which leave O2 but supposidly they are not supplying the phone in favor of the HTC WP7 so im stuck with Vodafone!

    Any help would be great
    Thanks!

    1. Howard replied:

      I was also looking for VOIP and P2P.. Spoke to one of the staff in the 3 shop and he said that VOIP is included but P2P is NOT included in their "All-you-can-eat" data plan… So back to the drawing board for me!!!

  7. Jay said:

    BBC rogue traders. BBC watchdog, trading standards, Advertising standards authority. Tell them all!

  8. Koshington said:

    Ive just fell foul to it on 3.
    I had 2 options – one with less minutes but unlimited Internet. And the other with more minutes but a 500mb limit. I chose the unlimited one.

    Had a text 2 weeks later from 3 saying I was near my limit. Seems my 'unlimited' data plan is actually the same as the 500mb plan with less minutes for the same price.

    Feel totally misled. No one seems to care as all networks are doing the same, where can you go? Attitude.

    These networks are making their own rules. How the definition of 'Unlimited' can be interpreted as 'limited to what value we decide' is a joke.

    Where can I complain? I'm 2 weeks into a 24 month contract.

  9. Arran said:

    I am on the 3 network and I was told I can tether my phone to a computer but it comes under my data usage (1GB Fair use) and it is not supported by 3 at all and if I run up any charges due to tethering then its my fault but 3 are kind and always text you when your about to go over they will not charge you the first to months you go over but use all you allowance a 3rd month and they will just cut of your internet as far I have never be charged.

  10. vic said:

    i have just signed up on 3 and was told i have unlimited internet a week later i got a text stating i have only 500mb of use a month is this a breach of contract can anyone let me know

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi Vic,

      I'm afraid probably not as it was in the contract and small print that you signed although you could try arguing it. However, are you on "Internet Texter 500/900"? If so, Three are upgrading you to 1GB per month over the next two weeks.

  11. rich said:

    i recently got a 2 year contract with orange with unlimited internet but i see on my account its dolphin 30 with only 500mb.surely if i was told unlimited internet then i should be on panther and not dolphin.can someone correct me on this if im wrong before i phone them up.regards

    1. Jay replied:

      I've just brought a phone on the same contract and was told 'unlimited' internet by the sales person, however contract clearly stated 500mb. Sales person's response was, 500mb is sufficient for the average user. As far as the terms go no contract is unlimited they are all 'unlimited' i.e. subject to fair use therefore 'limited'! I guess you can call them up but there only suggestion would be to move to a larger 'unlimited contract' or cancel your contract if you're within the 7-14 day period. I don't see them changing the 500mb limit for you for free.

  12. Mr. Freak said:

    My experience of o2 and their so called unlimited web bolt ons is that they are rather reluctant to actually disclose what their fair use policy actually is. When I got the inclusive web bolt on the girl in customer services didn’t seem to know what the actual limit is and just said that if I used too much I would receive a text.
    Well, that’s all well and good but it’s pretty hard to stay within a limit if I don’t know what it is.
    I quite often use 1GB or more and so far haven’t heard so much as a peep from o2. If their usage policy really is as low as 500MB, then either I have slipped under their radar or they are using other criteria in flagging up accounts of people they consider heavy users other than just the amount of data used. For example how many minutes and texts they use out of their allowance each month?

  13. Rich jennings said:

    Im on 3 and i use my phone connected to my pc and have done for the last 5 years.

  14. John said:

    GAC:

    Just to let you know, if you get the “unlimited internet and email” add-on (£5) for Three mobile (which is AFAIK included in the sim only £15 1 month contract I have) the fair use limit is now 2GB – which is pretty reasonable!

    For pay as you go customers you can get the “internet monthly” add-on (£5) which also has fair use of 2GB

    http://www.three.co.uk/_standalone/Link_Document?content_aid=1214305748126

    Maybe this is the same document you read?

  15. S Green said:

    Three has a web page showing current usage which explicitly states that internet Mb are unlimited while voice minutes are limited (in my case to just over 500 minutes).
    Quote:
    Still to use this month:
    Voice minutes or 507 texts
    Internet (MBs) Unlimited
    3 to 3 voice minutes Unlimited

    End quote

    The plot thickens! :-)

  16. S Green said:

    Good citation. Maybe the ASA hadn’t seen smartphones like iPhone and Android if they buy it that more than 500Mb is ‘atypical’ monthly usage. I just got one and used almost all my monthly unlimited limit within a fortnight with just a half hour a day trying a few Android and I have a life and job. Why do we look to these guys to protect our rights?! Still yours is an excellent site for arming us with decent facts. Thankyou.

  17. S Green said:

    Shouldn’t government trading standard people put a stop to such use of the word “unlimited”? Are they immune to controls on ‘trade descriptions’? Internet use is encouraged by having it feature so prominently on smartphones and the companies profit immensely from this but aren’t they profiting from encouraging customers to buy contracts on false expectations encouraged by the description. What do lawyers say about these contracts?

    1. Ken Lo
      Ken replied:

      Hi S,

      Good argument: you can see a ruling from the Advertising Standards Authority here:
      http://www.asa.org.uk/Complaints-and-ASA-action/Adjudications/2009/12/Vodafone-Ltd/TF_ADJ_47835.aspx

      Ken

  18. Ken Lo
    Ken said:

    Updated info on 3 FUP and charges for exceeding it.

  19. GAC said:

    As it stands today Three’s fair usage policy is now down to 500Mb, after which they will charge you 10p/Mb.

    There’s evidence in the T&Cs of a further “Unlimited Internet and Email” addon, which increases the fair usage to 2Gb (10p/Mb thereafter), but seemingly no way to purchase this from the online shop as an option on the Internet Texter/Talker plans.

    Confusingly, the Internet Talker plans list 500Mb in the plan details. The Internet Texter plan details still lists unlimited, even though they’re both subject to exactly the same FUP of 500Mb. It very much gives the impression that one is better than the other, which that is absolutely not the case…

  20. Ergates said:

    “Can I use instant messaging services such as MSN? No; prohibited by terms and conditions (bizarre as the T-Mobile HTC Desire ships with Google Talk installed)”

    I suspect the Ts & Cs might be slightly different for Android (and poss other smart) phones (in the same way as the 3GB limit is different). I have had a T-Mobile G1 and have been using Google Talk (and MSN via Meebo) with no problems since I bought it last year.

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