You can easily get unlimited calls and texts on even mid-range phone plans, but not unlimited data plans. Why is that?
It is very easy to get a mobile phone plan with unlimited local calling and texting provisions for around $30. It’s not even terribly hard to get a mobile phone plan that offers unlimited international calls to selected locations.
If you want a plan with unlimited data usage, however, you’re plumb out of luck. There’s no such thing in the Australian telco market, and it’s highly unlikely that there ever would be. 2015 saw the introduction of a number of high usage data plans, topping out at 20GB of usage, as you can see in the table below. But it still pales next to fixed line broadband plans that offer data in the 1TB or unlimited ranges.
Why can calls and texts be unlimited, but not data?
The issue for data is largely an economic one. When mobile phones were a relatively new thing and the sunk costs of the networks designed to support them were massive, something as simple as a phone call could cost you serious money. Decades later, those costs have been captured, and intense market pressure from the big three carrier networks and the myriad of Mobile Virtual Network Operators (MVNOs) has meant that the cost of a national mobile call has tumbled. Today, we're at the point where "unlimited" call plans have more or less become the norm. Text costs for telcos were always incredibly marginal, and for a long while were a real cash cow for providers, so making them unlimited was pretty much an inevitability.
While we may see very marginal improvements in voice on new network technologies, the focus and spend is on improving data speeds, and that costs money to implement. Anything that costs a business money flows down to the customers unless that business actively wants to go bankrupt, and as such, for as long as data networks continue to improve, it’s likely we’ll see charging for data.
The good news here is that while it’s not terribly likely we’ll see unlimited plans in Australia, what we have seen is a lot of downwards pressure on outright data pricing. All of the big network providers, and many MVNOs now adhere to a $10/GB pricing structure for contract mobile excess usage, which is huge drop in real terms from years gone past.
But they’ve got unlimited data plans in the US!
Yes, they do... sort of. Part of the unlimited data plan story in the U.S lies with the substantially larger market there for mobile phones, and some significant competition between carriers.
However, a larger and far more prevalent detail overlooked when considering "unlimited" US carriers is that many of them offer an "unlimited" plan with a serious speed brake inbuilt. Specifically, most of these plans offer a set quota of data at 4G data speeds (which in themselves can be a mishmash of different speed technologies as there’s no set "4G" standard).
When you exceed that usage, you’re then dropped to an effective 2G data speed, which will be noticeable for any kind of data intensive activity such as video or music streaming. You’re technically not limited in data usage, but, like fixed broadband plans that employ data shaping, the speed of the connection will significantly impact what you can do with the service.
US consumer law protections are also substantially different to those in Australia, where the use of the word "Unlimited" where limitations exist is something that the ACCC historically doesn't look kindly on.
I want unlimited data now. What can I do?
Build your own mobile telecommunications network. That’s probably beyond your resources, however.
What you can do is opt for a high usage plan with more than 10GB of data to keep your truly mobile data needs sated and mix that with as much use of home, work or public Wi-Fi networks and preloading any data intensive content, such as streaming video or music onto your device as practically feasible.
It’s not quite the same thing as having genuinely "unlimited" mobile data, but it’s as close as you’re likely to get in the foreseeable future.