You can easily get unlimited calls and texts on your phone plan, but not unlimited data. Why is that?
It's trivially easy to score a mobile phone plan that includes unlimited calls and texts these days without having to spend any great sum. If you regularly need to call overseas, it's even pretty easy to score a plan with unlimited calls to select international locations.
What about unlimited data, though? To date, only one Australian provider has launched an "unlimited" data plan, but our use of quotes there is quite deliberate. Optus has what it calls its "unleashed" plans, which offer unlimited data for $60 per month on a single SIM, with unlimited standard national calls and texts.
So if Optus can do it, why can't everyone else? It's because while Optus is technically offering "unlimited" data usage, the fine print around speeds makes it a somewhat limited offer. Specifically for video streaming (undeniably a heavy usage factor for many people's mobile usage) you're limited to just 1.5Mbps down, good enough only for standard definition streaming at best. The plans also note that: "During congestion, heavy data users may be deprioritised and experience slower speeds".
Or in other words, you can get as much data as you like, but quite probably not at the speeds you might expect. For some users that might still be a good deal, although right now you can only get onto Optus' unlimited plans if you're already an Optus customer of some sort, so it's clearly in soft launch mode.
Is anyone else offering unlimited data?
If you're not fussed about mobility, an NBN plan with more than 1TB (or preferably unlimited data) would still be your best overall bet.
That's going to tether you to your home or business, however, when what you want is mobility. The good news here is that, presuming Optus isn't slapped down by the Australian Competition and Consumer Commission (ACCC), which tends to take a dim view on mis-use of the word "unlimited", it's not likely that it will alone for long in offering plans with theoretically unlimited data.
Indeed, there's some speculation that when TPG finally does launch its own mobile network, unlimited data may well be its key selling point. However, it remains to be seen how happy Australian networks are to give you unfettered access to mobile data over time, especially with the quantity of cash being sunk into 5G networks right now.
What that means for now, unless Optus' slowed-down-at-times unlimited plan makes sense for you, your best bet is to latch onto a plan with a large data allowance.
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Why is data limited anyway?
The issue for data is largely an economic one. When mobile phones were a relatively new concept 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 numerous 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 small 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 competition, combined with an increasing appetite for mobile data has put 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 US lies with the substantially larger market there for mobile phones, and some significant competition between carriers.
However, the US model relies on the fact that there's little regulation around what "unlimited" means, and that means pretty much all the US plans have a 4G data quota, with speeds varying depending on how that carrier defines 4G. Use that up, and you're rather unceremoniously dumped down to 2G network speeds.
Here in Australia, we don't have 2G networks of any real value any more, and while Optus is engaging in speed shaping, it's still a distance away from being genuinely "unlimited" in every sense.
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 onto your device as practically feasible, such as streaming video or music.
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.
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