Thoughtful, detailed coverage of the Mac, iPhone, and iPad, plus the TidBITS Content Network for Apple consultants.

T-Mobile and Sprint Announce Unlimited Data (for Higher Prices)

With typically hyperbolic language, T-Mobile has announced T-Mobile ONE, a new wireless plan for smartphones and tablets that eliminates data caps. Not to be outdone, Sprint has launched a competing plan, called Unlimited Freedom. But, of course, there are catches, not the least of which is that the overall prices are likely to be higher for many people.

ONE Is the Loneliest Number -- T-Mobile ONE launches on 6 September 2016. While not all T-Mobile customers will be pushed to T-Mobile ONE immediately, CEO John Legere made it clear that it’ll be the way everyone will do business with T-Mobile going forward. Despite the claims of simplicity, ONE has a lot of variables and additional charges.

Legere boasts that a family of four will get unlimited talk, text, and data for only $40 a line, but that’s a bit misleading. The first line on the plan is $70 per month, the second is $50, and additional lines, up to eight, are $20 per month. And you’ll pay $5 more per month if you don’t sign up for auto pay. So, yes, a family of four will pay $40 per line, but a single person will pay $70, and a couple will each pay $60. You can add tablets for $20 per month each.

There are also limits to how “unlimited” T-Mobile ONE is. Video is restricted to standard definition; if you want HD video, that will cost an additional $25 per month per line. If you exceed 26 GB in a month, T-Mobile might throttle your speeds. And while ONE includes tethering, it’s only at 2G speeds; 5 GB of data via high-speed tethering will cost $15 per month.

T-Mobile ONE will feature all the standard T-Mobile perks, such as unlimited text and data roaming in 140+ countries, free roaming in Mexico and Canada, and Wi-Fi calling.

For many average users, T-Mobile ONE is likely to be a price increase. Based on the analysis we performed last year in “Comparing U.S. iPhone Plan Costs in a Contract-Free World” (11 September 2015), an individual who pays for 1 GB of high-speed data per month (T-Mobile throttles data speeds instead of charging overages), would pay $20 more per month with the ONE plan. While a couple with 2 GB of data would pay $80 before, ONE increases that monthly cost to $120. A family of three with 3 GB of data had to pay only $90 before; with ONE the bill would hit $140.

T-Mobile would argue that this approach compares apples to oranges, since ONE offers unlimited data (or at least 26 GB before throttling). However, T-Mobile already excludes a number of streaming services from data caps, meaning that many T-Mobile customers never actually hit those caps.

Sprint Does It Cheaper -- Sprint’s new Unlimited Freedom plan launched on 19 August 2016, and unlike T-Mobile, it doesn’t appear as though Unlimited Freedom will be the only option going forward.

Unlimited Freedom offers unlimited LTE data, talk, and text for $60 per month. A second line costs $40, and additional lines, up to ten, are $30 per month.

The catch is that, like T-Mobile, Sprint will “optimize” certain types of data, such as video, gaming, and music. Video will be limited to 480p resolution, gaming is throttled at 2 Mbps, and music streams are capped at a quality rate of 500 Kbps. For tethering purposes, customers get 5 GB of high-speed data per month; if you go over that amount you can either accept throttled speeds of 32 Kbps or purchase more data at the rate of $15 per 1 GB.

For those who travel or communicate with others around the world, Unlimited Freedom includes international texting to the United States, unlimited text and data at 2G speeds, and calls at $0.20 per minute in covered countries. The free Sprint Open World plan includes unlimited talk and text, plus 1 GB of data in Canada, Mexico, and most countries in Latin America. Or, with Sprint Global Roaming, you can buy high-speed data access in 1-day, 1-week, and 2-week increments.

Sprint’s Unlimited Freedom is cheaper than T-Mobile ONE. An individual would pay $70 per month on T-Mobile, but $60 on Sprint. A couple would pay $120 to T-Mobile, but only $100 to Sprint. A family of three would pay $140 to T-Mobile, but only $130 to Sprint. Couples do the best in this comparison.

However, compared to last year’s price points for the Sprint Family Share Pack, Unlimited Freedom is a price increase for families. An individual still pays $60 per month, the same as before, but a couple would pay $25 more per month while a family of three would pay up to $30 more each month. But Sprint hasn’t offered all of the free data perks that T-Mobile has, so the math for your particular situation might be different.

Between these changes and the recent ones at AT&T, (see “AT&T’s New Cell Plans Eliminate Data Overage Fees,” 18 August 2016), cellular competition is heating up in the prelude to the next iPhone. T-Mobile and Sprint’s CEOs quickly got into a war of words on Twitter, with T-Mobile’s John Legere accusing Sprint of “copy-paste,” while Sprint’s Marcelo Claure accused Legere of being a “con artist.”

We’ll merely note that the numbers speak for themselves. Now that ever more iPhones are contract-free, you should compare plans at all the carriers and pick the plan that makes the most sense for your actual data usage.


Backblaze is unlimited, unthrottled backup for Macs at $5/month.
Web access to files means your data is always available. Restore
by Mail allows you to recover files via a hard drive or USB.
Start your 15-day trial today! <>

Comments about T-Mobile and Sprint Announce Unlimited Data (for Higher Prices)
(Comments are closed.)

gastropod  2016-08-19 16:37
Does VPN bypass the video crippling?

I'm somewhat worried about the changes. I have the $30 pre pay with 5 GB per month, but 100 minutes of voice., which is way more than I need. If they cancel that, I'll probably have to switch to a mvno, but the last time I looked, it will still cost me more (with the trade off of better signal if they use att.)
It should. (VPN). I'd use that too if I had one of these plans. No likely way they can do deep-packet inspection so any VPN should allow any bypassing of the restrictions on bandwidth. also, Jailbreak the phone and tether as much as you want without their nonsense restrictions on that either.
David Weintraub  2016-08-20 21:27
If you look at what this plan is doing, it makes a lot of sense. Tethering isn't something most users do. Those that do tend to use cellphone plans as their only ISP service. This greatly increases the amount of bandwidth customers use. Video at SD quality aren't bad on a phone or even an iPad, but look bad on a monitor or TV. Again, it's to prevent users from using their phone plan as their ISP. The cost structure is T-Mobile trying to capture "higher value" customers and send unprofitable "low value" customers elsewhere. My costs will go down -- except I need tethering for my job, so I won't save in the end.
Lindsley Williams  An apple icon for a TidBITS Contributor 2016-08-22 12:51
The new pricing system, at least within Sprint's customer base, does not reveal fees Sprint will add (about $25/month/device) to what they call "subsidized" equipment. This includes phone purchased for a lower initial cost and then have a monthly obligation for months/years thereafter. So, a five line family would not pay a base of 190 (60-40-30-30-30) but 25*5 more than that, plus taxes and fees. This pushes the new plan into higher costs than (my) present one.

Also unspecified is how Sprint or other carriers would deal with roaming calls, texts, and data. As the moment under Sprint's other plans, Sprint sets a limit per device and if exceeded, no more roaming data that billing period. PERIOD.
Adam Engst  An apple icon for a TidBITS Staffer 2016-08-22 16:20
You're right, but this isn't unusual - AT&T charges $40 per month for a subsidized iPhone but $20 for a contract-free iPhone. As more and more people move away from the subsidized phones, it should get easier to compare apples to apples in the cellular world.

As far as international plans go, Sprint is quite confusing, but between the Sprint Open World and Sprint Global Roaming, it doesn't look horrible.
$20 for a contract-free phone???

So if I bring my own phone and just want a SIM and a plan I'm asked to pay $40 for the plan plus $20 for the phone I already paid for and own?

So what good is the $40 for a plan? How are you supposed to use that plan without a phone?

I must be misunderstanding this thoroughly. :))