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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.

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