How Limitless Is “Unlimited”?
Starting in the ’90s and continuing into the “aughts,” certain key words that once denoted extreme or ultimate conditions were beveled down through overuse into markers of the mundane. “Awesome,” for instance, is no longer reserved for the Grand Canyon—or photos of nebulae sent down by the Hubble telescope—or that big-as-all-get-out mothership sliding into view over the mountaintop in Close Encounters of the Third Kind. In its current, flattened form, “awesome” equates to “interesting,” or even something approximating “Good—I’ll see you then.” The word “magical” was used so routinely in Apple product launches that it became something of a finger-quoted meme among the technoscenti.
Similarly, especially in the realm of marketing, use of the word “unlimited” is now presumed to be hyperbolic rather than literal. Example: A while back I found a great price on a rental car, requiring only a short train hop from Manhattan to Jersey City. Along with a weekly price well under $200, the listing boasted “unlimited mileage.” In fact, virtually all car rental ads use this phrase. But according to the rental clerk, “unlimited” in this case meant how many miles one could reasonably rack up in a week tooling around New Jersey, with a possible road trip to New York or Philly thrown in—in other words, a few hundred. Anything over a specific, easily achievable odometer figure, the contract stated, would cost me $5.00 a mile!
When I explained that I needed the car to attend a family reunion in Indiana—about 600 miles each way—and that I’d booked with him because of the phrase “unlimited mileage,” he relented and penciled in “1300” on the contract. But clearly this was a caveat emptor moment, more or less deftly parried into a minor carpe diem victory.
The same slippery definition of “unlimited” can be found throughout the Internet Service Provider (ISP) realm. We’ll focus here on the mobile carrier sector. In their own ads, providers crow about streaming all manner of media and raw data to and from “the Cloud,” even while tightening the screws on ever-more-onerous bandwidth caps and larding on overage fees for the unwary—like tax collectors in the days of Robin Hood.
It’s difficult to see how the dream of mobile, storage-less streaming terminals can come to fruition on this playing field. It may be telling that some industry observers suggest the real reason for CEO Reed Hastings’s herky-jerk, aborted Netflix/Quikster binary fission attempt was not, as many thought, to spin off and and eventually fire-sale his antiquated disc delivery system, but to jettison his painted-into-a-corner movie/TV streaming effort.
So, which carrier(s) actually offer(s) truly unlimited service? The answers are hidden in anecdotal murk, marketing happy-talk, and Terms of Service legalistic spin. In TV spots, Sprint claims it offers the only truly unlimited plan and accuses T-Mobile of claiming to provide the same but in fact “throttling” the data feed from 3G speed to 2G once the hapless customer moves more than 2GB of data in any given month. This defamation appears to hold some water:
AT&T and Verizon, the dueling giants of the industry, both offer “unlimited” plans. AT&T charges $69.99 a month for unlimited voice calling, on top of which the client must choose from a smorgasbord of data options ranging from $25 for 2 GB to $45 for the maximum, 4 GB of up/down data transfer. Anything over that can, and will, cost the vic—er, customer beaucoup buckage.
The story on Verizon is murkier still. The field’s biggest player is said to be transitioning to a tiered system like its archenemy AT&T, but hasn’t done so yet. Verizon currently offers all-you-can-eat unlimited at $89.99 for voice and data (plus tax and the usual mystery surcharges), but—at least in the fine print—has set a 5 GB cap, to be used at the carrier’s discretion.
Per a Verizon service contract: “Unlimited Data Plans . . . may ONLY be used with wireless devices for the following purposes: (i) Internet browsing; (ii) email; and (iii) intranet access . . . Examples of prohibited uses include . . . continuous uploading, downloading or streaming of audio or video programming or games; (ii) server devices or host computer applications, including, but not limited to, Web camera posts or broadcasts, automatic data feeds, automated machine-to-machine connections or peer-to-peer (P2P) file sharing . . . Anyone using more than 5 GB per line in a given month is presumed to be using the service in a manner prohibited above, and we reserve the right to immediately terminate the service of any such person without notice.”
Hmm . . . sounds not dissimilar to “unlimited mileage, as long as you don’t leave New Jersey”!
My own service is with Sprint, the self-professed sole carrier of the “true unlimited” torch—who is rumored in the forums to have its own 5 GB weapon of last resort secreted away in the end-user license agreement briar patch. Assuming it exists, I have thus far not given Sprint cause to deploy—but the ease of getting into dangerous territory is clear. Note the spike in July and August 2011, when I installed Netflix and Google Music apps on my phone and began occasionally streaming content. At 2,340,399 KB (2.3 GB), I would have been in deep doo-doo come bill time had I been on AT&T’s popular 2 GB plan. With a tablet—fundamentally an interactive media consumption device—using anything other than free coffee-shop Wi-Fi would be like writing a blank check to the the carrier for anyone stuck in a tiered system.
- Per online lore, a number of Verizon customers have gone regularly, significantly over the legendary 5 GB limit without any repercussions. Possibly Verizon’s secret weapon is indeed meant only as a recourse against the hacker who tries to pull networking juice through his phone to light up a home or office loaded with computers . . . or runs a file-sharing server via his mobile account.
- Or it may be that adding stick-brandishing “Achtung!” verbiage to the end-user license agreement is meant to appease hysterical, politically connected Recording Industry Association of America (RIAA) and Hollywood forces—while in reality, carriers have little intention of shooting themselves in their collective foot by dumping paying customers.
- It may even be the case that tiered billing systems are advantageous to mobile users who spend less than average time online.
Are data caps necessary/justified/inevitable? Like everything about this subject, it depends on whom you ask. “Inevitable” might be a safe bet in any case. The easily accessible “Data Usage” app included in the just-announced Google 4.0 “Ice Cream Sandwich” unified phone/tablet OS tells us for whom the bell tolls.
The blurring of absolutes we’ve been examining may or may not indicate our gradual descent into an era of diminished expectations, but one thing is certain: As consumers, we’re cheap dates—and ideal targets for marketing. Most of us are ready to accept almost any claim, since the superlatives have been rounded off for easy digestion. Sure, it’s not as great as they’re saying—but how bad can it be? Given and despite all that, an FTC definition of the term “unlimited,” along with unpleasant consequences for misuse of same, would hardly constitute restraint of trade or free speech, and indeed appears long overdue.
Author: John Wehmeyer