With 3G smartphone data caps, would you rather pay more, or get throttled?

Ben Patterson
Technology News Blog

The age of unlimited smartphone data plans is slowly but surely drawing to a close. AT&T added caps to its smartphone 3G data plans in the summer, and Verizon Wireless says it's also close to capping its own smartphone data offerings. But T-Mobile is taking a different approach: Instead of charging users extra for busting over their monthly data limits, it'll "throttle" the data speeds of heavy users. Which approach do you like the most (or loathe the least)?

Unlimited smartphone data plans (as opposed to mobile broadband cards, which have been capped across the board for some time now) aren't completely dead yet. Sprint still has its "Simply Everything" bundles of unlimited voice, text messages and 3G data, starting at $69 a month (plus a $10 "premium data" fee in the case of its two 4G handsets, the HTC Evo 4G and the Samsung Epic 4G).

But as the big carriers roll out more and more flashy but data-hungry smartphones, unlimited smartphone data plans are—in the U.S., at least—becoming the exception rather than the rule.

AT&T made headlines back in June when it announced that it would scrap its $30-a-month unlimited 3G smartphone plan (except for those who've been grandfathered in) in favor of a pair of new capped plans: a $15-a-month plan for 200MB of monthly data, and a $25-a-month deal for 2GB of data.

AT&T's rationale: Since the vast majority of its customers use less than 2GB a month, most 3G smartphone subscribers stand to save money with the new capped plans.

On the other hand, those who like to stream video over the Netflix iPhone app will quickly burn through their 2GB of monthly data—in which case you'd have to pony up $25 for another 2GB bucket of 3G access.

Verizon Wireless still has its $30-a-month unlimited smartphone data plan, but Verizon Communications CEO Ivan Seidenberg said last month that the carrier will probably roll out tiered data plans in the next few months. Pricing is still up in the air.

Meanwhile, T-Mobile has decided on another approach to dealing with 3G smartphone data. Rather than charging smartphone subscribers for exceeding a monthly limit of 3G data, the carrier plans on slowing the speed of your 3G data connection (throttling it, in other words) if you breach the 5GB monthly cap.

Hmmm ... so how much slower are we talking, you ask? An internal T-Mobile memo obtained by TmoNews says only that throttled subscribers will "continue to have Web browsing capabilities but at slower speeds, which will be determined by their device type." Your 3G smartphone data speed will return to normal once you begin the next billing period, the memo says.

In any case, that's the choice that heavy smartphone data users are now facing: paying extra for busting over their monthly data caps, or getting throttled.

Which one's better—or worse, depending on your point of view? Good question.

On the T-Mobile side, you don't ever have to worry about seeing extra charges on your monthly bill no matter how much data you use—but if you burn through more than 5GB of data in a billing cycle (a feat accomplished by only 1 percent of T-Mobile users, the carrier claimed in a statement), you might find that your mobile Web browsing has slowed to a crawl.

As for AT&T (and eventually Verizon, it would seem), you're theoretically guaranteed to have fast 3G (depending on your connection, of course ... don't get me started) no matter how much data you use—but if you go over your monthly limit, you'll have to pay for it.

And yes, there's still Sprint with its unlimited "Simply Everything" bundle. But who knows how long that'll last.

So here's my question to you: If you had to choose between getting throttled or paying extra for heavy 3G smartphone data use (and remember, it may not be long before you will indeed have to choose), which would you pick?

— Ben Patterson is a technology writer for Yahoo! News.

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