Over the Edge: Are Unlimited Internet Services Truly Unlimited?

Unlimited internet is like an all-you-can-eat buffet: purchasing it guarantees that your appetite for data is satisfied, but you might consume more or less than what you paid for, and, if you overindulge too often, you’ll start getting bad service.

For the vast majority of users (usually 95%), an unlimited plan means virtually limitless access to fast, reliable internet, i.e. the perfect buffet experience. For heavy users (usually 5%), however, providers offset their heavy use by slowing their connections, punishing their data consumption with bad service. For these users, “unlimited” is anything but.

Here’s how it works:

Technically Speaking…

Devices store, receive or send data in a series of eight-digit binary numbers called bytes. Each byte is an amount of data equivalent to one character of text. Approximately 1000 bytes equal a kilobyte, enough data to store two sentences. Approximately 1000 kilobytes equal one megabyte, enough data to store a novella. Approximately 1000 megabytes equal one gigabyte, enough data to store a library shelf of books. Approximately 1000 gigabytes equal one terabyte–ten terabytes could store every book in the Library of Congress [1].

To access the internet from his or her device a user purchases data from an internet provider. “Unlimited,” in theory, means that, instead of purchasing a fixed amount of data from a provider (say 10 Gigs), a user purchases the right to use data from the provider’s network without restriction. Eighty percent of users consume between 25 and 30 Gigs of data per month, so providers set a price for their unlimited services based on this statistic.

Bandwidth Throttling

Providers have the potential to lose money to heavy users on unlimited services, so they ensure a profit by enforcing a cap on data use. This cap usually affects the top 5% of users–those who use, typically, over 150 Gigs of online data per month.

Providers penalize heavy users through bandwidth throttling i.e. reducing the speed at which the network transfers data to these users’ devices

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. Throttling is also a way to penalize users who share their internet connections with others; as few as five normal users on one connection could, together, use enough data to exceed the cap and slow the connection.

Illegal Throttling

Not all bandwidth throttling is legal. In October 2014 the FCC successfully sued AT&T for advertising unlimited 4G LTE service, then throttling the bandwidth of customers whose usage exceeded an undisclosed cap. When purchasing an unlimited plan make sure the provider is upfront about bandwidth throttling.


As users leave the 3G network for the faster 4G LTE, the bandwidth available on the 3G network will increase. If you are an average user, you should consider purchasing an unlimited 3G EVDO wireless internet. Plus, if you require faster speeds on the 3G, you should consider purchasing a MIMO antenna.  EVDO wireless internet services, typical of broadband internet access, use radio waves to transmit data which makes them more reliable than satellite services. Also, keep in mind that the 4G LTE uses up data faster than the 3G technology.

If you are a heavy user (especially a gamer who relies on a fast connection) consider contacting your internet provider and negotiating a plan with enough data to fit your needs. Standard unlimited internet services may not be enough.

Sources: [1] “Megabytes, Gigabytes, Terabytes… What Are They?” Available at: http://www.whatsabyte.com/.


Author Bio:

Hannah Fillmore is a 2012 graduate of Colby College’s English department and a lifelong Macintosh user who, as a kid, wrote her first pretend news articles on her black and white SE/30. The SE/30, though out of use for a decade, is miraculously still in working condition.