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Data caps: How long can Verizon, Sprint offer unlimited plans?

Matt Hamblen, Computerworld | April 4, 2011
Data caps on nearly all wireless and wired networks in the U.S. seem likely to be in place soon, even though Verizon Wireless and Sprint continue to make unlimited data offers.

But even home wired plans are now facing the prospect of data caps.

AT&T, the first major carrier to put data caps on smartphones last year, will impose a 150GB data cap on its DSL customers -- and a 250GB cap on its U-Verse (fiber optic) customers -- on May 2. As first reported by DSL Reports on March 13, AT&T offenders will get two warnings; after a third violation, they will be billed $10 for each 50GB over the allowance.

Verizon's wired customers might have more time to use home DSL and fiber (Fios) in an unlimited way, based on what a spokesman recently said in a separate report: "We have no plans to implement usage-based pricing for our fixed broadband customers."

Comcast set 250GB limits in late 2008 for cable modem users in the U.S., while Time Warner tried to set a 100GB cable modem limit in 2009, but later modified that approach to throttle data to users of excessive bandwidth.

Data caps on both wired and wireless customers are widespread, even if they annoy some smartphone early adopters in the U.S. Ars Technica listed the policies of 11 different wired network data caps for several different countries.

Although Wi-Fi might seem like a better option for downloading bandwidth-heavy movies and music to a smartphone, that might not remain so.

Large companies generally work with carriers on data discounts, and share data limits-per-user across the entire work force, said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates. So if one user never downloads anything, his or her data capacity is shared with others governed by the contract, including heavier users.

Wi-Fi networks in a large company could be slowed by heavy users, but that's entirely dependent on how the IT shop has configured the network. The overall data supply from the carrier to the building via copper or fiber would probably be more than enough for heavy users, and could be quickly adjusted upwards based on contract terms.

Outside the office is another matter. Workers with their own wireless plans would be governed, most likely, by the same data caps as any other consumers. But a worker on a corporate data plan would be able to use data under the rules in the shared plan set up by his company.

Still, given how fast smartphone use is growing, it's logical to assume that carriers will be watching how much workers use smartphones for data while at the workplace or on the road -- just as they are watching consumers, analysts said.


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