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Here are the catches in Verizon's new unlimited data plan

USA TODAY logo USA TODAY 2/16/2017 Rob Pegoraro
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You can't ever read the fine print too carefully, and that is also the case with Verizon's new unlimited data plan.

The $80 unlimited plan — or, to phrase it more accurately, unmetered plan — that Verizon Wireless rolled out Sunday features fewer carve-outs and restrictions than comparable offerings from AT&T and Sprint, as well as one from T-Mobile, which has responded to Verizon by removing restrictions on hotspot use and video streaming.

To sum up: Verizon is offering unlimited data, talking and texting for a single line, for $80 a month. That's before taxes and fees, which typically inflate the bill. 

Its fine print contains qualifications that deserve a closer look.

Heavy users

The first is the theoretical threshold at which your service may slow. As Verizon’s frequently asked questions page warns, racking up 22 gigabytes of data on a line (not across all devices on your account) may lead the company to “prioritize usage behind other customers during network congestion.”

That’s not a hard cutoff or one you’re stuck with for the rest of the month, and user reports of other carriers’ “deprioritization” policies suggest the effects aren’t that painful.

Hotspot limit

Verizon’s unlimited plan imposes a secondary limit on tethering, or using the phone as a portable WiFi hotspot to share its connectivity with another device. You get 10 GB a month of LTE tethering — per line, not account.

After that, your tethering drops to 3G speeds, which Verizon corporate-communications director Kelly Crummey said means a minimum of 600 kilobits per second.

Third-party tests suggest the actual speed may be slightly higher: The research firm OpenSignal’s new report on U.S. mobile networks found VzW 3G download speeds averaged just 850 kbps, a twentieth of its LTE-download average. In other words, very slow. 

Effective Friday, T-Mobile’s $70-including-taxes-and-fees unlimited plan—the only one sold to new subscribers—will also include 10 GB of LTE hotspot sharing. Today, it constrains that to 3G speeds, which OpenSignal found averaged 4 Mbps. T-Mobile will also let subscribers opt out of having streaming video limited to “480p” DVD-grade resolution.

Pricing confusion

The pricing of Verizon's new deal can be confusing as well. Verizon usually lists rates exclusive of a $20 line-access charge, but it folds that cost into the advertised price of its unlimited plan: $80 for one device, $140 for two, $162 for three or $180 for four.

The result: Glancing at the numbers on Verizon’s site can lead one to think that its “$70” 8 GB plan costs less than the unlimited plan, when in reality that 8GB plan will run you $90.

Conversely, I’ve seen some readers assume the new unlimited plan really adds up to $100 on one device, more than the current $95 cost of the unlimited plan Verizon stopped selling in 2011.

That $95 cost factors in the cheapest combination of voice minutes and texting available then, plus a $20 price hike imposed on the old unlimited deal last year. Since that option excludes tethering, you should dump it unless you somehow burn through over 22 GB a month on your phone alone.

Verizon’s advertised prices for its new plan also assumes you’ll set up automatic payments. That’s not an unusual request, but Verizon further requires you to make those payments from a checking account or a debit card--meaning you can’t put them on a rewards-earning or cash-back credit card.

“The majority of our customers use checks and debit cards to pay for their monthly bills,” said Crummey, the Verizon spokeswoman.

The unlimited plan, unlike others, also requires giving up existing employer and education discounts. But Verizon’s 15% military and veterans discount still applies, Crummey said.

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