Unlimited mobile data: Is it possible?
FIRST we had unlimited texts, then we got unlimited minutes, and home broadband's been largely unlimited for some time. It was only a matter of time before our appetite for data on the move began to grow.
But is totally unlimited mobile use really possible? In short - yes.
There aren't many providers offering unlimited data, and even fewer offering neverending minutes as well - but we've tracked them down.
As far as completely unlimited phone use goes, there are only two names in the ring: Three and GiffGaff.
GiffGaff's Goodybags are all offered on a SIM-only, rolling 30 day contract, basis.
Three, meanwhile, offer two versions of their SIM-only unlimited package, depending on whether the user wants to sign up for a 12 month contract, or a 30 day rolling contract.
|£20 Goodybag||Unlimited*||Unlimited||Unlimited||£20||Visit GiffGaff|
|SIM All-you-can-eat data, All-you-can-eat minutes - 12 months||Unlimited||Unlimited||Unlimited||£30||Visit Three|
|SIM All-you-can-eat data, All-you-can-eat minutes - 1 month||Unlimited||Unlimited||Unlimited||£33||Visit Three|
*Only first 6GB at 4G speeds.
Just a year ago there was a third option included in here, in the form of TalkTalk's All-in SIM, which was launched with some fanfare at a market beating £12 a month.
That more than made up for the fact that being a Mobile Virtual Network piggybacking on Vodafone's network, TalkTalk could only offer 3G at best, and only to TalkTalk's residential customers: people already taking phone, broadband and/or TV.
The gloss was tarnished when, just four months later, the price doubled - and not long afterwards all mention of the deal vanished from their site.
While GiffGaff are also an MVNO, using O2 to provide their service, they began to offer 4G as standard to all new customers following a shake up of their packages last autumn.
That said, only the first 6GB of that unlimited data will be provided at 4G speeds. Once users have eaten through that, they'll find their browsing is limited to a speed of 256Kb between 8am and midnight.
Three are no longer quite so unusual in providing 4G coverage for no greater cost than 3G - and they have no such speed limitation. Customers can browse using 3G or 4G, as the network and their phone permit.
Want a phone too?
Anyone who wants a new phone along with their horizon-expanding SIM has only one option - Three.
|All-you-can-eat data, All-you-can-eat minutes - 24 month contract||Unlimited||Unlimited||Unlimited||From £36||Visit Three|
The exact monthly price will vary depending on which handset we choose - at the time of this update, the price above was for All-you-can-eat data, minutes and texts on a Huawei Y3 smartphone with a four inch 800x480 screen and 4GB of memory.
After a couple of years in which Three clamped down on tethering - using our mobile phone data connection to create a wi-fi hotspot - they've become much more generous again.
Customers with a limited data deal can use the whole of their allowance as a personal hotspot; anyone signing up for the All-you-can-eat data plan from the start of April 2016 will be able to use up to 30GB for personal wi-fi.
Not completely unlimited
So going completely unlimited has, well, limits.
When we first wrote this guide, there were far more possibilities for those willing to limit another part of their allowance, usually the number of minutes.
However, there's now just one provider offering unlimited data with limited other allowances - and that's Three.
What's more, even their range has shrunk; they used to offer a couple of unlimited-data-limited-minutes plans with their handsets, but these days they're all SIM-only:
|SIM All-you-can-eat data, 200 minutes - 12 months||Unlimited||200 minutes||Unlimited||£20||Visit Three|
|SIM All-you-can-eat data, 200 minutes - 1 month||Unlimited||200 minutes||Unlimited||£23||Visit Three|
|SIM All-you-can-eat data, 600 minutes - 12 months||Unlimited||600 minutes||Unlimited||£25||Visit Three|
|SIM All-you-can-eat data, 600 minutes - 1 month||Unlimited||600 minutes||Unlimited||£28||Visit Three|
That's the lot as far as unlimited data is concerned.
Do we need unlimited data?
But that's assuming anyone actually needs unlimited data.
Put it this way: in 2015, the average UK household used 83GB of data a month over fixed broadband connections, according to Ofcom. By comparison, they found average monthly mobile data use was still just 0.5GB.
Of course, averages hide the very high users, balancing them out with those who may have a 3G or 4G capable phone but never switch on the data connection.
And while Three say their customers use an average of 5GB of data per month, it should be clear to see that they're the only realistic option for anyone who wants a data-heavy mobile contract, which could well skew their results upwards.
So how much data do we really need?
Here's a quick rundown of what should be possible with 500 MB - the average data used in 2014 and 2015 - and with 2GB, which is a fairly standard allowance:
|Activity||With 500MB||With 2GB|
|Watching BBC iPlayer in SD||60 minutes||240 minutes|
|Watching iPlayer or Netflix in HD||30 minutes||120 minutes|
|Browsing webpages||20 hours / 500 basic web pages||80 hours / 2,000 basic web pages|
|Social media||1,000 updates / 250 photos||4,000 updates / 1,000 photos|
|Sending basic emails||5,000 messages||20,000 messages|
|Downloading music||100 songs||400 songs|
|Online gaming||20 minutes||80 minutes|
There are plenty of mobile packages available with a range of data limits, covering everything from people who only occasionally need to check Google Maps, to those addicted to streaming video.
Here's what the main providers - and the UK's two biggest MVNOs - offer:
- BT: 500MB to 20GB
- EE: 250MB to 20GB
- O2: 100MB up to 30GB
- Three: 500MB to unlimited data
- Vodafone: 250MB to 20GB
- Tesco Mobile: 500MB up to 20GB
- Virgin Mobile: 250MB up to 8GB
Costs and the amount of data available vary depending on whether it's a SIM-only deal or a new phone is also part of the deal, and with the exception of Virgin Mobile (who only offer 3G data), each of the providers above offer 4G access for the same price as 3G data.
For example, the most data an EE SIM-only customer will get in one month is 16GB - and it'll cost them around £35. But those taking a handset as well can opt for a 20GB data allowance, from £39.99 a month.
To go into the details of all the different configurations available would take forever, and it's really not necessary.