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Monday 19 August 2019

Your Money: Beware the 'unlimited' data myth

Mobile users should tread carefully when opting for 'all-you-can-eat' services

Know your limits: Some mobile phone customers face extra costs due to fair usage policies. Stock image
Know your limits: Some mobile phone customers face extra costs due to fair usage policies. Stock image
Sinead Ryan

Sinead Ryan

The advertising watchdog (ASAI) is to undertake a major review of the term 'unlimited' in mobile data plans.

It can be a stickler for language, but in truth, has few sanctions, unlike ComReg, the phone regulator, which often hits errant companies with huge fines for bad behaviour.

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It often gets complaints from customers who thought they had purchased a mobile contract with unlimited or 'all-you-can-eat' data, only to find themselves landed with a bill over and above their monthly cost. The blame lies with FUPs.

What is an FUP?

It stands for 'fair usage policy', which is the company saying, 'you can use your phone as much as you like, wherever you like, until we decide otherwise'. That's not unlimited, so it shouldn't be advertised as such, says the ASAI.

Customers who exceed what their provider considers a fair data limit are slapped with extra charges. That's fine, of course, and we should all pay for the services we use; the issue is whether consumers are getting fair warning or information about it. The ASAI says it wants the word unlimited to be reconsidered.

For most plans, of course, data limits are extremely generous; you'd be hard-pressed to use 30GB every month, even with relatively heavy going on the internet.

But some plans, especially low-cost or pay-as-you-go options, have far lower limits, and streaming your favourite Netflix show or downloading music or video files can eat into them quickly.

ComReg's view is clear, and it invites complaints where an FUP without specific usage limits is given. It says: "A number of telephone and broadband packages are described as unlimited. In this context, the word unlimited would normally be taken to mean that a consumer, having agreed to pay a set price, may make as many calls or spend as much time online as he/she wishes.

"However, some service contracts qualify the meaning of unlimited by stating that it is subject to an acceptable or fair level of use by the consumer.

"We advise that any contract which sets usage thresholds, or describes what constitutes fair or acceptable use, should be clear and unambiguous, particularly where the service is described as being unlimited. Usage thresholds or limits should be clearly set out, as should the manner in which they are updated or amended."

It adds that where there are excess charges, these should be clearly laid out.

In fairness to many operators, they have a warning system, which texts you when you're reaching your data limit.

But should they go further and insist a customer calls or confirms they are aware of the charges building up?

When purchasing a mobile phone contract, which can last up to two years, it's really important to ask about what data, exactly, comes with it.

It might mean, for instance, that by spending an extra €5 a month you can get far more data, if you need it, rather than running the risk of hitting your cap early.

Eoin Clarke of comparison site Switcher.ie says: "A change to advertising rules will be an important step toward providing consumers with clear and accurate information. The word unlimited is misleading consumers; many broadband plans we sign up to are not truly unlimited.

"Details of your fair usage allowances will be referenced in your plan's terms and conditions, which consumers tend not to read. Usage in excess of 1TB can be charged at €2.50 including VAT for every 10GB, up to a maximum of €100 including VAT per month.

"One TB of data per month is a very large allowance and should be ample for the heaviest of users."

Shortcuts Avoiding costly data use abroad

When you’re abroad, it’s even more important to watch your data use.

Despite the 2017 ‘roam-like-at-home’ ruling, most providers still cap data, and they are allowed to have a different FUP policy abroad than at home.

Eoin Clarke of comparison website Switcher.ie says: “If you’re a talker or a texter, the rules work out really well for you. However, if you’re a heavy data user, you’ll need to be careful about how you use your data in the EU to avoid excess charges.” Here are some tips:

– Download content over Wi-Fi, and turn off automatic updates for apps.

– Compare Sim-only deals, and make a switch to a more suitable plan.

– Be aware that in destinations such as Asia, the US and Australia, charges for calls to home can be more than €3 per minute, while sending a single text can cost 75 cent.

– Using Wi-Fi only in these destinations will be crucial if you don’t want to face exorbitant charges (€5-€10 per MB when 1MB is only enough data to browse one website).

Irish Independent

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