Monday 19 February 2018

Adrian Weckler: I've reached my limit with false 'unlimited' mobile data claims

People's data usage has grown in recent years
People's data usage has grown in recent years
Adrian Weckler

Adrian Weckler

There's a scene in the 1985 film 'Back To The Future' when Marty McFly, finding himself in his mother's childhood home of 1955, is asked whether his family has a television.

"Yeah, don't you know we have two of them." There are gasps, followed by laughter as his grandmother chides: "Marty's kidding. No one has two televisions!"

When it comes to mobile phone data, some Irish operators are acting as if no one has two televisions.

Virgin Mobile and Eir Mobile offer 'unlimited' services that are very limited and could cost you a packet if you breach the 'unlimited' limit.

Virgin Mobile's "unlimited 4G data" has a limit of 30GB. That may not get you any more than 20 minutes of Netflix per day on the bus before you have to fork out €10 per GB extra.

Eir Mobile's 'unlimited' feature gives 60GB of access to YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram and a handful of other social media services. 60GB is a level few would breach - but some will. Both operators will argue that the limits to their 'unlimited' services are reasonable by conventional standards.

But this misses the point. No matter how reasonable or generous an operator's data limits are, how is it possible to call them "unlimited"?

It's like giving someone an "unlimited" fuel card that's limited to 200km per day.

Three ran into this issue years ago and changed its description of high data levels to 'all you can eat'. While this isn't strictly true (what if I can eat 100GB of mobile data?), it cuts down on the confusion that the word "unlimited" brings up.

This is not an attempt to be pedantic.

My phone consumes close to 10GB of data per week. This is through a combination of YouTube, Facebook, Snapchat, Instagram, Netflix and a handful of other normal services. My phone is active much of the day. I appreciate that this is at the higher end of what mobile users consume. But is it likely that I'm alone? I don't think so.

But even if I were, that is surely beside the point. If I believed Virgin or Eir and subscribed to their mobile services, I could be in financial trouble at some point during the month.

According to Virgin's terms and conditions, I would pay €100 per month extra in data charges once I go over the limit of its 'unlimited' plan. It's one cent per megabyte over 30GB, which means my 40GB per month would cost me an additional €100, on top of what I was already paying.

Eir charges €1 for the first 0.25GB over your unlimited 60GB limit and then €20 per GB after that (2c per MB).

Yes, operators will argue that the majority of their users don't use anything like 10GB per week. They might even claim that most don't even use 1GB per week (ie only using their phones for calls and text messaging, something that's hard to believe).

Indeed, operators point to figures from the telecoms regulator ComReg which suggest that the average mobile data consumption usage in Ireland is 3.4GB per month, or 0.8GB per week.

To be fair, 30GB is a really decent monthly tariff allowance that would easily cover the current needs (though maybe not future needs) of 95pc of phone users.

But 30GB is not the unfathomably large amount of data it once was. If nothing else, this is proven by Three's fair use limit, which is 60GB. The operator increased this limit some time ago, partially to recognise that some people's data usage has grown far more than they thought might happen.

In case you hear an argument that 1GB is "a lot" of data, this will get you 20 minutes of Netflix streaming on its highest phone setting (Netflix offers this setting for those on an "unlimited" data plan). Is 20 minutes of Netflix a day an unheard of consumption pattern? Have you ever taken a bus or a train to work? Ever had to entertain kids in the back of a car on a journey?

"But this is a really good deal," operators will say. "Look what you're getting for €20 or €30 a month."

This is actually true. By most European standards, Irish mobile consumers get a very good deal on mobile phone costs, especially on data tariffs.

Sadly, this is an entirely different point to the one being made. The ads say that there is "unlimited" amounts of service on one or more issues. There is not.

It is true to say that mobile operators are under pressure. Contrary to what some say, competition in the Irish market is fierce. As such, it's very tempting to throw in the word "unlimited" when referring to limits that most of your customers won't meet.

But it doesn't pass a fairness test. If you say something is unlimited but put charges in place for your hidden limit, someone will get burned. Streaming high-definition movies and music on phones is not the exception, it's the norm.

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