September 17, 2012 at 12:06 pm

The Bizarre Dance of the Unlimited iPhone Data Plan Gets Even Weirder

apple iphone 5 unlimited data plan

Apple and every cellphone provider that sells the iPhone 5 are over the moon this Monday morning, as the new iPhone set new sales records – even as its ship date gets pushed back to accommodate the flood of interest from consumers. People simply cannot wait to get their hands on the sixth coming of the “Jesus phone,” by all accounts. Over two million of the phones were pre-ordered in the first 24 hours alone, despite its lack of a light saber, free pony, or golden ticket to Steve Jobs’ magical candy factory.

However, for early iPhone adopters — the ones who helped make it such a success by singing its praises before everyone else got on board — one crucial point remains shrouded in uncertainty, and could be preventing some of the iPhone’s biggest fans from taking the leap (as it is the author): Namely, how do you get the iPhone 5 if you’re one of the stalwarts who has stubbornly held on to their unlimited data plan on AT&T or Verizon? The issue takes on new resonance because the iPhone 5 has a fast LTE connection, allowing customers to gobble up data faster than ever.

See also: our calculations of how much music you can stream at various bit rates on various tiered (i.e. limited) data plans, which explain why we like unlimited data in a streaming world.

It hasn’t been easy to keep that unlimited data plan alive over the years. It has meant taking a solemn oath never to “tether” your laptop to your phone, because activating that feature would cancel the unlimited data plan forever. Oh, and wouldn’t it be nice to extend your data plan to your iPad? Sure, you can do that, but <poof>, there goes your unlimited data plan.

But why do people like me want these unlimited data plans so badly — enough to miss out on cool new features like tethering and plan sharing? Aren’t those tiered data plans generous enough, at the high-end?

Partially, it has to do with music and movie streaming — something more and more of us are doing with our phones, which have better resolution (requiring more data) and connectivity options (to things like cars and stereo systems) each year. Want to stream music to your hotel room without paying their daily Wi-Fi rate? Feel like streaming music to your car? On an unlimited data plan, you should be able to do both of those things without worrying about your data for that month getting cut off, or about paying a higher rate. We unlimited data plan types also just want to keep hanging onto them just in case something else happens that needs lots of data, even if we don’t know what that is yet. People are silly, what can you say, but they want what they want.

Below, we have accumulated wisdom from around the web on how to keep (or sign up for, when that is possible) unlimited data on every carrier that will offer the iPhone 5. We also contacted every major U.S. provider with the iPhone 5 directly, to get a fresh take on what they have to say about this situation. Unlimited data hounds, take note!


Keep unlimited data: If you want to keep your plan on AT&T, Gizmodo, which called around to AT&T stores, says you need to actually, like, go to the store and deal with real people in order to buy an iPhone 5 and switch your unlimited data plan over to it. You can’t order or pre-order the iPhone online; you can’t buy it from he Apple store; you can’t even add anything to your plan; and you won’t be able to do FaceTime video calling. Instead, you’ll need to find an AT&T store, talk at length with the sales person, and then read the fine print. Even then, AT&T will throttle (as in slow down) your bandwidth after you’ve hit 5GB per month, but at least you’ll still be able to check your email.

Get a new unlimited data plan: You can’t.

Response: No comment.


Keep your unlimited data plan: Do not sign a new contract. Keep your old plan, and buy a new iPhone on your own — as in, an iPhone 5 that is not attached to any plan. You can pre-order these now by choosing the “month-to-month” option, which is really expensive because Verizon Wireless doesn’t subsidize it:

  • $650 for 16GB
  • $750 for 32GB
  • $850 for 64GB

Get a new unlimited data plan: You can’t.

Response: Verizon Wireless spokeswoman Brenda Raney confirmed to by phone on Monday that the only way to keep unlimited data on Verizon is to buy a standalone iPhone 5.

“Here’s what we tell people to do: Look at your data use,” said Raney. “Most of our customers use under 2GB [per month],” meaning that they don’t need an unlimited plan.

But what if someone invents something awesome that requires lots of unlimited data?

“I don’t know if you like football, but let’s pretend you do,” she said. “Yesterday’s Giant’s game, which was a nail-biter — you’d rather watch it on NFL Mobile on a Verizon Wireless smartphone, which you could have, versus your big-screen TV?”

This is a good point. It might be irrational to hang on to an unlimited data plan, but that doesn’t stop people like me from doing it anyway, as a sort of future-proofing. Also, given that AirPlay lets you mirror whatever you’re watching on a cellphone to a television, the scenario of beaming the game onto a screen isn’t as weird as it might seem.

In any event, current Verizon unlimited data plan customers enjoy a bit more freedom than their AT&T counterparts (not that you can do anything with this information, because it’s too late to switch if you want to keep unlimited data). “We do not throttle customers,” said Raney. Instead, Verizon Wireless only slows speeds for the heaviest data users on unlimited plans when they’re connected to a cell tower that’s nearly out of bandwidth. AT&T, on the other hand, throttles your usage for the rest of the month if you exceed 5GB.


Keep unlimited data: People who like their data unlimited and also want an iPhone 5 are in luck, in a sense, because Sprint still sells unlimited data plans, and there’s no problem upgrading to the new iPhone 5 and keeping an existing unlimited plan. However, Sprint hasn’t built LTE out much, and its coverage leaves something to be desired. As Gizmodo put it, “You lucky bastards don’t have anything to worry about. Other than being on Sprint.”

Get new unlimited plan: Sprint remains the only major carrier that allows this.

Official response: No comment.

Appalachian Wireless, C-Spire, Cricket, GCI, MetroPCS, U.S. Cellular, Virgin Mobile

In terms of the little guys, not much is clear at this point. Appalachian Wireless, C-Spire, Cricket  and GCI will start selling the iPhone 5 on September 28. Cricket has yet to announce a price but it should start at around $650.

Neither MetroPCS, U.S. Cellular, nor Virgin Mobile has announced any plans to carry the iPhone 5.

And there you have it. If you like your unlimited data plan, and you want to keep grandfathering yourself in, you’ll need to go to an AT&T store and be very careful (AT&T); pay a ton for your new iPhone even  if you qualify for an upgrade (Verizon Wireless); deal with Sprint’s less-built-out network; or wait until the situation grows clearer with a smaller carrier.

  • James Flynn

    I pre-ordered mine (on AT&T) through the Apple store and kept my unlimited data plan.

  • Eric Bogs

    +1. Ordered through Apple Store, kept my AT&T unlimited data plan, just like with previous iPhone models. Confirmation email says “iPhone 5 (64GB White)Data Unlimited for iPhone on 4G LTE”

  • kg

    Throttled for the rest of the month after 5 gigs is some BS.

  • Anonymous

    Also kept my unlimited data with new iPhone 5 and ordered online with Apple (to keep it from being AT&T locked).