What Does Unlimited Data Really Mean?

What Does Unlimited Data Really Mean?

If you’re a heavy Internet user, unlimited data is the Holy Grail. Photo: Shutterstock If you’ve been shopping for a broadband provider, you’ll almost certainly have run across many offers of “unlimited broadband” alongside the usual fixed data plans. Sounds tempting, doesn’t it? No need to keep track of how much you’re downloading and uploading each month, and no more having your broadband slowed to a crawl once you hit the limit or, even worse, finding extra charges on your monthly bill.

In the early days of the internet, almost all of the Australian providers offered no set download/upload limits with their plans. They didn’t really need to, since people hadn’t discovered downloading movies, TV shows or music – and the dial-up connections of the time were so slow that few would have wanted to anyway! As our internet connections have gotten faster, though, along with it came an increased appetite for downloading all kinds of video and audio content. Buying video games online became even more popular, many of them incredibly large downloads. People started using YouTube and other video sites enthusiastically – and then along came on-demand streaming video via Netflix, YouTube, Stan  and others. The ever-increasing hunger for downloads comes with huge data costs for ISPs – they have to pay for data sent and received over links like the one from Australia to the US, for example – and so most ISPs put limits in place to make sure that the people using the most data paid more for the privilege.

Unlimited downloads make a comeback

Nowadays things are a bit different. Data costs have fallen, and there’s millions more people online than there used to be. And that’s where “unlimited” plans started to reappear. The thinking goes that if you give a whole bunch of users a connection with no download limit, the majority of them will use it normally – and actually use less data than they would if there was a limit with a dollar figure attached to it. The benefit for you as the customer is that you can just use the internet for anything you want, any time you want, and not have to track your usage; it’s the ultimate “no worries” plan. Your ISP knows that you probably won’t be downloading stuff 24/7, and the cost of those that do is balanced out by the monthly fee paid by those that don’t. It’s a great idea – in theory!

Choose your ISP wisely

In the real world, though, not all “unlimited” plans are created equal. While ISPs always make a bit of an educated guess about how much capacity they’ll need to service all of their customers in a particular area, if too many of those customers all sit down for the evening and fire up a HD movie on Netflix, it can put a strain on the “pipes” that deliver the data, to the point where download speeds and responsiveness get worse for everyone – and suddenly that HD movie’s looking more like an old VHS tape. With the launch of Netflix early in 2015, several ISPs large and small ran into this exact problem, but it was a pretty extreme situation. In normal usage, a good ISP will cope fine with peak demand. A not-so-good one will make using the net when you get home from work a slow, painful experience.

Doing your research

So how do you choose between them? Well, obviously aside from price, you’ll want to do a little bit of research into the kind of service their customers are getting out in the real world.


A great place to do that is the online forum Whirlpool, where you can browse through topics posted by customers of all the ISPs, big and small. If there’s one that’s providing an “unlimited” plan but unable to deliver on decent speeds (or, for that matter, customer service if something goes wrong) you’ll certainly see people complaining about it there.

Read the T&C’s

The other thing to watch out for with “unlimited” plans is the fine print. While it’s less of a problem now – since the ACCC took some ISPs to task over misleading use of the word “unlimited” – most ISPs will have some sort of policy about what they consider is “acceptable use” of your unlimited connection. Be sure to read all the terms and conditions and make sure that any restrictions they might have don’t apply to you. You might also find that the “unlimited” plan is only available as part of a “bundle” including things like a home phone line or pay TV. All of these things have to be disclosed by ISPs on their web sites, so again, keep an eye out for that fine print. The more informed you are, the better.

Review your usage – you may not be an internet glutton

Oh, and one more thing – make sure you actually need an unlimited plan. Have a look back over your data usage in recent months and you may be surprised by how low it actually can be (especially if you’re not a Netflix fan!) You might be able to save a fairly large sum of money over the course of time, simply by paying only for what you need.

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