Despite A Decade Of Complaints, US Wireless Carriers Continue To Abuse The Word 'Unlimited'

from the that-word,-it-does-not-mean-what-you-think-it-means dept

Way back in 2007, Verizon was forced to strike an agreement with the New York State Attorney General for falsely marketing data plans with very obvious limits as "unlimited." For much of the last fifteen years numerous other wireless carriers, like AT&T, have also had their wrists gently slapped for selling "unlimited" wireless service that was anything but. Despite this, there remains no clear indication that the industry has learned much of anything from the punishment and experience. Most of the companies whose wrists were slapped have, unsurprisingly, simply continued on with the behavior.

The latest case in point is Boost Mobile, a prepaid wireless provider that was shoveled over to Dish Network as part of the controversial T-Mobile Sprint merger. For years the company has been selling prepaid "unlimited" data plans that aren't, by any definition of the word, unlimited. In part because once users hit a bandwidth consumption threshold (aka a "limit"), users find their lines slowed to around 2G speeds (somewhere around 128 kbps) for the remainder of the billing period.

No regulators could be bothered to thwart this behavior, so it fell to the wireless industry's self-regulatory organization, The National Advertising Division (NAD), to dole out the wrist slaps this time. The organization last week told Boost that it should stop advertising its data plans as unlimited, after getting complaints from AT&T -- a company that spent a decade falsely advertising its plans as unlimited:

"AT&T had challenged Boost for its “Unlimited Data, Talk & Text” claims, asserting that the prepaid brand’s 4G LTE data plans are throttled to 2G speeds once a monthly data cap is hit. For the “Talk & Text” portion, NAD sided with Boost, saying the company was able to support its message."

Carriers (including AT&T) have historically tried to claim that a connection is still technically "unlimited" if you slow it to substandard speeds, something regulators and the courts haven't agreed with. NAD didn't much like this explanation either, noting that trying to use modern services on the equivalent of a 1998 IDSN line amounts to the same outcome:

"At 2G speeds, many of today's most commonly used applications such as social-media, e-mail with attachments, web browsing on pages with embedded pictures, videos and ads and music may not work at all or will have such significant delays as to be functionally unavailable because the delays will likely cause the applications to time out,” NAD stated in its decision."

Granted NAD's punishments never really carry much weight. As a self-regulatory organization NAD's function is basically to pre-empt tougher, more comprehensive regulatory action on things like false advertising (which are already pretty rare in telecom). So usually what happens is the organization steps in, doles out a few wrist slaps for ads that have already been running for a year or two, leaving little incentive for real reform in an industry long known for its falsehoods. Which is precisely why we keep reading this same story in the press with little substantive change.

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Filed Under: false advertising, unlimited
Companies: at&t, boost mobile

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  1. icon
    That Anonymous Coward (profile), 24 Mar 2021 @ 9:17am

    Well technically it is unlimited, it just becomes unusable.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  2. This comment has been flagged by the community. Click here to show it
    N. 'Duke' Orse, 24 Mar 2021 @ 9:39am

    Do you think a MONTHLY 'Unlimited' plan isn't LIMITED?

    How could that be? Are only so many days in a month.

    I like Techdirt's continuing mania on 'Unlimited'. Minions and Masnick (back several years complaining that got only 90 rides on metro w 'Unlimited' ticket) can't grasp fact that is not actually without limit, so they go on these childish rants. Seem to believe that they're being lied to, or that time / products magically appear with their wish. Pure comedy and pure pity.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  3. icon
    sumgai (profile), 24 Mar 2021 @ 10:15am

    Re: Do you think a MONTHLY 'Unlimited' plan isn't LIMITED?


    Ya know buddy, some of us are reaching for the Troll button right about now....

    It might be a sign of good faith on your part if you were to not set up Mike as a straw man for ad hominem attacks, and instead present arguments that go directly to the point of the current discussion. My mouse finger might stop twitching so violently as I desparately want to hit that magic red button.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  4. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Mar 2021 @ 10:16am

    and continue to get away with it because none of the politicians and lawmakers have got a decent pair of plums between them and therefore wont do a friggin' thing to change it!! fucking useless!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  5. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Mar 2021 @ 2:07pm


    Politicians shouldn't have to do anything except properly fund the relevant regulatory agencies and insulate them from industry influence... oh wait.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  6. identicon
    Anonymous Coward, 24 Mar 2021 @ 2:09pm

    Re: Do you think a MONTHLY 'Unlimited' plan isn't LIMITED?

    Huh. They aren't advertising or selling days of the month. Is that what you think they do? That isn't how time works at all.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  7. icon
    BG (profile), 25 Mar 2021 @ 3:57am


    Yes, that is technically true ... but still a dick move.

    If you hire a car, and for a not so small price you are offered an "unlimited range" package, you'd be more than a wee bit fucked off if the gearbox automatically locks itself to 1st gear after 100 miles.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  8. icon
    n00bdragon (profile), 25 Mar 2021 @ 6:13am

    If you think this is some crazy scheme unique to the telecom industry try going to a Denny's or an IHOP and ordering the "unlimited" pancakes and take very careful notes about your experience.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  9. identicon
    Naughty Autie, 25 Mar 2021 @ 10:48am

    Somebody I know recently had this issue. His 'unlimited' data got capped because his three-year-old son's always streaming videos, but his network provider was still charging him for unlimited data. I told him he should contact his provider and demand that they either remove the cap or charge fees that reflect the fact his data's not unlimited. My friend did this, and he's since saved a massive chunk of change. Martin Lewis isn't even in it!

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

  10. icon
    R.H. (profile), 25 Mar 2021 @ 2:31pm

    Re: Do you think a MONTHLY 'Unlimited' plan isn't LIMITED?

    Unlimited bandwidth usage means that a person should be able to completely saturate their bandwidth for an entire billing period without issue. For example, if you have a 30-day billing period and a 100 Mbps connection, you should be able to download 259.2 terabits or 32.4 Terabytes of data in that time period. Of course, you can't download more data than there is time for.

    Concerning the metro pass example you used, it's quite possible to use public transportation more than three times a day on average for a month. I can even imagine an example.

    Let's take a February that starts on a Monday for our example. A person rides the metro into and out of the city for work every workday for a total of 40 uses. Let's say that they also ride from their workplace a couple of stops to (and from) their favorite restaurant every workday for lunch. That's another 40 uses. If at this point, they also stop for drinks every Friday after work and before riding home, that's another 8. So, we've reached 88 already for the shortest month of the year. If this example occurred in a leap year, there would be an extra workday pushing us over the limit to 92 uses already and most months have 30 or 31 days.

    In short, unlimited means, "as much as you can use it in this period of time". Once you've added a limit, it's no longer unlimited.

    reply to this | link to this | view in thread ]

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