The news is not looking good for heavy wireless data users: Sprint, formerly the only major US carrier to offer truly unlimited monthly smartphone data plans, is now throttling data "for about 1% of users" according to Greg Bensinger of Dow Jones Newswires. (Greg Kumparak of Techcrunch clarified that it only applies while roaming, however, and that the fine print of a Sprint contract allows them to do this for "off-network" data usage.)
"Throttling" data means drastically lowering your connection speed while using wireless data. As David Ruddock of the Android Police blog put it, " It's like having unlimited milkshakes - but after the first two, you have to drink them with chopsticks until next month rolls around."
Sprint-owned Virgin Mobile has already announced plans to throttle its unlimited data plans. So far, Sprint's current $79 a month plan is still the closest an iPhone owner can come to truly unlimited data, so long as you stay on Sprint's network. But if you're willing to switch to Android there are a few contract-free options ... sort of.
This North Carolina-based startup now offers contract-free unlimited everything for $19 per month. The catch? It's a public beta test, sort of an experiment to see if offloading your voice minutes onto Wi-Fi via "Hybrid Calling" will work. And right now, they're not taking any new subscribers.
When I tested out Hybrid Calling on my Republic Wireless smartphone, I noticed a lag of a few seconds while talking over Wi-Fi. Others' mileage may vary, especially as Republic works the bugs out of the software, and there's no guarantee that the experiment will work out.
Boost Mobile's CDMA Android phones use Sprint's network, but unlike Sprint the company offers unlimited everything for $55 a month. What's more, for every six months of payments you make on time your bill shrinks by $5 a month, to a minimum of $40.
So what's the catch? As with all contract-free carriers, including the other three listed here, you have to buy your phone up-front. That means no free Android smartphones, and prices of up to $229 just for a Samsung Transform Ultra -- a far cry from the $199 iPhone 4S.
MetroPCS offers similar rates, minus the "shrinkage" option and with a drastically reduced coverage map.
Another prepaid carrier that uses Sprint's network, Virgin Mobile's "Beyond Talk" plans start at $35 per month for unlimited data and texting (and only 300 voice minutes per month), and go up to $55 per month for unlimited talk as well.
The catch is that while Virgin Mobile doesn't yet throttle its customers, it's planning to start sometime in 2012.
Jared Spurbeck is an open-source software enthusiast, who uses an Android phone and an Ubuntu laptop PC. He has been writing about technology and electronics since 2008.
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