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Telstra, Vodafone kick off unlimited mobile data war (with a catch...)

Telstra and Vodafone are battling to win over customers with unlimited data. But watch out: You'll still face limits when it comes to speeds...

Smartphone

Unlimited doesn't always mean blazing fast.

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Telstra and Vodafone have kicked off a competition war for the next mobile frontier: Unlimited data. 

On Tuesday, the telcos both announced the launch of unlimited mobile data plans, promising to kill excess data charges and let Aussies stream and post without limits.

There's just one small catch. You will be limited by speeds.

Telstra's Endless Data Plan launches on Thursday, offering 40GB of high-speed data per month for AU$69. Once you've reached that data allowance, you'll still be able to use all the data you want, but you'll be capped at speeds of 1.5Mbps. Telstra has called that allowance "peace of mind data."

Vodafone's Unlimited Plans launch on Wednesday, offering 30, 60 and 100GB of high-speed data per month for AU$60, AU$80 and AU$100 respectively. Once you've reached those data allowances, you'll be capped at speeds of 1.5Mbps for all further use (the same as Telstra). 

But these "unlimited" offerings won't necessarily offer complete peace of mind. Telstra and Vodafone say you'll still be able to use the internet to your hearts content (Telstra says the 1.5Mbps speed is "fast enough to stream video in standard definition") but Netflix's recommendation for streaming standard definition is double that speed at 3Mbps. And that's just for SD.

So where's Optus?

Optus launched its "Unleashed" mobile plans last month, offering unlimited data (though once again with that 1.5Mbps speed cap). The plans were originally offered in March, but then later withdrawn before being offered again in April to selected customers. 

We contacted Optus for more details on their offering, but a spokesperson advised these plans were a limited "tactical" offer that finished yesterday. 

Limitless?

The race toward unlimited data is clearly the next frontier for Australia's mobile carriers, but that speed cap will still hobble Aussies looking for a truly "unlimited" experience. That tagline could also raise the hackles of the ACCC, which has long warned telcos not to make one promise to customers that is later qualified in the fine print. 

A spokesperson for the ACCC said the watchdog couldn't comment on individual telcos, but warned it had previously taken action against businesses using "absolute claims such as 'free' and 'unlimited'."

Teresa Corbin, CEO of communications consumer action group ACCAN also had a warning for the telcos. 

"The use of the term 'unlimited' is very unpopular if it isn't truly unlimited," she told CNET. "How they advertise this will be critical."

While many customers will appreciate the end of excess usage fees, Corbin said there were plenty of people more concerned about getting a bad experience with speed. 

"Really data-hungry people won't be feeling it in their hip pocket, they'll feel it in their usability," she said. "Some people might like older plans where they can bump up and still get the same speeds. The proof will be in the pudding -- we'll see it is when people are trying to stream and Facetime... they don't just browse the web anymore, they do a million other things." 

Telstra is selling the lower-speed allowance as data "to get customers through the month if they need it." Vodafone is taking a similar line, saying users won't be "stung" with excess costs. 

Perhaps that's the best way to look at it. This isn't truly a plan with no limits, but rather a high data cap with no excess data charges. And there's no doubt 100GB is far more than we were offered on mobile plans just a few years ago. 

But as mobile users get hungrier for data (and as we spend more of our time burning through data-hungry content online), it remains to be seen if consumers still find these deals a little... limiting.

First published May 1, 12:56 p.m. AEST. 

Update, May 1 at 3:00 p.m. AEST: Adds comment from ACCAN. 

Update, May 2 at 12:34 p.m. AEST: Adds comment from ACCC.

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