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Are AT&T's and Verizon's no-overage policies really a good deal?

In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon explains why Verizon's Safe Mode feature may not be all it's cracked up to be.

Nobody likes getting socked with a charge for going over a monthly wireless data cap. And thanks to changes made by the nation's two largest carriers, those days may be over forever.

Earlier this summer AT&T and Verizon said they'd eliminate charges for customers who bust their data caps, in exchange for slowing service to 2G speeds. It's a policy competitors T-Mobile and Sprint have offered for years. And it's likely to be a welcome change for many customers, who cringe every month when the phone bill arrives. But are the two big carriers really offering a good deal?

In this edition of Ask Maggie, I help answer that question.

Dear Maggie,

I have two teenagers on my Verizon family plan, and they regularly go over their data limits. It drives me mad. I was considering switching our plan to another provider to avoid this. So I was really glad to see that Verizon has a new policy that pretty much eliminates these charges. I understand AT&T has also gotten rid of overage charges. (Yay!) My question is whether Verizon's offer is really a good deal or if I should still consider switching to another carrier?

Tired of overages

Dear Tired,

Exceeding your wireless data cap is the worst. I feel your pain. You're correct that AT&T and Verizon now offer a solution that could lighten the load on the family budget when this happens. This summer when the carriers rejiggered their wireless plans -- which increased data allotments and prices -- they also added the option to forgo charges when the data cap is exceeded. Instead, you can choose to have your data speeds slowed when the cap has been reached.

AT&T and Verizon unveiled new plans that let customers exceed data caps without being charged extra. Are they really a good deal?

AT&T and Verizon unveiled new plans that let customers exceed data caps without being charged extra. Are they really a good deal?

Josh Miller/CNET

The new policy is similar to what Sprint and T-Mobile have already been doing. But before you get too excited, I'll break down how these plans work and explain why they may not be as great as they sound.

First, let me explain how the plans work. When a customer uses up high-speed data for the month, download speeds are reduced to 2G speeds, or a maximum of 128 kilobits per second, for the rest of the billing cycle. What this means is that everyone on the family plan will still be able to access the Internet, get email and run apps on devices, but everything will download at a slower speed until the end of the cycle.

Using mobile apps like Facebook and Whatsapp at these reduced speeds will work, but it might be difficult to stream video or audio. And browsing the Internet could be painfully slow. That said, once the billing cycle refreshes, you'll be back to your regular 4G speeds.

Customers also still have the option to upgrade to more data at any point. For instance, Verizon charges $15 a month more for an additional gigabyte of data, or you can switch your service to the next tier during the month to get more data.

But the big catch for Verizon customers is that the no-overage feature, called Safe Mode, is available without an extra charge only to customers who subscribe to the carrier's largest and most expensive data plans: XL, which offers 16GB of data for $90 and XXL, which offers 24GB for $110 a month. Anyone subscribing to the L plan, which offers 8GB of data for $70 a month, or lower can get Safe Mode for $5 extra per month.

So regardless of whether you exceed your data cap, you can choose to pay this extra $5 a month to avoid paying another $15 a month if you go over your data cap. A Verizon spokeswoman noted that you can sign up for Safe Mode anytime during the billing cycle and you can also turn it off. If it looks like you're about to bust your monthly data cap, then, you can sign up for Safe Mode for that month only and cancel the following month.

By contrast, AT&T has made its no-overage charge policy available to all customers at all tiers of service, and it doesn't charge extra for the feature. But like Verizon, it slows speeds to 128 kilobits until the end of the billing cycle.

The bottom line: Which service is right for your family?

Compared with the competition, Verizon's Safe Mode offer is pretty weak, in my opinion. Why? Most customers who really need it -- which is people who subscribe to smaller data packages -- still have to pay a fee to use it. Meanwhile, every other major carrier competing with Verizon, including AT&T, which offers comparable coverage and network speeds, offers this feature as part of service.

If you're lucky enough to live in an area where you can get a 4G wireless signal from all four carriers, you may want to consider plans from the other three carriers, as well as some prepaid offers.

I'd take a closer look at Sprint and T-Mobile, which also changed their service plans this summer. They now offer inexpensive unlimited-data plans, which you may want to check out. Depending on how many people you have on your family plan, you may end up paying less with one of these plans, and you'll get more data. Not only will you not have to worry about overage fees, you also won't have to worry as much about your service being slowed if someone is a data hog.

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. If you have a question, I'd love to hear from you. Please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header. You can also follow me on Facebook on my Ask Maggie page.