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Ask Maggie: Can I really live without unlimited data?

This week's Ask Maggie column helps current Verizon customers understand their unlimited data options. Maggie Reardon also helps readers choose among Apple, Google Android, and RIM BlackBerry products.

Starting July 7, new Verizon Wireless customers can kiss unlimited data plans good-bye. But what do the pricing plan changes mean for existing customers? Can people really live without unlimited data?

It's been no secret that Verizon has planned to eliminate the unlimited data plan. The company's executives have been saying it for months. So it was no shock when last week word leaked of the company's new plans. The only real news was when it would happen. Since then, my inbox has been flooded with questions from desperate and confused smartphone customers asking me what they should do.

In this week's column, I try to help a current Verizon Wireless customer understand if he will be able to hold on to his unlimited data plan. And I provide some perspective on how much data most people really need.

Also in this week's Ask Maggie column, I provide some advice on whether a reader should go with Apple products or Google Android devices. And I offer some guidance for a smartphone newbie looking for the best smartphone to fit her needs.

Ask Maggie is a weekly advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. If you've got a question, please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header.

Can I keep my unlimited data plan forever?

Dear Maggie,
I was hoping you could help me understand the latest news on Verizon's new data plans and how the grandfathering works. I am currently a Verizon customer and have a data plan with them for my Windows 6.5 phone (HTC Touch Pro2). I am also one of the ones hoping to wait for the new iPhone 5. My question is, if I decide to wait for the new iPhone, will I still be eligible to extend my current unlimited data plan after the July 7 deadline? I am eligible for the upgrade discount, so if I absolutely have to upgrade now I could, but, I really wanted to hold out for the latest Apple toy.

Thank you,
Confused in SLO

Dear Confused in SLO,
Let me start by saying that Verizon has not officially announced any new changes to its pricing. That said, it's been widely reported that the company is planning to get rid of its unlimited data plan starting July 7. Verizon's spokeswoman has confirmed this, but she hasn't confirmed all the details

So here is what we think we know so far. The unlimited data plan is going away starting next week. Instead, Verizon will offer three tiers of service: 2GB of data per month for $30 a month, 5GB of data for $50 per month, and a 10GB of data for $80 per month.

If you already have an unlimited data plan with Verizon Wireless, and you are still under contract, then you will keep that unlimited data plan at least until the end of your contract. Your service contract will not be switched to a tiered plan on July 7.

The newly priced plans will apply to new subscribers on or after July 7. This also means that if someone signs up for a new smartphone before July 7, he will get the unlimited service for two years.

According to a document from Verizon leaked to the blog Android Central and others, Verizon has told its sales staff that it is also "grandfathering" in existing Verizon customers. This means that if you already have an unlimited smartphone contract with Verizon, you will be able to keep that unlimited plan even if you upgrade or renew your contract after July 7. But if you add another smartphone to your family plan, that new line will not get the unlimited data plan.

In your case, you already have a Verizon Wireless smartphone, so you should be set when the next iPhone is introduced. You will likely get to keep your unlimited data plan, so you don't need to do anything right now.

Of course, none of this has been confirmed by Verizon. The company still remains tight-lipped on its exact plans. It is also difficult to say how long Verizon will allow people to upgrade and keep their unlimited data plans. A year after AT&T introduced tiered pricing, the carrier is still allowing customers to keep the plan when they upgrade to a new smartphone, so long as they don't change their plans.

Something that people should keep in mind is that Verizon or any other wireless carrier cannot change the terms of your contract, such as pricing, while you are still under contract. After all, it's a contract. The company has agreed to offer you certain services at a certain price for a specific time period. And you have agreed to pay for those services at a particular price for a specified period of time. Either party is not allowed to break the contract. If you bail on Verizon, they charge you an early termination fee. And if they significantly change the terms of your contract, you can get out of it without being penalized.

But once your contract ends, all bets are off. Verizon may decide a year from now that it doesn't want to allow people upgrading or renewing contracts to keep the unlimited data service. And they are well within their rights to do this. In fact, the company has recently changed its early upgrade policy and it's also lengthened all its contracts to two years instead of one.

One other thing to keep in mind is that even if you no longer have access to the unlimited data plan, it doesn't mean that you will necessarily be paying more for your data service. Most people use far less than the 2GB of data that is offered as part of either AT&T's or Verizon's plans.

In fact, Neilsen recently published data that shows that the average Android user in the first quarter of 2011 used 582MB of data per month. The average iPhone user was close behind, using 492MB of data per month. This is still about a quarter of the 2GB of data allotment per month that is offered under current usage-based plans.


What might concern consumers is that Nielsen also found that people are rapidly ramping up how much data they use. In the past 12 months, average data usage has grown by 89 percent in a year. In the first quarter of 2010, smartphone customers on average consumed 230MB of data. Twelve months later, they were using on average 435MB in the first quarter of 2011.

Data consumption grew even faster for the heaviest data users. Nielsen found that data usage for the top 10 percent of smartphone users, or the 90th percentile, is up 109 percent. And the top 1 percent, or the 99th percentile, has grown their usage by 155 percent from 1.8GB in the first quarter of 2010 to over 4.6GB in the second quarter of 2011.

But before you panic and try to future-proof your data plan, take a deep breath and keep a couple of things in mind.

First, people who rack up more than 2GB of data per month are typically people who stream a lot of music or video. For example, according to Verizon's data calculator, if you stream music for 1 hour a day every day of the month, you'll hit the 2GB threshold. If you watch 1 hour of high-resolution video every day on your phone, you will rack up over 10GB of data per month. Even 30 minutes of high-resolution video every day will take your usage to about 5GB per month. And 2 minutes of low-resolution video every day of the month will get you to the 2GB limit pretty quickly. By contrast, watching 30 minutes a day of low-resolution video will eat up about 690MB of data per month.

Here's a little guide put together by Verizon to give you an idea of how much data certain activities eat up:

  • Email (text only) = 10KB
  • Typical Web Page Lookup* = 1.5MB
  • Audio Streaming = 40MB/hr
  • Lo-Res Video Streaming = 200MB/hr
  • Hi-Res Video Streaming = 400MB/hr
  • Digital Photo download/upload (Hi-Res) = 1MB

  • * Can exceed 2 MB with graphically intense pages or with video.

Keep in mind, not many people watch that much video on their phones every day. I supposed if you are a commuter and you like to watch Netflix on your phone on the train in the morning and evening, you might. Or if you throw your smartphone in the back of the minivan on a regular basis to entertain the kids while you cart them around, this could be a problem. If you're one of those people then an unlimited plan is definitely the right plan for you.

But if you're someone like me--who checks Facebook and Twitter from a smartphone regularly and uses Google maps when I get lost, but who barely gets above 300MB of data per month because I don't watch a lot of video on-the-go, and who typically streams music while in a Wi-Fi hot spot--then you'll be fine with the tiered plans.

Also, remember that using Wi-Fi hot spots will reduce how much data you consume on your carrier's network. If you use these data hefty applications in Wi-Fi hot spots, that usage doesn't count against your monthly allotment, because you've offloaded the data consumption. So even if you're a commuter, who likes to watch lots of video on the train, the train may have Wi-Fi, which will allow you to catch up on your TV and movie viewing without breaking the bank, even without an unlimited plan.

And finally remember that no matter what you do, Verizon or AT&T or any other carrier for that matter, can change their pricing plans at any time. And if you're not in a contract at that point or you're ready for an upgrade, you're at their mercy anyway.

Apple Borg or Google Borg? Which do you want to be?

Here is what I know. I need a new phone, and I want a tablet. I'm either getting an iPhone 4 or an iPhone 5 and an iPad2. Or I am getting Android-based tablet and whatever Verizon comes out with that is halfway decent this summer (the Droid Bionic or Samsung Function, hopefully).

Here is what I don't know: I don't know what I'd be better off with. I've never used an iPhone, iPad, Android tablet, or Android smartphone. I've played with them, yes. Owned, never. I'm sick of hearing the one-sided Apple junkies who will only buy Apple products, which is why I'm kind of getting pushed away from the Apple side of things. But in the end I want to buy the better product. Don't get me wrong, I have nothing against Apple and in the end it won't really matter. But is there anything an iPhone can do that an Android phone can't? Same idea for tablets, is there anything the iPad 2 can do that for example the Asus Transformer can't, and vice versa.

I know each product has its pros and cons. And I know it's all about what's important to me and what features I'd use most often. I guess I'm stuck, and rambling. You're probably going to tell me to go to the mall and play with them all aren't you?

Either way, thanks!

Dear Matt,
I know you don't want to hear this, but it really does come down to your personal taste. And yes, you have to play around with each of the products to see which you like best.

As far as I can tell, there are subtle differences between what an Android phone can do and what an Apple iPhone can do. And with Apple's iOS 5, which is due in the fall, the iPhone will have almost all the same features as an Android phone, such as over-the-air updates and access to a free cloud-based storage service for music.

Even in the real world, and not just in spec-land, I've noticed that my boyfriend, who has the Android-based Motorola Droid X, can pretty much do everything on his phone that I can do on my iPhone 3GS. Of course, Apple has more apps than Google for both smartphones as well as tablets, but the number of apps doesn't really matter so long as you can get all the apps you want to use. And according to my boyfriend, who uses far more apps than I do, he's cool with what Android has to offer.

The situation may be slightly different on the tablet side, since Android is further behind in the app department than Apple. But I have no doubt that with all the Android-tablets coming out, Google will catch up quickly.

What it comes down to is which behemoth Borg do you want to be a part of? (In "Star Trek," Borgs were a pseudo-race of cybernetic organisms.) The Apple Borg or the Google Borg? Personally, I got sucked into the Apple Borg early on. I have a MacBook. All my music is in iTunes. And I've owned an iPhone for the last few years. I long for a beautiful iMac, and I've considered getting an iPad, but right now I'm too cheap to spend $500.

By contrast, Mark, my boyfriend, is in the Google Borg. His entire life is tied up with Google, from his Gmail account to Google docs to the cloud-based music service that Google just announced. He owns a Motorola Droid X and the new 10-inch Samsung Galaxy Tab. He says that since he is already using so many Google services, he finds it easy to sync his devices to the Google cloud. The new music service has been an especially happy addition to his life, since he can listen to his full catalog of music on which ever device he has handy whether it's his Droid or his Galaxy Tab.

So here's a general rule of thumb to help you make your decision. If you're more of a PC person, who likes to have control over what can be done with your device, become a Google Borg. But if you want something easy to use, you have no desire or plans to monkey with the software at all, then you might be a good fit for the Apple Borg.

So my suggestion is that you take yourself to the mall, and check out the products yourself. But I honestly don't think you'll regret either choice. Just pull the trigger and stop thinking about it so much! Instead, get outside and enjoy your Fourth of July weekend!

Good luck!

Help for a smartphone newbie

Hi Maggie,
I desperately need to upgrade my very ancient Nokia phone to one of the new smartphones in the market. I sit in front of the PC every day at work, and I really don't want to touch another PC when I get home. I check e-mails and use the Internet all day. Most of my work is e-mail or portal driven.

I love texting, need to be on top of e-mail (from work & leisure), and use the Internet quite a bit and sometimes GPS.

Which phone do you recommend for prices I've found at Sam's Club with a two-year contract?

  • iPhone 4 for $150
  • Blackberry Torch for $1
  • HTC Inspire 4G for $50


Dear Linny,
First, these are some great bargains. Sam's Club rocks! So good for you!

Honestly, I think you'll be happy with any of these three devices that you've selected. Since you are new to the smartphone world, any of these phones will be a huge improvement over what you currently have. And they will each offer you so much more than your current Nokia feature phone.

But to help guide you a little further here's what I think.

An iPhone is a great device for smartphone newbies, because it's so easy and intuitive. It's a piece of cake to sync the device to your iTunes music collection. And the apps are easy to find and download. Soon with iOS 5, all the software updates and syncing will be done automatically.

But the iPhone 4 is now over a year old, and Apple will likely be coming out with a new version of the device this fall. So I'm not sure I'd recommend buying it now. For one, the pricing will likely drop on this model once the new iPhone is available. And secondly, Apple doesn't always do a great job of supporting older iPhones as it upgrades software. It may be fine for another year, but there will be some things that the older model won't be able to do that a newer iPhone will do.

The HTC Inspire is a Google Android phone. The great thing about Android phones is that they come loaded with great Google apps. You mentioned you really wanted to use GPS. And while the other smartphones you have listed also have GPS and can use Google Maps, I find that the implementation on Android phones is just better. I love the turn-by-turn navigation that comes with all Android devices. The downside as noted in Bonnie Cha's review of the phone is that it's big and heavy. And even though it supports AT&T's faster HSPA+ network, Bonnie didn't experience a noticeable increase in speed when she tested it.

The BlackBerry Torch is the slickest BlackBerry on the market today. Research In Motion, the company that makes BlackBerry phones, has fallen behind in terms of innovation. It's supposed to be coming out with more devices this summer, but so far no word on exactly when.

That said, if e-mail and texting are the main reasons you need a smartphone, then this is a great device for you. (It doesn't hurt that it's only $1 with a one-year contract too!) BlackBerry does e-mail better than anyone else. Again, you can get e-mail on Android phones and iPhones, but if you use Microsoft Exchange for work, getting those e-mails can be slow. BlackBerry push e-mail is fast. And the Torch comes with a touch screen as well as a keyboard, so if you're new to smartphones, and you still like the feel of buttons, you might like this phone better.

Another added benefit is that if you have other friends, work colleagues, or family using a BlackBerry you can use the BlackBerry Messenger feature, which allows you to message other BlackBerry users without using the SMS text network. Lots of people love this about BlackBerry smartphones.

The downside for the BlackBerry Torch is that the Web surfing experience isn't that great. It's better on the Torch than other current BlackBerry devices, because it uses BlackBerry OS 6, which offers an improved browser experience. But the Web experience is still not as good as what you'd get with an iPhone or Android smartphone.

For more details on each of these phones check out CNET Reviews. Kent German and Bonnie Cha give you the full low-down on the good, bad, and the ugly on each of these phones.

Happy smartphone shopping!