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Sprint shutters unlimited 4G mobile broadband

Wireless broadband service used for tablets, Netbooks, notebooks, USB cards, and Mobile Hotspot devices will no longer bundle unlimited 4G wireless access into existing plans. Will the unlimited data plan for smartphones soon follow?

Sprint Nextel is getting rid of its all-you-can-eat 4G wireless broadband plan for tablets, Netbooks, notebooks, USB cards, and Mobile Hotspot devices.

On Thursday the company informed subscribers in a notice on its Web site that it will stop offering its unlimited 4G mobile broadband offering. The wireless broadband service, which is used for the aforementioned devices, will no longer bundle unlimited 4G wireless access into existing plans, which limit usage for 3G service to 3GB, 5GB, and 10GB monthly usage.

Sprint said that as of the next billing cycle, customers already subscribed to these services will continue to pay the same amount for their existing plans, but they'll no longer get unlimited access to the 4G service. Up to this point, Sprint has offered plans that limit data usage on its 3G wireless network to these three different plans. But each of these plans came with unlimited 4G wireless usage.

The unfettered use of the 4G service is what will soon come to an end for these customers. This means that if you have the 3GB data plan, your total data usage will be calculated for both your 3G and 4G usage. Customers who exceed their monthly caps will be charged an overage of 5 cents per MB. Sprint also allows users under the 3GB plan to roam onto another data network for up to 100MB of data per month. Subscribers with either the 5GB or the 10GB plan can roam up to 300MB on another network. Users who exceed these roaming limits are charged 25 cents per MB.

Sprint also said it is changing the usage policy for the Mobile Hotspot add-on for smartphones. Sprint said it will now limit Mobile Hotspot usage for 3G and 4G to 5GB of data per month. Additional data use above 5GB is 5 cents per megabyte. The company also said the monthly off-network data limit will continue to be 300MB, which is a combination of phone and Mobile Hotspot data usage.

What does this mean for Sprint's promise to keep its smartphone data plans unlimited? The company said that "if your phone plan contains unlimited data, you will continue to enjoy unlimited data usage on your phone while on the Sprint network."

As the third largest carrier in the U.S. and the first national carrier to deploy a 4G wireless service, Sprint touted its network, which uses the WiMax technology, as a big difference. The company emphasized its offer of unlimited data usage on its 4G network.

But as data usage on mobile networks has exploded, many people have questioned whether Sprint could continue to offer unlimited data. When the company announced that it would offer the Apple iPhone, a notoriously data-hungry device, executives at Sprint reassured consumers that it would keep the smartphone data service unlimited.

The company's latest move calls into question how long the unlimited data plan for smartphones will last. It's clear that Sprint's entree into the iPhone market has leveled the playing field among the three nationwide wireless carriers. And Sprint's unlimited data service is a competitive advantage now that AT&T and Verizon Wireless each cap their services. Sprint took a big gamble in striking the deal for the iPhone with Apple. It's believed that the company promised Apple it would buy some 30.5 million devices through 2015.

Sprint, which has a smaller network footprint and fewer customers than rivals AT&T and Verizon Wireless, needs the unlimited data to differentiate itself. But as the only unlimited data provider on the block, the company will likely attract data hogs. Perhaps Sprint's latest moves are meant to curb some of this potentially excessive usage.

A spokeswoman for Sprint reiterated Sprint's commitment to its unlimited data plan for smartphone users.

"This change does not apply to phone plans," she said in an e-mail. "Sprint continues to be the only national wireless carrier to offer unlimited data use without throttling for smartphones, on both our 3G and 4G networks."

She also added that the majority of Sprint's existing mobile broadband customers use less than the amount of data included in their plan, even when 3G and 4G usage are combined. As a result, she said, most customers won't see any change to their plan.

Additionally, she said, Sprint will launch new mobile broadband plans in the coming weeks that will offer customers more value.