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T-Mobile really, really wants you on its unlimited data plan

The company's Un-carrier Next event kills off taxes and fees and offers low-data users a $10 credit. All to get you to sign up for the T-Mobile One unlimited plan.


T-Mobile CEO John Legere in "Vegas" mode, going off on his competitors.

James Martin/CNET

When T-Mobile has held an Un-carrier event to shake up the industry, consumers have typically applauded the outcome.

Then came this past summer and Un-carrier 12.

In what could arguably have been its biggest move, the company said it was switching to a single unlimited-data option. For most people, the internet on their phone IS the internet, T-Mobile CEO John Legere argued on Thursday at the company's Un-carrier Next press conference at CES (which included its fair share of f-bombs and BS mentions). It seems ridiculous to force people to figure out how much internet they want each month, he said.

That sounds great in principle, but the T-Mobile One unlimited data plan drew a lot of scorn from consumers who felt the single option froze out people who preferred a cheaper plan for less data. If you check e-mails and share the occasional Facebook photo, unlimited data is overkill. The plan inspired a lot of wrath on Reddit's T-Mobile thread.

While each Un-carrier move is designed to upend the industry, Un-carrier Next (T-Mobile has opted to drop the numbers because they may get tiresome by Un-carrier 24 or 25) was all about shoring up the prior Un-carrier move and getting people to share in the vision of unlimited data. The shift comes at a time when Sprint trumpets the virtues of unlimited, and AT&T has offered such a plan bundled with its television customers. Verizon remains the only holdout.

T-Mobile's announcements on Thursday were designed to ease consumers into this new, unlimited world. That's important because starting January 22, the company will eliminate its older plans. New customers will be able to get only the T-Mobile One plan. Existing customers can keep their old plans.

The company simplified its pricing so the advertised rate is what you pay, including taxes and fees. It's a simple but effective way to head off sticker shock and make your phone bill clearer. For people not ready for an unlimited data plan, the company introduced "Kickback," a program that gives people who use less than 2 gigabytes of data (roughly eight hours of streaming video) a month a credit of $10.

T-Mobile has a legacy of changing the industry. Each of T-Mobile's moves -- whether it's the elimination of contracts and phone subsidies or getting the industry to turn away from overage fees -- you can feel the company's impact. Legere has always been able to make waves, like when I got him kicked out of an AT&T party he crashed three years ago at CES. A few days later, he said T-Mobile would buy out people's contracts from rival carriers, a move everyone else copied.

The company also guaranteed the price for its T-Mobile One unlimited data, a contrast from Sprint's strategy of hooking customers at a lower rate, and raising it after two years. Lastly, T-Mobile said it would offer $150 to everyone who switches from another carrier -- with no need to trade in a phone.

It's easy to forget that the mobile industry had long embraced unlimited data. Five and a half years ago, you were likely paying for minutes and text messages, with data thrown in for free. That all changed when voice calls and text messages became basic services, and the carriers employed a tiered structure based on how much data you used.

The problem has always been that you rarely keep track of data, and it's harder to quantify than minutes or text messages. Sure, there are apps that help track it, but you're not as conscious of data.

T-Mobile believes that's an annoyance that needs to be eliminated, and it's using the high-profile stage of CES to reiterate its argument.

A few years from now, when we're all streaming video without fear of hitting a cap or having our connection slowed, maybe we'll finally appreciate Un-carrier 12.

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