Unlimited Verizon data customers beware: Make sure your next phone is 4G

In this edition of Ask Maggie, CNET's Marguerite Reardon explains why Verizon customers looking to keep their unlimited plans will want to make sure the full-priced smartphone they buy is 4G.

Marguerite Reardon Former senior reporter
Marguerite Reardon started as a CNET News reporter in 2004, covering cellphone services, broadband, citywide Wi-Fi, the Net neutrality debate and the consolidation of the phone companies.
Marguerite Reardon
7 min read

Some Verizon Wireless subscribers will do almost anything to keep their unlimited data plans. And that includes buying a new device at full price instead of signing a two-year contract and taking a sweet subsidy on that new phone.

But what happens when a Verizon subscriber who bought a 3G iPhone realizes she may still see her unlimited data service slowed? In this edition of Ask Maggie, I explain the finer points of Verizon's unlimited data policy and why 3G device users need to be careful. I also help another reader decide if the Verizon Share Plan could work for him and his wife.

Did you know Verizon throttles unlimited-data customers?

Dear Maggie,
Verizon is now throttling "unlimited data" customers. I just got a text stating that my data usage will be cut off. The explanation is that the "network optimization" kicked in and blah, blah, blah. I'm a little ticked off since I just bought an iPhone to keep my unlimited data plan. Keep in mind this phone is 3G so it's not exactly blazing fast either. Verizon reps I talked to claim this policy has been in place for a while, but it's the first I have heard of it.

I think the Verizon customers need to be warned, especially since people are going out and spending $500 and $600 to buy phones at full price to keep these unlimited data plans that are not really unlimited. Can you please look into this and explain what's going on here?


Dear RPreston,
You are correct that Verizon Wireless does "throttle" or slow down customers on its unlimited data plans who use excessive amounts of data.

Josh Long/CNET

I wrote about this in my Ask Maggie column in March last year. Verizon targets the top 5 percent of the heaviest data users. But the company uses network optimization technology to only slow down those heavy data users when the network is actually congested.

The way it works is that if you use more than 2GB of data per month, Verizon is likely to identify you as being in the top 5 percent of data users. Once you've been identified as a heavy data user, when the cell site you are in gets congested, Verizon will slow down your access until the network is no longer so crowded.

Once the congestion has subsided or you move to a different cell site that isn't congested, your speed returns to normal. Depending on how congested the network is your service could be slowed for a few minutes or for several hours.

Keep in mind this policy only applies to customers with unlimited data plans on the 3G network. Verizon doesn't slow down data for 4G customers. This means that if you have an iPhone 5 with 4G and you live in an area where Verizon offers 4G LTE service, you should never have your data throttled or slowed down even if you use more than 2GB of data per month.

Why is there a distinction? The 3G wireless network as you note in your question is much slower. It's also much more crowded than the new 4G network. Since Verizon services more customers on a network that doesn't have as much capacity, there is more opportunity for congestion.

Verizon's 4G LTE network offers much more capacity than the 3G network. Think of the two networks as highways. The 3G network is a four-lane dual highway where traffic moves just fine during off-peak hours. But during rush hour, it may turn into a parking lot as too many cars crowd the roadway. The 4G LTE network may be an eight-lane highway with four lanes in each direction. Because the road is wider it can handle twice as many cars. So during rush hour, cars are able to still move freely.

In other words, Verizon still has plenty of capacity on its 4G LTE network. The road is bigger and there are actually fewer drivers on it. Although that is quickly changing. In October, the company said that in September its 4G LTE network handled 35 percent of its mobile data traffic. And that figure was expected to cross the 50 percent mark by the end of the year.

The Apple iPhone 4S, in black and white. Apple

So what does all of this mean for Verizon subscribers who want to keep their unlimited data plans? As you mentioned in your question, for existing customers who already have unlimited data plans with Verizon to keep those unlimited plans, they have to buy a device at full price. If you get a new phone and take Verizon's subsidy with a two-year contract, you have to buy a tiered plan or family share plan.

If you want to keep that unlimited data plan, my suggestion is to make sure you are buying a 4G LTE device. It sounds like you bought an older version of the iPhone that doesn't support 4G LTE. The only model that supports 4G LTE is the iPhone 5. The iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S still operate on 3G networks.

Most if not all smartphones introduced on Verizon's network today will support 4G LTE. So if you are buying one of the latest and greatest phones, you won't have to worry about whether it's 4G. But if you are trying to save a little cash and you are looking at older devices or used smartphones, just be sure that the phone you purchase supports 4G LTE. If you do, you won't have to worry about Verizon throttling your service. You can use as much data as you like without fear.

Unfortunately, in your situation, you already have a 3G iPhone, which you paid for outright. So the only way to avoid potentially having your network service slowed is to keep usage under 2GB. Use Wi-Fi hot spots when you can. If this doesn't work for you, you can always sell your 3G iPhone and buy an iPhone 5.

I hope this advice was helpful. And good luck.

Is Verizon's shared data plan really worth it?

Dear Maggie,
I have Motorola Droid 2's from Verizon Wireless. The plan is to put them on Verizon's service and pay month-to-month to see how it goes. I will use mine almost exclusively for talking, with minimum text messages and minimum data. My wife will use more of these services on her Droid 2 than I will. My questions are these: Does this make good economic sense for us to do this? And how do I calculate how much data to buy?


Dear J,
It sounds like you already own the Motorola Droid 2 devices that you plan to use on Verizon's network. That's good news for you since it means that you can sign up for a Verizon plan without a contract. If you don't take a subsidy for a new phone when you sign up for service, you don't have to sign a two-year service contract.

Motorola Droid 2 (Verizon Wireless)
Droid 2 Sarah Tew/CNET

I'm not sure what your existing service is. As I wrote in my column earlier this week, it's probably cheaper for you to use a basic feature phone if you don't plan on using data services. If you do want a smartphone and you're looking for the least expensive options, then prepaid service plans from regional carriers are often priced more aggressively than what you will find with Verizon.

But since you already have two Verizon smartphones, it makes sense to use Verizon service. (Sometimes you can use a Verizon phone with a prepaid service that uses Verizon's network, but that can be tricky. Your easiest bet is to just use the phones on the Verizon network.)

If you are a new customer to Verizon and you want to use smartphones on your plan, you will have to sign up for a family share plan. The least expensive plan will give you unlimited talk and text messaging for you and your wife, plus 1GB of data to share between the two of you. The total cost is $130 a month.

Since you don't think you will use much data and it doesn't sound like your wife is a heavy data user, you will probably be fine with 1GB for the month. Verizon has a tool on its Web site to help you estimate how much data you will need. And there are apps you can download onto your phones that will keep track of data and also compress some of your data, so you use less data. The one I use is called Onavo.

If you find that you need more data, you can always increase your plan and get another 1GB of data for a total of 2GB of data for $10 more a month. And if you find that Verizon's service is too expensive and you aren't using the data services very much, you can always cancel your service. Since you didn't get a phone subsidy with your service, you are free to cancel the service at any time without any penalty. So you might as well give it a shot and see how it goes for you.

Good luck!

Ask Maggie is an advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. The column now appears twice a week on CNET, offering readers a double dosage of Ask Maggie's advice. 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.