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What unlimited BlackBerry data really means

How is it that BlackBerry users get unlimited data while everyone else is typically limited to 1GB or less? Is BlackBerry's unlimited data really unlimited?

(Credit: CBSi)

There's a lot to consider when buying a new mobile phone; you want the best handset, the best value pricing plan and you don't want to be stung by bill shock — where you open your latest phone bill only to be struck speechless by an enormous balance owing.

Recently, a South Australian MP received a AU$10,000 phone bill after letting his son play online games on his iPhone, and in contrast to this, BlackBerry users get unlimited data with their phone plans. How is this possible?

Is it really unlimited?

For most common internet services — like sending and receiving emails, browsing the web, checking in with Facebook — the data is completely unlimited. When you buy a BlackBerry phone you will choose either a BlackBerry Internet Service account (BIS) for individual use or a BlackBerry Enterprise Service account (BES) if the phone belongs to a company. With either BIS or BES you gain access to the BlackBerry data servers via the BlackBerry APN on your handset.

Hold up, BlackBerry APN?

An APN is an Access Point Name, and it directs applications on your phone as to which internet service to use. On BlackBerry phones, applications will either use the BlackBerry APN or your carrier's WAP APN for cellular data. All data that is transmitted using the BlackBerry APN passes through the company's servers, which are then compressed and pushed to the phone as much smaller packages of data. This keeps costs down, which is how it can afford to offer unlimited data while everyone else pays top dollar for internet data to their phones. Plus it also offers the side-benefit of increasing the phone's battery life by removing the need for the phone to continually check the server for new data, like emails or Facebook messages.

You may have noticed the BlackBerry logo displayed on your screen next to, or just under, the network status bars. This indicates that the phone is currently registered on the BlackBerry servers, and that applicable data is being used as part of the unlimited offer. If this icon disappears, or if you lose access to the browser to surf the web you should contact your carrier for assistance.

BlackBerry icon
If you see this icon you're plugged into the BlackBerry server. (Credit: CBSi)

So which apps use the BlackBerry APN?

We asked BlackBerry for a definitive list of apps, but apparently no such list exists. They did, however, tell us that all apps developed by BlackBerry manufacturer Research in Motion are definitely unlimited. These include the browser, BlackBerry Messenger, Facebook, Twitter, and the email client. There are also some other third-party developed apps that use the APN like Google Maps and the official MSN chat client, for example. There are others that offer the user the option to use the BlackBerry APN or their carrier's APN, like the AP News reader.

And which apps don't?

This is the million-dollar question, or AU$10,000 question if you're an Aussie MP, because getting this wrong could get costly. Although there is no list of apps to follow, there are a few guidelines. Firstly, apps that stream rich media are often excluded from the unlimited offer, so YouTube is a big no-no on a BlackBerry. Keep in mind that apps which share your internet data will only work with WAP APNs, so if you plan to tether your phone to your PC be prepared to pay extra for the privilege.

Also, carefully read the description of apps that use internet services before you download them via the BlackBerry App World. We've found many of the apps that use WAP data, rather than the BlackBerry APN, will say so in a disclaimer in the product description.

What to consider

For most people, video streaming and PC tethering will account for a small percentage of internet use, and pretty much everything else will fall under the unlimited data offer. You may want to consider adding a small data allowance to your plan to cover any unforeseen data transfers outside of the BlackBerry APN, with most telcos offering data bolt-ons from about AU$10 per month.

Don't forget that all new BlackBerrys come with a Wi-Fi network adapter as well, so you could plan to use services outside of the BlackBerry APN while you're in range of a Wi-Fi hotspot. You'll just want to avoid YouTube while you're on the train.