UK Mobile Phone Operators and “Unlimited” Internet

I use my phone mostly to access the Internet: web browsing, email, music streaming, watching videos on YouTube… sometimes I even use it to make phone calls and send texts. But mostly it’s the data allowance I think is most important when choosing a price plan. It’s no good for a mobile network to offer me a zillion minutes call time if they then cut me off from the Internet after I watch a couple of videos.

The mobile operators in the UK all offer what they call unlimited Internet* with their price plans. What they actually mean here is limited Internet since every carrier has a fair use policy that either cuts you off, slows you down, or charges you more (usually £1/MB) if you go over the limit they’ve set. But while each mobile operator’s website clearly states the number of minutes and number of texts for each package, the data allowance is usually hidden away on a Terms & Conditions link at the bottom of a page somewhere. So here’s a clear-and-simple summary of the data allowance each UK mobile operator currently offers.

After trawling through the small print on each carrier’s website, here’s what I found:

[table id=9 /]

I phoned up T-Mobile the other day to find out my own data usage stats (my account page on their website refused to tell me), and was told that my allowance was 1GB. Pretty good, but it turns out it’s actually even better than that: with an Android phone, T-Mobile’s website states you can download an impressive 3GB/month! This beats all the other operators hands-down.

Virgin came in a close second (or indeed joint-top if you don’t have an Android phone).

O2 hide their allowance detail really really well – there’s so much small print on their website it made my eyes hurt. It seems that they offer “fair use” of either 500MB/month, 1GB/month, or 3GB/month depending on which package you buy. But it looked like 500MB/month was their standard allowance, so compared to the others here I rate them third. UPDATE – a couple of days after this post, O2 announced they are replacing their “unlimited” Internet for a tiered data model. Reports suggest Orange and 3 will soon follow.

Vodafone are the only operator who currently show data allowance as a selectable package option (just like call time and number-of-texts).

The other operators (3, Orange, Talkmobile) all cap-out at 500MB/month downloads.


The Future

AT&T in the US has recently announced the end of its “all you can eat” Internet and have introduced two replacement data plans: either $15/month for 200MB or $25/month for 2GB. I expect similar tariff formats will appear here in the UK soon too.

The Apple iPad has data tariffs more aligned with daily, weekly, and monthly options: in other words, unlike for mobile phones it doesn’t have any “unlimited” option. The cost-per-byte varies drastically across both operators and across the same carrier’s different tariffs, but expect to see this model become available for other 3G and 4G devices soon.


My Recommendations

So far, my average monthly usage has been around 250MB a month. This is probably higher than most smartphone users (I stream a lot of music!), but it’s still half the allowed data on even the lowest operator’s “fair use” limit listed above. I’m currently on T-Mobile but despite the results here I think it’s time for a change. I’m lusting after a new HTC Desire and the 3 network have a great deal on just now that offers the Desire for £33 a month with 900 minutes talk, unlimited texts (where “unlimited” here really means 5000 texts/month), 500 MB data and Spotify premium. Because of their special relationship, 3 can offer Spotify at a subsidised price making this deal as good as unmissable, as it equates to only £23/month for the phone plan.


When I phoned them to cancel, T-Mobile made me an offer I could not refuse: a free HTC Desire with 900 minutes, 500 texts, and 3 GB Internet for £22/month!