When Unlimited is not unlimited


Dan Frommer’s framing of the unlimited AT&T data users’ valid complaints as “whining” is so disingenuous I don’t even know where to start. Oh wait, I’ll start right here, with other “finite, constrained resources” that are given away at a truly unlimited rate:

  • Cable TV
  • Netflix/Amazon Prime
  • Buffets
  • Radio
  • High-speed internet

I feel the last one is particularly relevant. Frommer is merely an apologist for cellphone carriers’ greed. AT&T saw startups, app authors, iPhone manufacturers et al getting rich off of wireless internet, while they get pennies by providing a commodity service. But Frommer is mistaken in thinking that the telcos deserve more money because they offer something unique or valuable. They don’t. Amazon, Apple, Netflix, FourSquare and others provide the thing of value, AT&T is merely the dumb pipe it flows down, and the telcos have no more claim to the riches made on the internet than the power company can claim their electricity deserves a piece of that action. You don’t thank the road for the destination.

“Value isn’t free.”

Except when you give away an “unlimited” amount of something for a fixed price, it does tend to devalue it. AT&T thought wireless data was so worthless that they were willing to give away all of it, but now they’re welshing on that deal. Just own up to the dollar signs in your eyes rather than insult your customers.

Frommer isn’t arguing against whining so much as he’s arguing in favor of corporate greed… so I guess he’s defending whiners of another sort (or as he blatantly put it “AT&T needs to make more money” Really, ‘needs’? What happened to just providing good service?). But his defense of AT&T’s greed over its customers’ interests in beside the point. He’s having the argument he wants to have rather than the one that customers are making: that when you call something “unlimited” it should actually be, y’know, unlimited.

By way of comparison: you can call limited data plans “unlimited”, but not say that cigarettes cause cancer. AT&T, like makers of cigarettes, needs to make more money!

UPDATE: Monday Note has a great by-the-numbers breakdown of the carriers’ profit off phones subsidies. But if you want impassioned arguments over weasel words and doublespeak, you can just stay right here.

How much bandwidth can an iPhone use?


Predicting that mobile video will only become more widespread in the future, I decided to keep my unlimited iPhone data plan, but how much data can I reasonably use in a month beyond the new AT&T data plans of 200MB and 2GB per month?

While reading Apple’s new app guidelines, I came across this gem:


  • Audio streaming content over a cellular network may not use more than 5MB over 5 minutes
  • Video streaming content over a cellular network longer than 10 minutes must use HTTP Live Streaming and include a baseline 64 kbps audio-only HTTP Live stream

So if listening to streaming audio, I have (1024MB x 2 per month used at 1MB per minute) a total of 34 hours of audio streaming, or over an hour a day just listening to the radio.

Video streaming at 64kbps (3.75MB/minute) yields nine hours of on-demand video a month, enough for four average-length films, or nearly all of Max Headroom.

Suddenly 2GB is starting to feel like a lot.

CORRECTION: Todd points out 64kbps is just the baseline audio-only stream, and doesn’t include video, which should be obvious to anyone who actually read the spec. That and Max Headroom isn’t available for Netflix streaming. Still, in a month, I was only able to use 1087MB, so 2GB isn’t what I thought it was, but it’s still quite a bit.