When 'unlimited' data plans get limited

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Unlimited data plans may not be exactly what you think.

If you're addicted to your smartphone, hearing the words "unlimited data" may sound like "iTunes to your ears." But before you sign up, listen up: Unlimited data plans may not be exactly what you think.

Just ask Katherine Gemme. From finding dogs to save from shelters, to studying for her nursing degree, staying connected at 4G speed through her smartphone is Gemme's lifeline, whether she's surfing or using it as a hotspot. "It is my sole means of Internet access to the outside world," Gemme told us.

Katherine was psyched when she got an unlimited data plan, then noticed--- a notice from her carrier that said: Once she uses 22GB of data a month her provider "may prioritize" her "behind other traffic during network congestion..."

In other words, once she hits that cap, speedy surfing may slow way down.

"I'm waiting forever for a web page to load or a graphic to load and then I just I feel myself get really impatient and irritated," Gemme said.

We found while many carriers offer "unlimited data" that doesn't always mean unlimited high-speed data.

"A lot of people are surprised," Tina Chang, tech expert from WhistleOut told us.

Chang says some consumers don't realize data caps are part of their unlimited plan until they get a text saying they're now surfing at low speed. "I think that carriers can do a better job of disclosing. It's definitely in their print, but how many of us actually read that on the plans?"

We asked the major carriers: why the data slowdowns?

None of the companies answered.

Tina says the networks get jammed with traffic during peak hours--and they let people who have surfed less into the fast lane.

She adds some people get unlimited plans because they prevent data overage charges.

"I think consumers would rather their data slow down rather than getting a surprise bill," Chang said.

So how can you beat the slowdown?

Chang says check to see how much data you really use a month. A limited plan with more guaranteed high-speed data might be right for you.

And different carriers offer different options. So, compare companies.

Katherine loves her carrier's service and plans to just get the calendar out when her surfing starts slowing.

"It's annoying. I immediately look and see you know how many more days it is going to be until my data plan resets," Gemme said.

While none of the carriers answered the question about why data slows down, Verizon did tell us that on their network, consumers do remain at 4G, but that once the cap is reached data will slow temporarily behind other traffic during times of congestion.

WhistleOut offers a search engine where you can input how much data you want and get a list of suitable plans. It's also made clear in the search results how much high-speed data you'll be getting before your speeds are possibly slowed.
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