Unlimited data wars begin
IT'S been a long time coming but Australia's mobile market has finally reached a turning point and consumers are set to cash in.
Mobile carriers in markets such as the US have offered unlimited data plans as a standard product for some time, but Australian telcos have been slow to follow suit.
But all that is changing - as of today.
Two of the country's major mobile carriers fell over themselves to announce new "unlimited" mobile data plans for customers Tuesday afternoon.
Vodafone was set to announce a new range of unlimited data plans on Tuesday night, to go on sale tomorrow.
In a bid to beat its rival to the punch, Telstra jumped the gun with its own announcement Tuesday afternoon saying its new "endless" data plan would be available albeit a day later than Vodafone's, on May 3.
The unlimited plans are a major win for Australian customers intent on browsing, streaming and downloading any time of the day.
BUT, THERE IS ONE CATCH.
Despite being touted as unlimited, once you use a certain amount of data each month your service will be throttled, effectively limiting you to basic web browsing functions and streaming video in lower resolution standard definition.
Telstra's new plan includes 40GB of data at uncapped speeds before it slows you down to a maximum speed of 1.5Mbps for the remainder of the month. If you do manage to use all your regular data, you won't be charged $10 per extra gigabyte but you will be stuck relying on the restricted speed.
The Telstra plan is priced at $69 per month on a 12 month contract meaning customers have a minimum spend of $828.
Meanwhile Vodafone has more options for customers but they also come with the same speed caveat. The smaller telco is offering three monthly price points of $60, $80 and $100 with regular data limits of 30GB, 60GB and 100GB respectively.
Vodafone is touting that its 60GB plan at normal network speeds "is enough to stream every episode of Stranger things ever made, every single month on Netflix."
The company's Consumer Business Director, Ben McIntosh said the telco had been "been looking at this for some time" and the new plans will give people another option to consider when choosing a service tailored to personal data usage and streaming habits.
Even if you do reach your regular data limit you will be able to use 4G services at no extra cost, albeit at capped speeds of 1.5Mbps.
Mr McIntosh claimed these new plans will finally put an final end to bill shock and said even the restricted speeds will suffice for customers until the billing cycle rolls over.
"Our network engineers have been testing it in a range of areas across the country but 1.5Mbps is enough to do all your standard surfing the internet, answer emails and is also good enough to do standard definition video streaming to your mobile," he told news.com.au.
"On a mobile screen the difference you actually see (in video quality at that speed) is negligible."
However Alex Kidman from consumer comparison website Finder.com.au says consumers "will hit that limit and they will notice it."
As he pointed out, the 1.5Mbps is still just a maximum speed promise from the telcos.
"It's going to be network dependent as well so you might get a bit slower and for things like video streaming and for some gaming applications, then I think it may well come back to be an issue," he said.
THE WATCHDOG IN THE WINGS
The move by Telstra and Vodafone comes more than a month after Optus launched it own version of an unlimited data plan which involves a constant restriction of speeds of up to 1.5Mbps when downloading or streaming music and video, and when tethering to another device.
Mr Kidman suspects Telstra and Vodafone were waiting to see the reaction from the country's consumer watchdog to the watershed Optus promotion.
"I wonder how much they were waiting to see whether the ACCC will step in or not," he said, referring to the use of the phrase "unlimited data" by Optus.
It is different to what Telstra and Vodafone are offering but with all three telcos "it is unlimited data but it's just not unlimited data at unlimited speeds," he said.
Even if the ACCC does take issue with the way these plans are advertised it would likely only force the telcos to change the particular wording in their promotions. Either way, the unlimited data plans are here to stay.
"The telcos can't step back from this, none of them can," Mr Kidman said.
Optus has been known to play fast and loose with the term "unlimited" in the past. In 2011 the ACCC fined Optus $3.6 million for advertising "unlimited" broadband plans that saw their service significantly throttled once they'd used a certain amount of data.
But when the telco became the first to make an unlimited mobile data offer last month (after quietly offering it to select customers for just one day) it was a notable evolution for the Australian market, even with the considerable strings attached.
"The fact that Optus is exploring concepts around unlimited mobile data packages signals a shift in the Australian mobile and broadband spaces," Mr Kidman wrote at the time.
But he warned that consumers need to read the fine print of what they're signing up for and not get sucked in by the hype of "unlimited data".
For instance, Optus has a SIM only 50GB plan for $60 which comes with no specific limitations and is potentially a better option for most users.
Despite the long wait, Aussie consumers aren't willing to fork out huge amounts for never ending mobile data.
According to survey data from Finder.com.au, Australian mobile users are only prepared to spend $53 per month for unlimited data, calls and text, down from $60 in 2016. Millennials were prepared to spend the most at $60 per month.