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Unlimited Data Plans Here to Stay

Until about a year ago, the conventional wisdom in and around the mobile telecom industry was that unlimited data plans could become a relic of the early 21st century. But to paraphrase Mark Twain: the reports of unlimited data's demise were premature.

There's certainly been a lot of hype about the new generation of plans, which Verizon reignited with the February 2017 announcement of unlimited data following on AT&T, Sprint, and T-Mobile, which already began offering these plans.

USA Today recently compared the plans, noting that a study found AT&T's and Verizon's networks had slowed under the initial stress of new unlimited-data subscribers but have since rebounded. In addition, the article noted that cheaper offerings of third-party resellers such as Consumer Cellular, Google Project Fi, Republic Wireless, and Ting have helped keep unlimited plan prices under control. The Wall Street Journal also reported that Sprint and T-Mobile have signaled that they may scale back discounts this year.

Unlimited data plans get a lot of attraction from consumers and businesses that want to avoid huge over-usage charges as well as monthly mind-numbing billing statements. Unlimited plans can also accommodate the heavy data users who would otherwise drive up the monthly costs.

But issues lurk under the surface of unlimited data plans. In many cases they reduce the class of service or throttle after a certain threshold of data consumption is met. For employees who rely on data to complete tasks, collaborate and communicate with colleagues, this could affect their productivity and engagement levels.

Before moving users from pooled to unlimited data plans, enterprises need to be aware of what's being consumed to ensure no disruption to employee productivity. Throttling business data could lead to an unwanted drop in productivity or even loss of critical safety functions.

Consider, for example, an implementation in which multiple energy company employees working in a remote area use a MiFi device for connectivity. Throttled data could leave employees with no other technology (landlines or WiFi) to rely on to do their jobs. But if the data consumption is related to personal activities, such as streaming video, throttled data would likely make sense as some applications aren't essential for business purposes. (Note, however, that most enterprises have no way of determining if usage is personal or business other than asking employees about it.)

Enterprises can negotiate lower prices for pools of data, but they risk overbuying data that they don't use by switching to unlimited plans. When properly managed, pooled plans should provide more value. When devices under contract are factored in, the price point of unlimited data plans is not always as attractive.

One potential wild card in the future of unlimited data plans is the Federal Communications Commission's repeal of Net neutrality policies. As the market for content and bandwidth continues to mature and consolidate, we'll see providers make frequent moves to boost revenue, and we'll experience pushback from consumers and federal agencies (the Federal Trade Commission in particular). The repeal of Net neutrality probably will not affect organizations to a significant extent, but going forward managers should consider developing enterprise apps that use less network bandwidth. Under the old Net neutrality policy, they had little incentive to do this. With higher bandwidth costs, older apps could suddenly become expense sumps.

Another Net neutrality consideration is getting data to the cloud. If the end of Net neutrality leads to higher bandwidth costs, or throttling by Internet service providers, the cost structure will undoubtedly change. Companies should begin contingency planning now to avoid being caught unawares by another unexpected expense.

Before jumping into unlimited plans, enterprises need to understand how much data users are consuming and for what purposes so the decision to switch doesn't negatively affect business operations and employee productivity. The application of any plan should always be well-thought-out and strategic.

Editor's note: This is an updated version of the original post.

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