T-Mobile just announced what I’d argue is the best thing the company has done since it put on a magenta jacket in 2013 and launched its “Uncarrier” brand: a mobile plan that offers unlimited high-speed access to the internet at a very good price. The promotion gives new and existing customers three unlimited data lines for $100 a month, which works out to roughly $33 per line. For all of the company’s gimmicks over the past four years, this move really stands out because it’s exactly what the goal of competition in internet service should be: giving people the highest quality access to the network at fair and accessible rates. That’s the only thing that matters, and suddenly wireless carriers are competing to provide it.
Given the trend in recent years toward eliminating unlimited data plans and inventing things like “HD” data, I never thought I would see what happened this month — at least not anytime soon, since we’re staring down the barrel of a hostile FCC. But in the span of a few days in mid-February, the major US wireless carriers made a series of truly competitive moves: Verizon announced it would offer unlimited data again, then T-Mobile made a competitive change, and then Sprint and AT&T followed with changes in prices and services. (Just today, AT&T further improved its unlimited deal.) My colleague Chaim Gartenberg wrote a good rundown of the changes, explaining why all of the US carriers have a new unlimited plan.
Are the plans perfect? No — far from it. Verizon and AT&T are still too expensive, and Sprint has lots of dumb restrictions that discriminate between things like data used for gaming and listening to music. But with the top four carriers now behaving like they’re ready to really compete on speed and price, there’s some hope that the dark path toward cableization of the internet will be diminished or deferred.
There’s still a risk that the internet will be carved up or deemphasized as ISPs gobble up television companies and start to act like them. I scratched my head last night as I watched an internet stream for the Oscars that was almost two minutes behind the live broadcast. There’s still a bizarre lack of respect for the power of the internet — the one truly universal network we have — and its importance. That’s one of the reasons it’s so frustrating to have an incoming administration that wants to kill common sense rules like net neutrality.
(Surprise! All of this month’s competitive actions in the wireless space took place under net neutrality rules. Turns out “government regulation of the internet” isn’t so bad.)
Hopefully this trend will continue, and companies like T-Mobile should keep leading the way. The most “uncarrier” thing T-Mobile could ever do is compete fiercely on price and speed. Carriers should quickly forget about “BingeOn,” “HD data,” zero rating, and all of the other bullshit that obfuscates the real product people want and deserve: cheap, reliable, high-quality access to the internet. We should expect no less of our public utilities.