Is Sprint's unlimited data really worth it?

Taylor Martin
 from  Concord, NC
| April 23, 2012

Before writing yesterday's piece about promotions that wireless providers should consider offering to tiered data users, I was determined to write about Sprint's data. That's what I had originally started writing before my train of thought was completely derailed. And about 400 words in, I realized my topic had entirely changed, so I just went with the flow. On Friday, following the announcement from the FCC earlier last week about the majority of U.S. carriers agreeing to adopt a better alert system for overages to fight bill shock, I wrote a piece detailing how easy it is to run into overages these days, especially with tiered data. And before that, I wrote about how I hate tiered data, how I constantly watch my usage creep towards my monthly limit.

As per usual when writing anything about tiered data, the comments about grandfathered unlimited data plans and Sprint's ongoing offer of truly unlimited data flooded in. You see it all over the Web – in Sprint adverts, in comment sections and in forums. "I'm so glad I'm with Sprint with unlimited data!" or "I'm so happy to be grandfathered into my old unlimited data with AT&T (or Verizon)!"

Of course, there's nothing wrong with that. Sing your praises, dude (or dudette). Be proud of your unlimited data. And if unlimited data makes you happy enough to share your love for it all over the Internet, so be it. Keep on keepin' on and enjoy it as long as it lasts.

But those comments – particularly those about Sprint – are almost always followed by something along the lines of a brutish and sarcastic, "How 'bout those data speeds?" In response to one commenter who boasted forthcoming Sprint's unlimited LTE data, another reader named Will Frame said, "Unlimited is basically useless when you're downloading at less than 1Mbps and your '4G' network won't even penetrate buildings."

While I can't speak firsthand, I have been hearing complaints about Sprint's abnormally slow 3G and 4G (WiMAX) data speeds from far and wide.

In October, following the iPhone 4S announcement and after learning Sprint would continue to offer unlimited 3G data to iPhone users, I wrote a piece asking how long Sprint would continue to offer unlimited data. (We have since learned that Sprint has plans to continue offering unlimited data, even on their new LTE network.) In that piece, I referenced a picture that our own Aaron Baker had uploaded to his Twitter account just weeks before, pitting WiMAX against LTE in Charlotte, NC. The Motorola device on Verizon's 4G (LTE) network pulled 17.25Mbps down and had a 4.47Mbps uplink. The Samsung Epic 4G Touch, a WiMAX device, fared much worse, reaching only 0.86Mbps down and 0.05Mbps up. Ouch.

The worst part is that this has been going on for some time now. And it isn't isolated to just Aaron, not by a long shot. All I have to do is ask about Sprint data speeds on Twitter and I get replies like the one pictured above from @N301DQ.

While most of this is pretty grim and not exactly the kind of feedback Sprint likes to hear about their 3G or 4G networks, there is a silver lining.

It's no secret that Sprint's network is congested. Being the last nationwide wireless provider to offer truly unlimited data has turned Sprint into an oasis in the desert for heavy data users, who would otherwise be spending upwards of $100.00 per month solely for data. In turn, this has put a ton of stress on the network. And while it has been a great effort from Sprint to lunge for subscriber growth as other wireless providers ditch unlimited data plans, customer satisfaction has almost certainly taken a hit.

In the next couple months, however, Sprint will officially launch its LTE network. Currently, there are two devices that are compatible with its new network (and one on the way), but access is still restricted during the testing phase. Once it goes live, it will only bring good news for all.

By launching several devices before the network officially goes live, there will already be a substantial adoption rate once Sprint finally flips the switch. Buyers of the LG Viper 4G LTE, Samsung Galaxy Nexus and upcoming HTC EVO 4G LTE will have had their phones for some time. And once LTE goes live, all of those users will quickly jump to the faster network (assuming it's available in their area) and remove quite a bit of the stress from 3G networks. For some time, there will be a long overdue balance on Sprint's network and speeds just might be restored to a more normal and acceptable rate. I'm willing to bet those on LTE will be more than happy, and those still on 3G will be happy the airwaves are less congested.

For as long as Sprint offers unlimited data, subscriber growth will likely come naturally as the importance and price of wireless data continues to grow.

Now that there are two LTE devices available from Sprint and one on the horizon (that we know of), there is a good reason to take full advantage of their unlimited data offerings. If I were not grandfathered into an unlimited data plan on Verizon, I would certainly be considering any unlimited LTE options available. For now, the only one is Sprint.

Get it while it's hot (and while it lasts), folks!

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