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Is ‘unlimited' phone data a ripoff?

The Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern says it’s not really “unlimited.”

Australian Team Reception-20th Commonwealth Games 2014 Robert Cianflone / Getty

If your wireless carrier’s data plan confuses you, blame T-Mobile.

“T-Mobile basically said, ‘Screw two-year contracts. We want people to be able to pay for their phones separately from the data and cell service that they get,” Wall Street Journal columnist Joanna Stern said on the latest episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask. The well-intentioned attempt to bring sanity to phone bills kicked off an ongoing arms race among the carriers to constantly undercut each other with loophole-laden deals.

Stern and Too Embarrassed co-host Lauren Goode answered your questions about data plans, with Stern arguing that the buzzword du jour — “unlimited” data — has to have those quotes around “unlimited.”

“There really is no such thing as an ‘unlimited’ plan; just like there’s nothing in life that’s free, nothing is truly unlimited,” Stern said. “Nothing in life is free, especially those handouts they have at Costco — you will pay for them in some shape or form.”

Stern compared Verizon’s $80/month plan, which was announced on Sunday during the Grammys, to driving a sports car down a highway with no speed limit: You can go as fast as you want unless there’s a lot of traffic. So at a concert or a train station or some other busy location, your data speed as an unlimited user will be slower than that of someone who does not use as much data.

“If you hit a cap when there’s a lot of people on the network, if you’re in a place where there’s a lot of people using their phones and you’ve used a lot of data that month, the carrier will de-prioritize your phone,” she said.

“I think these plans only make sense for people who use a crapload of data,” Stern added. “The average person does not use that much data.”

And if you are worried about running over, she said, it’s possible for Verizon users to turn on “Safety Mode,” which slows down additional data usage but doesn’t charge for it. However, this mode is not turned on by default and is buried inside the latest Verizon app, Stern said, “because they’re assholes.”

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