How Telstra And Vodafone Can Sell You ‘Unlimited’ Mobile Data, With Limits

How Telstra And Vodafone Can Sell You ‘Unlimited’ Mobile Data, With Limits
Image: iStock

Both Telstra and Vodafone unveiled unlimited data plans for mobile customers this week and some are, again, questioning the use of the term ‘unlimited’. Rightly so! We’ve seen it all before with ADSL broadband, they say!

This time it’s a little different. The telcos have wisened up.

When we posted about Telstra and Vodafone’s new unlimited plans this week, Lifehacker readers were quick to point out that these plans aren’t actually unlimited. In both cases, the telcos provide a data allowance at maximum speed, but once that allowance is hit – they shape the connection to 1.5Mbps.

There’s been trouble with these kinds of deals before. In 2011, the ACCC declared Optus’s “unlimited” advertisements misleading and deceptive. “It is simply unacceptable to make bold headline claims like ‘unlimited’ and then to bury important conditions or qualifications in the fine print” claimed ACCC chairman Graeme Samuel, at the time.

Moreover, it wasn’t just the ‘important conditions’ that mattered — but the effect of those conditions. Samuel explained in the 2011 case that “simply disclosing the existence of a condition may not be enough… the Act also required Optus to explain to consumers the effect of the condition on the functionality of the service being provided.”

So how would the ACCC see advertisements like the one currently plastered over Vodafone’s Unlimited Mobile Phone Plans homepage?

How Telstra And Vodafone Can Sell You ‘Unlimited’ Mobile Data, With LimitsImage: Vodafone

Further down this page Vodafone reverse the plan, by offering Unlimited data at ‘Streaming Speeds’ up to 1.5Mbps in Australia, then tacking on the extra data at Max Speed. For many, the different approaches in advertising may not be deliberately obfuscating the terms and conditions, though they are likely to leave some customers confused.

How about Telstra’s advertising for their ‘Endless’ data plan?

How Telstra And Vodafone Can Sell You ‘Unlimited’ Mobile Data, With LimitsImage: Telstra

In both cases it doesn’t appear that the telcos are being overtly shady about the practice of shaping your internet speeds, but the lack of information in these forward-facing advertisements could get them into some hot water. For Vodafone specifically, they word the deal in such a way that they offer a data limit as Max Speed and then give you unlimited data (at 1.5Mbps).

Similarly, Telstra’s use of the infinity symbol and UNLIMITED GB does make their ‘Endless Data’ plan relatively transparent. I admit, at a glance, there could still be confusion but if they’re separating the idea of ‘unlimited data’ and ‘unlimited speeds’, they are qualifying their offer. Of course, the fine print also says that Telstra’s Fair Use Policy applies to the Endless Data service, so if Telstra deem your usage ‘unreasonable’ or ‘unacceptable’, they have the right to cancel or limit your service anyway.

Using the terms ‘unlimited’ and ‘endless’ are perfectly reasonable and skirting the edge of those legalities around advertising telco deals.

Notably, the Telecommunications Consumer Protections Code (TCPC) does contain a specific clause relating to using the term ‘unlimited’ in advertising materials. The clause is printed below:

4.2.1 Content of Advertising

A Supplier must include any important conditions, limitations, qualifications or restrictions about an Offer in its Advertising of the Offer, to allow Consumers to make informed choices and to avoid Consumers being misled.

A Supplier must not engage in the following practices to enable this outcome:

Unlimited: use the term ‘unlimited’ or an equivalent term in an unqualified manner when referring to usage, unless the ordinary use of the service in Australia is genuinely unlimited and not subject to exclusions, including exclusions for various types of calls or usage, or selected parts of the network;

A spokesperson for the ACCC told Lifehacker “the ACCC has previously taken action across various sectors where businesses have used absolute claims such as ‘free’ and ‘unlimited’. Whether or not concerns arise will depend on the circumstances” before directing consumers to the TIO or ACCC to lodge if they believe they have been misled about terms and conditions.

Based on the clause in the TCPC, ‘unlimited’ is a dangerous word to use unless it truly is unlimited. However, based on the 2011 ruling against Optus, as long as the telco is providing the qualifications of the ‘unlimited’ data plans upfront and ensuring the consumer is aware of how the limitations will affect their service, they are then separating the idea of unlimited data from unlimited speed. A crucial factor.

Overseas, in places like London, you can get truly unlimited data with plans such as Three’s “All-You-Can-Eat”. The only condition being that the telco politely asks “that you use these for your personal use only and not for any illegal, commercial or improper purposes.”

Now that — that is an unlimited data plan.

Our friends across the ditch in New Zealand at 2degrees mobile? They offer an unlimited data plan, without shaping speeds, but that excludes tethering or mobile Wi-Fi hotspots and a Fair Use policy.

Conversely, US carriers such as AT&T and T-Mobile advertise ‘unlimited’ plans with data limits and streaming-quality compromises. It seems that Australian telcos are headed the same way.

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Where Telstra and Vodafone are likely to run into the most trouble is when people start hitting those soft data caps. If you’re on an ‘unlimited’ plan and get shaped to 1.5Mbps how will that affect the user experience? While Telstra suggests this speed will be enough to stream standard definition video – how does that work in practice, during peak hours, on a congested network? Is it enough that Telstra put those qualifiers in? Will those speeds actually be able to provide the experience that users want — or expect — based on the way they are advertised?

Our advice for those looking at unlimited plans: Proceed with caution. As long as you understand the limits of your unlimited data plan and are happy to accept them, then go for it. They do provide some pretty hefty data limits! However, it might be worth investigating plans that offer similar data allowances (40GB, 60GB etc.) and comparing them first – especially because they won’t shape your speeds.

Are you the type of user that will struggle to hit 40GB a month anyway? Then these plans are not for you.

Further to that, if you’re only getting maximum speeds up to a certain data limit, why not just spend less money upfront elsewhere? Think Mobile, which also uses the Vodafone network, are only going to charge you $37 a month for 40GB and include unlimited calls and texts. That’s practically the same as the Vodafone offer for $23 less. Of course, if you hit the 40GB, you will be charged for extra usage.

Ultimately, it seems that our telcos have wisened up to misleading consumers with ‘unlimited’ and ‘endless’ plans, learning from the mistakes of ADSL broadband some seven years ago. Whether or not they come under fire from the ACCC will be up to the consumer and how these mobile plans stack up once they’ve shaped their speeds.

” excerpt=”Unlimited data. Imagine all the things you could do with it. You could binge-watch your favourite Netflix show on your mobile. You could binge-watch some YouTube videos on your mobile! You could even binge-watch Facebook memes on. Your. Mobile!

With the way we use our phones dramatically changing – and other telcos getting in on the act – Vodafone have today (also) unveiled new Unlimited Data Plans.”]


  • Honestly, only a minority of users will actually get past the 40 GB limit in a month and get shaped – these are the users that only have one internet connection and don’t have decent NBN / Cable connections at home.

    • Without the truly unlimited capacity of a fibre optic line, wireless data has massive limitations.

      At full speed, 40GB is just over an hour of 4G data. A simple HD movie or compulsory university lecture on your HD phone will chew through a quarter of your data in an hour and a half. That’s how mobile devices are used now, most people need more data so they can work with their needs first, and the data allowances not controlling their lifestyle.

      • At full speed, 40GB is just over an hour of 4G data. A simple HD movie or compulsory university lecture on your HD phone will chew through a quarter of your data in an hour and a half.

        If you are watching a stream that eats that much data, there is no doubt it will be buffering to an unacceptable limit when the 130KB/sec shaping happens. It would be unwatchable.

      • I’m still on Optus old $2 days plan; truly unlimited everything. Can’t connect to 4g on it but I can hit up to a 2MB/s download. In Brisbane the packet loss was so high you could barely use it, but since I’ve moved, it’s actually faster and more reliable than my home internet was. So we use it for everything (including online games).

        God this country is a joke with internet.

    • I acutal have a 60GB data on my mobile phone and i used it all up in a month purely when using my phone., I also used Home internet ontop of the 60GB of data so tbh 40GB is nothing and can be used so easily by anyone.

  • Why? Because our laws allow them to.

    We should have laws similar to europe where if a carrier says “Unlimited” it has to ACTUALLY be unlimited. They have similar laws in some countries for the word “Free”. If something is free a customer by law should be able to walk in, Get the item and walk about without paying for anything.

    • Telstra for example is unlimited. It’s unlimited data at 1.5mpbs.
      No different to buying an unlimited internet connection that’s speed limited to 25mbps.

      • Im fine when its called unlimited Data. I take issue when they call it “Unlimited” but the end up limiting your speeds severely once you hit a certain data usage threshold. Thats not unlimited. They are literally placing a limit on me.

        • Then it is literally impossible for any internet connection to be “unlimited” because there’s always a limit somewhere. Even in the speed of your device writing the data to RAM!

          They are being up-front about the unlimited data being 1.5Mbps. Way more than the “unlimited” ADSL plans from a few years ago with 64kbps shaping.

        • You’re making an incorrect assumption. It is unlimited at 1.5mbps with a bonus 40gb at full speed. That is the way it is advertised. You have the plan reversed

  • Unlimited was always something that rubbed me the wrong way with IINET back when it was starting to creep in to ISP lingo,

    They could just as easily call it an unlimited 1.5mbps plan with 40GB of zoom data, or whatever there marketing team could dream up with, conveys the same meaning,

    Similar to how my phone plan was 800MB with 500MB bonus data each month, while advertised as 1.3GB, which meant the moment i changed anything about the plan they could cut that 0.5GB and did annoy me at the time (vodafone by the way)

    My current cable plan is unlimited, if I set up a 100mbps download on the 1st, It will still be chugging along most of the time at that speed.

    I have to assume its like those old days, data use is massivly increasing for the average user and they are trying to build up enough of a customer base to buy the back end bandwidth, and build enough towers to support those few users who really would use it non stop without congesting there towers.

  • Three UK’s data isn’t really unlimited except for mobile use only. For instance, 30GB a month is provided on that unlimited plan for tethering or non-mobile data. Going over that limit cost quite a few quid per GB.

    Further, their network is heavily QoS. They have a published policy relating to this:

    It’s common to get less than 10Mb/s during non-peak times and only a few hundred kilobits during peak. It’s well known over there for the network being slow. When I was living there, I had a plan with them. It was fantastic for roaming in Europe and even when visiting back home in Australia (13GB a month overseas included for free!), but I couldn’t even stream Netflix on my phone in the burbs of London.

  • “Get 40GB total data at Your Max Speed then enoy unlimited data.”

    “At Streaming Speed up to 1.5Mbps with our new $60 Unlimited Plan.”

    That second line makes no sense, because it is seemingly written to be a continuation of the previous sentence, but the grammar indicates the first line ends after the word Data. Did they never try to read their advertisement out loud?

  • I think these are markedly different to what we saw before, and I don’t think it’s fair to say “it’s still confusing”. Sure, these ads may have unsophisticated consumers scratching their heads saying “I am confused”, but in the ADSL ads the consumer thought they understood, but were actually getting something different. It’s okay for consumers not to understand (and is sometimes inevitable) as long as they aren’t actually misled into buying something they don’t understand.

  • looking forward to this ONE DAY coming to the cheap plans. I have a $10pm plan for the kids and i have to keep the data turned off as 1gb is gone in a day and it would cost me a fortune. But if they were shaped & unlimited we could let them use their social apps, travel apps and we could use the locate my device when they left the phone somewhere stupid.

    • Get them prepaid so if they use it up the data will just stop. My son has type 1 diabetes and has a constant glucose monitor which uses Bluetooth to an iPhone which syncs the data. It needs a constant data connection but the whole phone only uses about 200MB/month other than the few high bandwidth apps we let him use sparingly (eg Roblox and YouTube) so would your kids just constantly play games and watch videos?

  • There should not be limitations on data anyway. Fair use aside, there is no cost difference between 1 gig and 1000 gig. It probably costs more to maintain the system to count how much you have downloaded than to just give you the downloads.

    • Not on a mobile network. There IS a real cost because if you make it truly unlimited, you can expect speeds to be less than 0.5mbps in peak times and less than 10 at other times.

  • No telco in the world offers unlimited data to everyone for cheap.

    3 in the UK offers “all you can eat” data for 35 pounds, but that’s $63 AUD, tethering/hotspot is restricted to 30GB, and that network is notoriously slow, with speeds of under 0.5mbps common in peak times.

    Jio Rio in India is the only one that comes close, with unlimited data (60GB at high speed) for $19 AUD (999 rupees)

    But that’s in a country with 1.3 billion people, and where that mobile plan would take 20% of your monthly wage. Also like in the UK, speeds under 0.5mbps at peak times and under 5mbps at other times are what’s to be expected.

    I don’t need my LTE to be that slow, thanks.

    Rio have 130 million subscribers but the ARPU is so low it’s not like they can just add more towers.

    Compare that to China where there is 1.3 million towers that all 3 carriers use. Mobile data is very expensive there. Plans top out at about 11GB data for 596 CNY or $126 AUD.

    We have it great here compared to the rest of the world.

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