Unlimited Texts, Calls, and Data Transfer - but is it really ?

In this article brought to you from www.SIMsurprise.co.uk we draw your attention to a point which many mobile network operators use as a "selling point" for contracts or packages which can turn out to be anything but the bargain you thought you were getting.

The selling point of Unlimited

Often, the selling point for a mobile phone contract or package is the word: Unlimited.

What do we expect unlimited to mean ?

  • No limits;
  • No boundaries;
  • Uncontrolled;
  • Infinite;
  • Without constraint;
  • No upper quantity.

This can refer to any one or a combination of: text messages, multimedia messages, calls, or for web enabled phones - data transfer.

To clarify these terms:

  • Text Messages: Any message that you send as a written text from your mobile phone - often measured as the quantity of messages;
  • Multimedia Messages: messages that include photographs, videos;
  • Calls: Any dialed call made from your mobile phone which is answered by the other person, or their answering system, often measured in minutes;
  • Data transfer: The amount of data downloaded to your mobile phone from the Internet - simply accessing a website involves downloading data - even viewing this page on your mobile phone or PDA involves downloading data. Often measured in megabytes (Mb) or Gigabytes (Gb).

In order to entice new business, mobile networks may advertise a range of monthly packages - an example might be:

£34.99p per month for 24 months:

  1. Unlimited free texts,
  2. Unlimited free minutes,
  3. Unlimited data transfer.

Other networks, or the same network, may advertise an alternative monthly package as:

£27.49p per month for 24 months:

  1. 1000 Texts;
  2. 3000 Minutes;
  3. 1Gb Data transfer.

So, we might be forgiven for saying, well, actually the first example here is a much better deal.

Although we pay a little more for it the difference (extra) that we get with the first example over the second example might make it a simple choice.

But - is the first example really better ?

If we continue to read the contract - every word (like we do, don't we ?) perhaps unlimited means exactly that - unlimited, without limits, unrestricted, without constraint.

If this is truly the case, then yes - the first example is a truly great deal.

But - how many contracts have a clause titled: Fair Usage ? or Excessive Usage ?

With another paragraph which repeats the package details:

  • "Unlimited Calls" (Written in large font size)("Subject to Fair Usage" - in the smaller font size  - hoping you won't see it);
  • "Unlimited Texts" (written in large font size) ("Subject to Fair Usage" - again, in smaller font size - hoping you won't see it);
  • "Unlimited Data Transfer" (again, written in larger font size ) ("Subject to Fair Usage" - yet again, hoping you won't see it because it is written in smaller font size).

So what exactly do the mobile phone network providers really mean by "Fair Usage" ?

This is the network Provider's "Get Out" clause, and if you fail to understand the implications of breaking their Fair Use Policy - doing so could begin to cost you dearly - even though you are on a fixed price monthly contract.

What is a Fair Use Policy ?

A Fair Usage Policy will usually give limits - limits that are set so that excessive use of the Network's facilities does not cause interruption to other users use of the network.

For example, a network can handle a finite number of calls and texts per moment in time - lets say 1 million texts.

The resources that it takes to transmit those 1 million texts needs to be shared across all of the subscribers to that network.

A user who is sending 1000 (one thousand) texts per month is using up more of the resources required to sustain 1 million texts per moment - than those who are sending 10 texts per month.

If 1000 (one thousand) subscribers are sending 1000 (one thousand) texts per month - that 1 million texts the network is capable of sustaining at one moment in time is now being exhausted.

If another user wants to send one of his, or her, 10 monthly texts attempts to do so - the "one text person" may find he, or she, is unable to do so because the network is being overloaded.

A bit like a motorway - you can only get so many cars, trucks, and buses onto a motorway at any one point in time - if more try to enter the motorway - well, we get motorway congestion and traffic slows down

The "traffic" (texts, calls) that a network can handle at any one moment in time is similar to the volume of car traffic that a road motorway can handle at any one moment in time.

So, in times of heavy traffic on the motorway - we might get charged a toll during certain times, or when the motorway is "clogging" up to put drivers using the motorway.

Network Providers charge similarly.

Unlimited, in practice, can quite often mean that we can send up-to a set number of texts - that is a Fair number - or fair use.

This might mean that if we send more than a fair number of texts, or make more than a fair calls, that a charge is made for the additional texts and/or calls - this might be a fixed rate per text or call.

The same applies to internet data transfer - go over the monthly transfer level and the network can charge for the extra data transfer above and beyond what the network considers a fair level.

If you go over the Fair Usage level - texts, calls, or data transfer, rarely or by a low margin the network may simply turn a blind eye.

For example, if the fair usage level for texts is 1000 texts per month, and you send 1005 texts in one month out the the last 6 months, the network may ignore the excess in terms of charging.

Excessive Use

If you go beyond the fair use level regularly, the network might feel that it is right that they let you know before they charge additional charges so that you have the chance to alter your habits - but this will be at the discretion of the network.

Any use above and beyond the Fair Use limits may, at the network's discretion (check your contract !), be subject to additional text, call, or data transfer charges.

These additional charges could be based on per text, per call, or per Gigabyte of data transfer.

Alternatively, there may be the option (again, check your contract) to purchase, in advance, additional call minutes, text allowances, or data transfer limits.

For example you might be able to purchase an additional 500 minutes call time, 1000 texts, or 2Gigabytes of data transfer on a one off basis.

Or, if you regularly go above and beyond any "Fair Use" limits for the package that you are on there might be the option to upgrade to the next package up which might cater better for your increased usage.

So, if you believe a deal is great because of claims of "unlimited" it is possible that this term can be a little ambiguous (ambiguous: lacking clarity) especially when there is also a "Fair Usage" clause.

If a deal is genuinely for Unlimited: texts, calls, data transfer - imagine if hundreds, thousands, or tens of thousands, of people signed up for this deal.

All these people sending as many texts as their fingers can possibly write, making as many calls as their fingers can dial and voices hold out for.


Can any network infrastructure sustain any prolonged use of their network by users on an unlimited tariff who utilise the unlimited package to the full extreme ?

What happens if the answer is: no: Network downtime ? Intermittent service ? Delays in call connection ? Delays in text delivery ?


Unlimited - might not be what it appears - check your contract for a "Fair Usage" clause for any possible times when you might get charged for texts, calls, and / or data transfer.

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