Unlimited mobile data: Is it possible?

mobile phone use©iStock.com/LDProd

FIRST we had unlimited texts, then we got unlimited minutes, and home broadband's been largely unlimited for some time. It was only a matter of time before our appetite for data on the move began to grow.

But is totally unlimited mobile use really possible? In short - yes.

There aren't many providers offering unlimited data, and even fewer offering neverending minutes as well - but we've tracked them down.

Here then, is our guide to totally unlimited, almost unlimited data, and not that limited really mobile data.

Totally unlimited

As far as completely unlimited phone use goes, there are only two names in the ring: Three and GiffGaff.

SIM only

GiffGaff's Goodybags are all offered on a SIM-only, rolling 30 day contract, basis.

Three, meanwhile, offer two versions of their SIM-only unlimited package, depending on whether the user wants to sign up for a 12 month contract, or a 30 day rolling contract.

Package Data Minutes Texts Monthly Price
giffgaff £20 Goodybag Unlimited* Unlimited Unlimited £20 Visit GiffGaff
three SIM All-you-can-eat data, All-you-can-eat minutes - 12 months Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited £30 Visit Three
three SIM All-you-can-eat data, All-you-can-eat minutes - 1 month Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited £33 Visit Three

*Only first 6GB at 4G speeds.

Just a year ago there was a third option included in here, in the form of TalkTalk's All-in SIM, which was launched with some fanfare at a market beating £12 a month.

That more than made up for the fact that being a Mobile Virtual Network piggybacking on Vodafone's network, TalkTalk could only offer 3G at best, and only to TalkTalk's residential customers: people already taking phone, broadband and/or TV.

The gloss was tarnished when, just four months later, the price doubled - and not long afterwards all mention of the deal vanished from their site.

While GiffGaff are also an MVNO, using O2 to provide their service, they began to offer 4G as standard to all new customers following a shake up of their packages last autumn.

That said, only the first 6GB of that unlimited data will be provided at 4G speeds. Once users have eaten through that, they'll find their browsing is limited to a speed of 256Kb between 8am and midnight.

Three are no longer quite so unusual in providing 4G coverage for no greater cost than 3G - and they have no such speed limitation. Customers can browse using 3G or 4G, as the network and their phone permit.

Want a phone too?

Anyone who wants a new phone along with their horizon-expanding SIM has only one option - Three.

Package Data Minutes Texts Monthly Price
three All-you-can-eat data, All-you-can-eat minutes - 24 month contract Unlimited Unlimited Unlimited From £36 Visit Three

The exact monthly price will vary depending on which handset we choose - at the time of this update, the price above was for All-you-can-eat data, minutes and texts on a Huawei Y3 smartphone with a four inch 800x480 screen and 4GB of memory.

After a couple of years in which Three clamped down on tethering - using our mobile phone data connection to create a wi-fi hotspot - they've become much more generous again.

Customers with a limited data deal can use the whole of their allowance as a personal hotspot; anyone signing up for the All-you-can-eat data plan from the start of April 2016 will be able to use up to 30GB for personal wi-fi.

Not completely unlimited

Unlimited data

So going completely unlimited has, well, limits.

When we first wrote this guide, there were far more possibilities for those willing to limit another part of their allowance, usually the number of minutes.

However, there's now just one provider offering unlimited data with limited other allowances - and that's Three.

What's more, even their range has shrunk; they used to offer a couple of unlimited-data-limited-minutes plans with their handsets, but these days they're all SIM-only:

Package Data Minutes Texts Monthly Price
three SIM All-you-can-eat data, 200 minutes - 12 months Unlimited 200 minutes Unlimited £20 Visit Three
three SIM All-you-can-eat data, 200 minutes - 1 month Unlimited 200 minutes Unlimited £23 Visit Three
three SIM All-you-can-eat data, 600 minutes - 12 months Unlimited 600 minutes Unlimited £25 Visit Three
three SIM All-you-can-eat data, 600 minutes - 1 month Unlimited 600 minutes Unlimited £28 Visit Three

That's the lot as far as unlimited data is concerned.

Do we need unlimited data?

But that's assuming anyone actually needs unlimited data.

Put it this way: in 2015, the average UK household used 83GB of data a month over fixed broadband connections, according to Ofcom. By comparison, they found average monthly mobile data use was still just 0.5GB.

Of course, averages hide the very high users, balancing them out with those who may have a 3G or 4G capable phone but never switch on the data connection.

And while Three say their customers use an average of 5GB of data per month, it should be clear to see that they're the only realistic option for anyone who wants a data-heavy mobile contract, which could well skew their results upwards.

So how much data do we really need?

Here's a quick rundown of what should be possible with 500 MB - the average data used in 2014 and 2015 - and with 2GB, which is a fairly standard allowance:

Activity With 500MB With 2GB
Watching BBC iPlayer in SD 60 minutes 240 minutes
Watching iPlayer or Netflix in HD 30 minutes 120 minutes
Browsing webpages 20 hours / 500 basic web pages 80 hours / 2,000 basic web pages
Social media 1,000 updates / 250 photos 4,000 updates / 1,000 photos
Sending basic emails 5,000 messages 20,000 messages
Downloading music 100 songs 400 songs
Online gaming 20 minutes 80 minutes

There are plenty of mobile packages available with a range of data limits, covering everything from people who only occasionally need to check Google Maps, to those addicted to streaming video.

Here's what the main providers - and the UK's two biggest MVNOs - offer:

Costs and the amount of data available vary depending on whether it's a SIM-only deal or a new phone is also part of the deal, and with the exception of Virgin Mobile (who only offer 3G data), each of the providers above offer 4G access for the same price as 3G data.

For example, the most data an EE SIM-only customer will get in one month is 16GB - and it'll cost them around £35. But those taking a handset as well can opt for a 20GB data allowance, from £39.99 a month.

To go into the details of all the different configurations available would take forever, and it's really not necessary.

Instead, there's more on the flexibility of going SIM-only here, or pop over to our mobile comparison table and adjust the data slider up or down to see what's on offer.

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