Thursday, January 26, 2012

Virgin Mobile to Throttle Unlimited Service

All good things must come to an end.

When I bought my Virgin Mobile LG Optimus V at Radio Shack last February, I was excited to be getting a genuine android phone as part of a package that promised to give me 300 voice minutes plus unlimited text and web for a mere $25 a month.

Then, of course, Virgin Mobile decided this package was a bit too generous and changed its price to $35 a month.  (Luckily, fingers crossed, I'm still grandfathered in at the $25 rate.)

But yesterday I received a text message from VMFreeMsg:
Your Beyond Talk Plan is about to change. Starting 3/23/12, data speeds may be reduced once you hit 2.5GB. For more info, click
And today came the email. The heart of it read:
To make sure we can keep offering our Beyond Talk Plans at such great prices, we're putting a data speed reduction in place for anyone who uses over 2.5GB of data in a month.

How will it work?
Starting March 23, 2012, if you use over 2.5GB of data in a month on your Beyond Talk Plan:

  • Data speeds may be reduced to 256Kbps or below for the rest of your month. During this time, you may experience slower page loads and file downloads and lags in streaming media.
  • If data speeds are reduced, they will return to normal as soon as your next plan month starts.
  • If you'd rather not wait for your new month to start, you can restart your plan immediately through My Account.
Then Virgin Mobile offered me assurances that based on my activity for December it didn't appear the 2.5GB cap would affect me.  And it was quick to reassure me just how much 2.5GB really was:
If you continue to use the same amount of data as you did in your last plan month, you should not see your data speeds reduced. Just to give you an idea, in order to hit 2.5GB, it's about 400,000 Mobile Internet page views, about 90,000(!) emails (without attachments), 91 hours of streaming music
or 20 hours of video clips*.
Uh oh.  An asterisk.  I looked at the bottom of the email for an explanation:
*Data usage per activity is based on an average. Bandwidth varies by website, video, email and other Internet application.
(Yes, I thought.  I believe I'm familiar with the variability of bandwidth, thank you.)

I wondered whether Virgin Mobile had changed the promotional copy on their website to reflect this shiny new limitation, so I went over to their USA store for a look:

Nope.  Nothing there.  How about inside?  After clicking on the Plan Details tab I scanned the page and spotted this:

OK, there was a red flag: "Unlimited does not mean unreasonable use."  (Something told me this disclaimer predates the upcoming 2.5GB cap, but I could be wrong.)

Anything else?  I visited the promotional page for my phone, the LG Optimus V, and looked around.  Nothing jumped out at me, so I clicked on Plan Details for the phone and was sent back to the page where I started, which featured the Plan Details tab and several others.  I clicked on the FAQs tab and saw this:

Now we were getting somewhere.  Those last three questions hit the mark.

Virgin Mobile answered the first question, When and how will data speed reduction affect my Beyond Talk Plan?, this way:
Starting March 23rd, 2012, if you use over 2.5GB of data in a month, your data speeds may be reduced to 256 kbps or below for the rest of that monthly plan cycle. During this time, you may experience slower page loads and file downloads, and lags in streaming media. Data speeds will return to normal as soon as your next plan month starts. If you'd rather not wait for your new month to start, you can restart your plan immediately through My Account.
It answered the next question, How will I know if I hit 2.5GB?, this way:
When you reach that threshold, and your data speeds are reduced for the rest of your plan month, you will receive a text message notifying you of this change. If you are susceptible to data speed reduction, you can check how much data you've used at any time during the month by logging into My Account, and checking Data & Web history.
And that third question, How much data is 2.5GB?, it answered the same way it had that same question in the email Virgin Mobile sent me this morning.  (About those 400,000 Mobile Internet page views, 90,000 emails without attachments, 91 hours of streaming music or 20 hours of video clips.  Mercifully or ironically -- take your pick -- my LG Optimus V's mediocre battery life serves as a built-in brake on this kind of heavy data consumption.)

So to sum up, these details weren't exactly unavailable at the Virgin Mobile website ... but VM wasn't exactly broadcasting them, either.

I admit I'm not really breaking news.  Android Central reported this planned change back on January 18.  And according to them, Virgin Mobile wanted to start throttling data last year but delayed their decision.

Lastly, I suppose the most important question for Virgin Mobile's android phone users is how to measure data usage to avoid getting that fateful text message from VM telling you you've hit the 2.5GB wall.  Logging into your VM account every week to check would be tedious; I don't consider it realistic advice.

Offhand my only suggestion is to try an android app from Android Market called Call Meter NG.  It's pretty useful and lets you measure your usage for Calls, SMS, and Data (2G/3G/4G).  Here's a screen shot showing my usage so far this month:

The app is flexible enough that it lets you set the beginning of your plan month, so it needn't start on the 1st.  (You'll note that mine starts on the 6th of every month.)

But I'm not entirely sure how to interpret the Data (2G/3G/4G) usage.  It looks as if I've used just over 1GB so far (867.05MB In + 170.48MB Out), but frankly I don't know if that includes or excludes SMS data. UPDATE: the numbers to the right of the | separator show lifetime usage; the numbers to the left of the | separator show usage since the beginning of the billing period -- in this case 1/6/2012.  If you know, please comment and enlighten me and the LG Optimus V community.  Thank you.

UPDATE: Just discovered another interesting app that keeps track of your data usage and will actually notify you when you're about to reach a preset cap.  It's called Onavo.  I just installed it and it looks pretty nice -- its setup lets you enter your monthly cap (VM users, please note that the cap field defaults to GB but can be changed to MB, which you'll need to do to enter 2.5GB as 2500MB) and will notify you when you've reached a % of the total you can select yourself.  (The default is 75%.)  It also watches your apps as you use your phone and can tell you which ones are the biggest data hogs.  So far so good.

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