With Verizon pushing more into data caps, Sprint touts unlimited option

Heavy data users may have a new favorite carrier

If you're a Verizon customer upset that your next smartphone contract won't include unlimited data, Sprint would like to remind you that you have an alternative.

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Verizon CFO Fran Shammo this week announced that it would not be grandfathering customers with unlimited data contracts into its new LTE services and would instead be pushing users to utilize shared data plans that would give them capped access to Verizon's LTE network on multiple devices.

Shortly after Shammo described Verizon's plans, Sprint posted a short notice on its community page touting the fact that it's currently the only major U.S. wireless carrier to offer unlimited data for smartphones. It also pointed out the monthly uncertainty that tiered data plans can create since users can be slapped with overage fees if they go over their monthly allowance.

"Why would you want to risk a surprise on your monthly bill from data overage charges like you might get with tiered data plans from AT&T or Verizon?" the company asked. "And do you really want to risk limiting your data usage to avoid throttling, like you might with AT&T, Verizon or T-Mobile?"

Sprint has long struggled to play catch-up with AT&T and Verizon after a going through a brutal period between 2007 and 2010 when it lost more than 5 million wireless subscribers. The carrier has also taken heavy losses for its initial subsidies of Apple's iPhone, which the carrier projects won't net the company a profit until 2015. But with so much attention being paid to Verizon and AT&T's data caps in recent weeks, could Sprint's unlimited data options finally give the carrier a much-needed boost?

Gartner analyst Hughes De La Vergne, for one, is skeptical that Sprint's strategy will provide much more than a limited jolt since most wireless subscribers don't use enough data to exceed the caps set out by the rival carriers. He does think that we could see a small exodus of heavy data consumers to Sprint, although he warns that these heavy users could wind up being more trouble for the carrier than they're worth.

"In the longer term they need to be careful about watching their capacity issues," he says. "But this gives them a short-term strategy where they can offer unlimited data plans to cover up for other weaknesses."

One such weakness is the fact that Sprint still doesn't have its LTE network up and running, despite the fact that it has started to sell LTE phones. This means that many users who buy a new Evo 4G LTE, for instance, will be at least initially stuck on Sprint's 3G EV-DO Rev. A network, which could potentially disappoint heavy data users used to faster speeds on rivals' HSPA+ and LTE networks. Users could still buy a WiMAX-based handset to get a faster data connection from Sprint, but it's unknown how desirable those handsets will be since Sprint has announced that it will be shifting its focus away from WiMAX to concentrate on deploying LTE.

Even so, having unlimited data plans is something that Sprint can hang its hat on. And if Verizon and AT&T customers find themselves unhappy with the shared plans their carriers are trying out this year, you can expect Sprint to talk about it a whole lot more.

Brad Reed covers both Google and the wireless industry for Network World. Be sure to check out his blog, Google Reed-er, and follow him on Twitter at @bwreednww.

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