This article was published on August 7, 2013

Vodafone says UK doesn’t need unlimited 4G data plans but it’s missing the point

Vodafone says UK doesn’t need unlimited 4G data plans but it’s missing the point
Ben Woods
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Ben Woods

Europe Editor

Ben is a technology journalist with a specialism in mobile devices and a geeky love of mobile spectrum issues. Ben used to be a professional Ben is a technology journalist with a specialism in mobile devices and a geeky love of mobile spectrum issues. Ben used to be a professional online poker player. You can contact him via Twitter or on Google+.

Vodafone has announced its plans to rollout a 4G service to customers on its network from the end of August, starting first in London before extending it to other towns and cities.

In order to distinguish it from competitor services and encourage wannabe customers to go with Vodafone, rather than say EE or O2’s network (which is also set to be switched-on from August 29 – the same day as Vodafone’s) it is bundling subscriptions to either Sky Sports Mobile (worth about £5 per month) or Spotify (about £9 per month). How much free inclusive service you get depends on which plan you take out, but at the least, it’s six months.

However, despite specifically bundling streaming services (music and video are well-known to eat through bandwidth quickly) and offering a three month free ‘data test drive’ on SIM-only plans (providing unlimited data for three months, then switching you back to a 2GB, 4GB or 8GB package, depending on your usage) there is no permanent unlimited option, Vodafone’s UK CEO, Guy Laurence, explained on a conference call:

” It’s all about entertainment, it’s all about value for money […] what we’ve done is price up the right amount of data for the entertainment we’re providing.

There’s not really a need for unlimited [data] in my view. Also, if you look at what happened in America with how unlimited provided a lot of problems for the networks in terms of keeping up with capacity and all the rest of it […] we don’t see a need to go unlimited here. The packages we’ve got and the amount of data we provide are very well structured in terms of what we believe people will use them for and therefore we think we’re giving the right amount of data for the packages we’re selling.”

While Laurence is correct in the assertion that the tariffs that provide the highest data allowance should be more than enough for most customers for now, it misses the point somewhat. It’s not really Vodafone’s decision what I want to do with my data connection. If a company is bundling services designed to make the most of the data speeds it offers, it should expect the usage to be higher than average when you add in anything else I want to do with it too. It should also expect this usage to increase dramatically over time and more and more people carry out more and more of their lives via their smartphone or tablets.

I wouldn’t want anyone to think Vodafone was being singled out for this, EE’s chief Olaf Swantee also said at launch that the UK didn’t need unlimited 4G contracts.  He too was wrong, of course. O2 has also confirmed it won’t offer 4G on unlimited data plans.

The theory behind it, from the networks’ perspective at least, is that it costs hundreds of millions of pounds to launch a 4G network and it’s tough to guarantee a great service for everyone if there’s no limits on what people use it for.

However, the point is, while usage right now might fall well within the tariff limits (and I’m saying might, as it categorically won’t for some people) this is set to skyrocket, and the last thing people want with 4G is to have to keep continually checking their data limits. I know I don’t, and I certainly don’t want to sign up for a 4G contract simply to do the things I can already do on my phone using 3G.


I’ve been sat in briefings with the Three network in the UK before talking about data usage of customers on its network (it offers unlimited 3G data packages) where the spokespeople have been talking about customers that use more than 100GB of data per month. Sure, it’s the exception, but it does happen, though it seemingly can’t on Vodafone’s network. What do they use it for? Anything they want, that’s the point.

It seems that Three is the only network that does plan on offering unlimited data (at least on its One plan) when it launches in Q4 of this year, and it plans on doing it at no premium over the existing monthly contract cost. Quite how it plans to do that and keep the data flowing as well for me as it does for the next person is unknown, but it seems confident that it will be able to.

I’m not making any judgement on any of the networks’ services but if I was a customer looking to get my first 4G contract, I’d likely be more inclined to go with the one that said “You can keep your existing SIM, the same tariff, and the same unlimited data usage, you’ll just get much faster speeds” rather than the three others that say “We’ve got 4G, if you want it, you’ll need to upgrade your existing contract, swap your SIM over and tell us how much data you want. If you want more, it’ll cost you.”

For the record, as someone who frequently finds himself working from…well, anywhere, I couldn’t wait for other networks to switch on their 4G services and will remain an EE customer with a 10GB data limit. Let’s just hope I don’t need a whole lot more than that, eh.

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