Capacity Crunch: How much 3G data can you buy? [Updated]

Right now I live wirelessly... for all my data. And that's a problem because I'm online for 12 hours a day normally. During the 'mobile WiFi challenge' (as I called it originally) and now the 'get by as best you can on any data connection slog' (as it's become) I've developed a finely-tuned nose for tariffs with high data allowances. When I started competition was tough - Orange offered a 20GB per month plan (on its longest contract). Checking again this month is the clearest demonstration yet of the data crunch in effect...

What is the most data I can buy from a UK mobile operator?

The rules are:

  • Use must comply with T&Cs.  Usage is for a laptop, but any connection type or device (MiFi / dongle / tethering) is fine.
  • WiFi doesn't count. This is 3G only.
  • It must be a single contract.
  • Special offers and introductory discounts are ignored.

Here are the operators, ranked by volume for the highest data allowance / lowest price I could find:

  1. Three: Unlimited data for £25pm (for 1 month). No overages. Must be used via a handset[1. Three allow tethering or sharing of the connection via WiFi from a smartphone.].
  2. Three: 15GB for £20.99pm (for 18 months) or £15.99pm (for 24 months). Overages cost 10.2p / MB.
  3. T-Mobile: Unlimited browsing and 1GB streaming / file transfer 'fair use' for £10pm (for 18 months). Overages not possible.
  4. Orange: 3GB for £30pm (for 1 month). Overages 5.1p / MB capped at £40pm.
  5. BT Mobile: 3GB for £15pm (pre-pay). No overages - unbundled price 10p / MB.
  6. Vodafone2GB  for £15pm (for 18 months). Overages cost 14.7p / MB.
  7. O2: 2GB for £15.32 (pre-pay). No overages - further bundles can be purchased at the same price.

I've included Three twice as the restriction of use via a connection through a mobile phone is unusual and may not suit all users.

These are the only operators to the best of my knowledge that offer dedicated data products or allow 'tethering' of phones to use their data allowances. If you know of any others I'd love to hear about them in the comments.

Who's best?

Ignoring coverage issues which may exclude certain operators in some locations, the choice for users needing higher data allowances is Three or T-Mobile. I routinely use more than 1GB per month of file transfer (if you apply the wider definition as explained below) and without the option to buy more from T-Mobile, this rules them out .

If you are a mobile data power user Three is the only network to offer a suitable tariff.

Never mind "who's best"... there is no competition for power users. Amazing.

Lesson Learnt

The other thing I learnt during this exercise is how terrible mobile operators are at selling their data services online. Witness these horrors:

  • Three's explanation of which handset tariffs allow tethering is not available on it's website and is hidden in a downloadable pricing guide. Even in that document it's not clear which variants of their One Plan (there are 3) allow tethering.
  • Vodafone's 'what do I need' calculator gave different (more generous) allowances than the page it linked to for purchasing.
  • T-Mobile's pop-up explanation of their 'fair use' policy says only streaming and file downloads are limited, but their sales advisor clarified this as including uploading files (like photos) to Facebook and emailing attachments.
  • Orange's website lists different tariffs to the pricing guide, which say the ones listed on the website are no longer available.
  • O2's FAQ references a bundle that isn't offered any more and describes some costs as 'waived until 31 October 2008'. Also there is no clear explanation that for pay-monthly customers there are no overage charges but speeds drop to 2G over the bundled allowance.

It's almost as if they're trying to scare customers away... How on earth will they sell 4G when it arrives?