PhotoA settlement this week between AT&T and government regulators addressed “unlimited” data plans that slowed the network once a data cap had been exceeded. But a report released this week approaches unlimited data plans from an entirely different angle; it suggests many consumers who choose unlimited plans are paying for a lot more data than they use each month.

Today, unlimited data plans abound. This week, AT&T introduced three new ones. The market shows that consumers like the idea of not having to worry about how much data they’re using, so unlimited plans are very popular.

Just a few years ago, most consumers were on plans that capped data at a certain number of gigabytes. Once the cap was exceeded, the speed slowed considerably or the customer was charged an additional fee for extra data.

Leaving data — and money — on the table

But whether the plan is capped or unlimited, a study by ItsWorthMore.com shows consumers hardly ever use all the data in their plans, meaning they are leaving data — and money — on the table.

Only 12 percent of users on a capped plan said they typically exceed their limit each month, which means the overwhelming majority might get by with a cheaper plan. The study found that the average bill for a capped plan is $61.45 a month and that the average consumer uses only about 75 percent of their allotment. 

The study calculates the cost of the unused data at $16.56, or a total of nearly $200 a year. While consumers might not feel the loss, the study authors say wireless providers certainly reap the gain, pocketing $16.7 billion a year by reselling unused data.

Measuring unlimited data waste

It’s a little harder to measure waste when it comes to unlimited data plans but the study can measure usage and put a price on it. It seems unlimited data users might be getting the better deal.

When measured against average use, the price per gigabyte is lower — almost half that of a capped plan. Using an average of 12 gigabytes per month, unlimited plan customers spent about $7 per gigabyte each month. Capped plan users utilized just over 5 gigabytes a month at an average cost of almost $12 per gigabyte.

The authors suggest that heavy users will likely come out ahead with an unlimited plan. But consumers with more moderate data usage will likely overpay and would be better off with a capped plan that more closely fits their needs.

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