Crunch time for unlimited data use

PUBLISHED : Monday, 13 February, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 13 February, 2012, 12:00am


Millions of smartphone users will know today if unlimited data plans will disappear in Hong Kong, as new rules come into play.

Four of the city's five telecoms service providers are set to make announcements. SmarTone has already said it will stop offering unlimited plans to new customers.

It is likely that CSL and PCCW will also end unlimited plans. CSL - which oversees One2Free and 1010 - said it was considering eliminating the option and might announce details today. PCCW has removed the option from its leaflets, and is promoting 100 megabyte, 800MB and 5 gigabyte plans instead.

3HK has not spelled out its position, while China Mobile never offered genuinely unlimited plans - the company limits or suspends data services for that billing month when a client uses more than 5GB of data.

All of the companies are making changes in order to meet the Office of the Telecommunications Authority's (Ofta) Fair Usage Policy Guidelines, which take effect today.

From today, service providers offering 'unlimited' plans must ensure they offer the service free of restrictions. If limits are necessary, the provider should consider offering plans with a high-usage cap.

The guidelines are a response to consumer complaints about restrictive 'unlimited' service plans. CSL was fined HK$130,000 in 2010 when it throttled transmission speeds of high-data-use groups as part of its 'fair use policy', a set of restrictions that consumers were not aware of.

Although Ofta stressed that its guidelines did not ban unlimited-data plans, it is unlikely they can be sustained without controls given that consumers now use a lot more data. As at October last year, there were 7.7 million mobile broadband users in a city with a population of 7 million. That figure was a 27 per cent increase on a year earlier, and in that time mobile data usage grew 120 per cent.

The growth coincided with the launch of smartphones. In 2009, monthly data use per customer was about 100MB. In 2010 when the iPhone 4 arrived, it more than doubled. A year later, with the iPhone 4S, usage jumped again to 460MB.

By providing unlimited data plans, telecoms companies had to spend more on infrastructure without profiting from the increase in data use, iProA chief executive Gary Chao Yuk-ming said.

Telecoms providers around the world have been retreating from unlimited deals. The two biggest players in the industry, United States-based AT&T and Verizon, stopped offering unlimited plans to new clients in 2010 and 2011 respectively.

Consumers should start learning to monitor their data use so they were not shocked by their phone bills, Chao said. Apart from streaming less video, users can cut back by turning off location trackers and notification systems for applications. They can also disallow automatic updates of RSS readers - applications that update subscribers of news headlines, blog entries and web content.

SmarTone, which has a 2GB monthly cap to its biggest data plan, could push some high-data-use clients to 4G networks, an industry veteran said. 4G occupies the same portion of spectrum as 3G but allows greater data transmission. With fewer people using the 4G spectrum at this early stage of its development, it could be feasible for companies to roll out unlimited 4G plans at higher prices, the source said. CSL rolled out a 4G HTC phone this month, while SmarTone announced it would start its 4G service later this year.


Monthly data usage per customer in 2010, more than double the previous year's. Last year, with the iPhone 4S, it jumped again to 460MB

What you can do

Choose the best data plan by monitoring your data use. iPhone users can open the 'settings' app, scroll down to 'general', then click on 'usage'. To start your calculations today, click 'reset statistics'.

Estimate future data usage by entering personal preferences into Ofta's data calculator on the telecoms watchdog's website at

Streaming 20 minutes of low-definition video every day uses up 1.8GB a month, while browsing 20 web pages uses 600MB and posting 10 social media posts with pictures 150MB.

To prevent bill shocks, download data monitor apps and set usage alarms. Examples are My Data Manager for iPhone and 3G Watchdog for Android.

Double-check monthly data usage on bills, or by contacting the telecom provider.

Use web page browser apps that compress data. The developer of Opera Mini boasts the app can compress web page content by up to 90 per cent. By browsing Facebook on Opera instead of the Facebook app, users can save about 40 per cent of bandwidth. The app also includes a mobile broadband meter showing how much data has been used for browsing.

Avoid streaming videos, especially high-definition ones, on 3G networks. Exercise caution if you are addicted to TVB's myTV or love browsing YouTube.

Download new apps when connected to a Wi-fi network.

Cut background data use. Turn off location-based services in the 'settings' app, and turn them back on only when necessary for example when using a map or finding bus stops in your vicinity. Turn off notifications of various apps by changing settings.

Turn off automatic updates of RSS readers, apps consolidating content of blog posts, news headlines and social media, such as Pulse. Select 'manual update' or 'update when Wi-fi is available'.