Want Verizon or AT&T 5G? You’ll have to buy an expensive unlimited plan

Enlarge / A Verizon booth at Mobile World Congress Americas in Los Angeles in September 2018.

Verizon is adding some perks to its wireless plans this week, but some things aren’t changing: Verizon still restricts 5G service to its most expensive unlimited-data plans. If you want to save money by getting a limited-data plan, you’ll have to make do with 4G only—which, admittedly, is not a big problem for most people given how sparse Verizon’s 5G network is.

AT&T still enforces a similar restriction, including 5G only in its unlimited-data plans while selling limited-data plans without 5G. T-Mobile is taking a different approach, saying on its website that “5G access is included in all our plans, at no additional cost.”

Verizon’s announcement on Monday added features to the company’s existing unlimited plans without changing the prices. One perk played up in the announcement is the Disney Bundle that includes Disney+, Hulu, and ESPN+. That’s a little better than Verizon’s current unlimited plan that includes one year of Disney+ but no Hulu and ESPN+. Verizon said the new versions of the plans will be available on Thursday this week.

Which plans include 5G?

For single-line plans, Verizon will continue to charge $70 a month for “Start Unlimited,” $80 for either “Play More Unlimited” or “Do More Unlimited,” and $90 for “Get More Unlimited.” Those prices don’t include taxes and fees and require enrolling in autopay. The per-line prices drop to $35, $45, and $55 if you buy a plan with four lines. Here’s a graphic from Verizon’s announcement showing the updated list of features, with four-line prices:

The cheapest of those plans, Start Unlimited, doesn’t include 5G access. Verizon will let you add 5G to Start Unlimited for an extra $10 a month, but there doesn’t seem to be any good reason to do that. You can instead upgrade to Play More Unlimited for the same $10 difference and also get the Disney bundle, 720p video streaming instead of 480p, mobile-hotspot use, and a more forgiving throttling policy. (While Start Unlimited users can get slower speeds than other customers in congested areas regardless of how much data they’ve used that month, customers on the pricier plans get 50GB of high-speed data before facing potential slowdowns.)

The announcement said that “[a]ll plans support Verizon’s 5G Nationwide network coming this year.” But a Verizon spokesperson confirmed to Ars that this statement applies only to the unlimited plans, meaning that limited plans still won’t have 5G access after the 5G network rolls out more widely later this year.

Verizon offers limited-data smartphone plans that cost $55 a month for 5GB of data and $65 a month for 10GB while prepaid smartphone plans start at $35 a month. Those plans don’t have 5G access.

AT&T includes 5G in its unlimited plans, which have base prices ranging from $65 to $85 a month for one line. AT&T’s 5G-less limited plans start at $50 a month for 3GB of 4G LTE data. We asked AT&T if it has any intention of bringing 5G to non-unlimited plans, but a company spokesperson did not answer the question.

The exclusion of 5G from cheaper plans appears to be solely a business decision, similar to how Verizon and AT&T have loaded unlimited plans with other exclusive perks to steer customers toward the pricier offerings. But while carriers have relentlessly hyped the new generation of cellular technology, it’s not yet a huge draw because of the limited availability of 5G’s millimeter-wave version and the fact that lower-band 5G speeds aren’t a gigantic upgrade over 4G LTE.

Verizon’s $10 5G charge mostly gone

On the plus side, Verizon has apparently given up on plans to charge all unlimited-data users an additional $10 fee each month for 5G. Verizon does charge extra for 5G in the sense that the feature is restricted to its priciest plans. But if Verizon hadn’t mostly dropped the $10 add-on fee, its $80 plans would cost $90 with 5G access, and the $90 plan would cost $100 with 5G access.

Verizon announced the $10 add-on fee in March 2019 but suspended the charge after its initial 5G rollout disappointed reviewers with an extremely limited coverage area. In August 2019, Verizon updated its offerings, reinstating the $10 charge on the cheapest unlimited plan and saying that 5G would be included for no extra charge on the more expensive plans for only a “limited time.” That limited time has continued indefinitely.

Verizon claimed in March 2020 that 5G is worthy of “a different price point.” But the company’s decision to continue including 5G in most of its unlimited plans isn’t a surprise because “[n]o other provider in the US—including Verizon’s own MVNO [reseller] partners—is charging extra for 5G,” Light Reading wrote Monday.

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