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Data Sheet—How Unlimited Mobile Data Plans Got to Be Such a Mess

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Back in the old days in New York City there was this rapper from Brooklyn who went by the name Professor Louie. He was a political dude with a sharp sense of humor, and he used to start his performances by saying he had a Ph.D in IRT, IND, and BMT—a joking reference to the city’s three original subway companies. After this week in telecom world, you may need some kind of street savvy graduate degree to pick a mobile phone plan.

Everything was cool two years ago when Sprint and T-Mobile flipped the status quo on its head and introduced affordable unlimited data plans. Verizon and AT&T eventually followed suit, leading to one of my favorite, Godfather-inspired headlines: Why Your Next Wireless Plan Will Be an Unlimited Plan. But for the past few months, things have been getting increasingly complicated and, for some, more expensive.

AT&T started off in June creating two plans called Unlimited & More and Unlimited & More Premium, which started at $70 and $80 per month for one line respectively. Its old Unlimited Choice plan had started at $65 while the prior premium Unlimited Plus plan started at $80. Then Verizon announced it was adding a third unlimited plan called Above Unlimited at $95, more than its existing Go Unlimited plan at $75 and Beyond Unlimited plan at $85.

Still with me? A month later, Sprint complicated its lineup with a grab bag of plans. Suffice to say that to get good video and plentiful mobile hotspot usage, customers had to pay $70 a month, a $10 hike from the prior plan. Then this week, T-Mobile revamped its line up with a cheaper Essentials plan, which starts at $60, but also raised the price of its existing One Plus plan to $85. The carrier’s most basic One plan stayed at $70.

The issue, of course, is that the industry overall has seen its revenue falling since the introduction of unlimited plans and the demise of the hated but lucrative overage fees. If you’re looking for a common thread, newly introduced cheaper plans have fewer features, so more data hogs, fans of high-quality video, and frequent travelers will likely upgrade to the higher priced plans.

On the flip side, the carriers are still adding more media deals, a bonanza that started when T-Mobile added free Netflix to all its plans last fall (but, oh wait, not to its new Essentials plan). AT&T invented a whole cable TV-like bundle in an app called WatchTV to entice mobile customers. And just this week, Verizon added six months of free Apple Music to its three unlimited plans, double the free trial Apple usually offers. Now T-Mobile CEO John Legere is teasing the next chapter in his Uncarrier strategy which will be unveiled next week (and hats off to the Raiders of the Lost Ark final scene homage in Legere’s promo video). Hopefully, it will be something simpler and cheaper for customers, not more of the same mess we’ve seen lately.

Aaron Pressman


Grinding to a halt, indeed. After its big crackdown on Airbnb, New York City came after the other poster child of the so-called sharing economy. The city council imposed a one-year moratorium on licensing new vehicles for Uber and its rivals including Lyft and Via. “This action will stop the influx of cars contributing to the congestion grinding our streets to a halt,” Mayor Bill de Blasio said. On the other side, an Uber spokesman said the freeze “will threaten one of the few reliable transportation options while doing nothing to fix the subways or ease congestion.”

We didn’t start the fire. Debate and recriminations continued for a second day after Tesla CEO Elon Musk tweeted on Tuesday that he wanted to take the company private and had “funding secured.” Most analysts blasted the plan, some questioned its legality, and the Securities and Exchange Commission is reportedly probing whether Musk’s tweet was accurate. Tesla’s share, which had jumped 11% on Tuesday, declined 2% on Wednesday.

Shiny new things. About a month before Apple is expected to announce its 2018 iPhone lineup, Samsung comes to Brooklyn on Thursday for its own event starting at 11 a.m. ET. Expect to see the Galaxy Note 9, a new smartwatch, a fancy wireless charging pad, and maybe a smart speaker with the company’s own Bixby voice-controlled assistant built in, The Verge predicts.

Up, up, and away. On Wall Street, it was a good day to own a dating app or a streaming video box. Shares of Match Group, which owns Tinder and a host of other dating services, jumped 17% on Wednesday after the company reported its second quarter revenue gained 36% to $421 million. Roku shares were up 11% in premarket trading on Thursday after it reported sales rose 57% to $157 million, pushing it slightly into the black, fueled by increasing advertising revenue.

Marie Kondo would be proud. One of the apps that lets you sell used stuff, LetGo, raised $500 million of private capital from South African e-commerce company Naspers. The funding will help the startup expand into new areas like housing listings.

Revisited. Two blurbs from yesterday’s Data Sheet need an update. Chinese news and video service Beijing Bytedance Technology is still trying to raise a few billion dollars of private backing before going public next year, the Wall Street Journal says. And Saudi Arabian Prince Alwaleed Bin Talal didn’t get any kind of special discount buying shares of Snap. He acquired them over the proceeding months on the open market when the price was a lot lower.


Its been almost 40 years since the invention of the lithium-ion battery, which powers everything from laptops and phones to electric cars, and there’s still nothing better. At least not yet. Wall Street Journal reporter Sarah McFarlane has an in depth report on how 96-year-old John Goodenough, one of the lithium-ion inventors, is trying to top his creation with something far more efficient. The University of Texas engineering professor already has an idea for an improved battery design without cobalt, but in some ways, he’s an unlikely star in his field, McFarlane writes:

Dr. Goodenough’s own research happened far from a fancy corporate headquarters, in a paper-strewn office at the University of Texas in Austin, where he is a professor of engineering. The physicist hand-writes his research and doesn’t own a cellphone, shunning the modern, mobile technology that his batteries made possible. He drives a 10-year-old Honda, which he hopes will last as long as he does.

Dr. Goodenough says his motivation to develop new battery technology comes from a desire to help electric cars wean society off its dependence on combustion engines, like his Honda’s. Currently, the batteries that power a Nissan Leaf—the world’s first mass-market electric passenger car—need to be recharged every 151 miles, against the 300 to 400 miles before a gasoline-powered car has to fill up.

“He is driven by scientific curiosity, and he really wants to do something for society with the science he does,” says Arumugam Manthiram, a professor of engineering at the University of Texas at Austin who has worked with Dr. Goodenough for 33 years.


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I’m sure you know LeBron James is really good at basketball, and you may know he’s jumped from the Cleveland Cavaliers to the Los Angeles Lakers for next season. But did you also know he’s a bicycling fanatic who once owned part of bike maker Cannondale? I did not until I read this fascinating interview.

This edition of Data Sheet was curated by Aaron Pressman. Find past issues, and sign up for other Fortune newsletters.