Lest there were any doubt, the events of this week have made clear that the word "unlimited" has lost its usual meaning -- at least when it comes to wireless plans.
First, Verizon said Monday morning that it would offer a new unlimited-data wireless plan. The announcement drew headlines, particularly because Verizon had long insisted that its customers don't need or want unlimited data.
The company's move marks the first time since 2011 that Verizon is offering an unlimited plan. But Verizon's definition of unlimited has changed considerably since then.
With the new plan, Verizon reserves the right to throttle users who consume more than 22 GB in a billing period. The company says it will only do so during periods of network congestion, but consumers have no way of knowing when that will occur. This bit of fine print obviously makes it difficult to rely on a smartphone for, say, online education, video chats or streaming movies.
Verizon's new unlimited plan also allows people to tether their phones to laptops, tablets or other devices. But again, there's a catch: Verizon is capping tethered data at 10 GB a month. Users who hit that limit -- which can happen very quickly on a laptop -- are then throttled to 3G speeds for the remainder of the billing cycle.
Late Monday afternoon, in response to Verizon's move, T-Mobile improved its version of the unlimited data plan by removing some limits on video.
When T-Mobile rolled out new unlimited data plans last August, the company said it would throttle streaming video to 1.5 Mbps -- enough to watch in standard definition, but not high-definition. People who wanted high-definition video had to pay an extra $25 a month.
But yesterday, T-Mobile said it will now add HD video to its "unlimited" data plan. T-Mobile also agreed to give users 10 GB of tethered high-speed data each month. People who consume more will be throttled to 3G speeds.
T-Mobile, like Verizon, reserves the right to throttle some users when the network is congested. In T-Mobile's case, the company says it may slow down people who consume more than 28 GB of data in a month.