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October 6, 2006

So Much for Unlimited from Helio

Helio says 160 MB of usage per month is "excessive or abusive": The new 3G/Wi-Fi combo plan from Helio, called Hybrid, offers "unlimited" Wi-Fi and EVDO service. Except that their definition of unlimited 3G is the most restrictive I've seen. I asked the company days ago for their terms and services so I could compare what they considered reasonable use.

They first sent me back this statement:

"The Helio Hybrid is meant to be a roaming service and we expect our members to utilize the product in that way.  This is not meant as a source to run a web commerce site over the 3G network, that's not an efficient or optimal use of that network.  Also, as the Helio Hybrid mixes Wi-Fi and 3G access, we expect consumers to have a more optimal user experience as they are able to seamlessly move between Wi-Fi and 3G access to best performance route - this is a new case study for wireless access utilizing a new category of converged services."

I replied that this is a marketing position, not their terms and services, and a very nice PR person has been trying to get me the specifics since. I had looked on their site, but not in the right place. A colleague pointed out a paragraph in the online T&S that's titled "Chapter 10: Unlimited Does Not Mean Unreasonable." (All the titles in their T&S are friendly ones, at least, like "Chapter 12: The Other Legal Stuff.")

They start with Verizon Wireless language on approved uses of their "unlimited" 3G service: Internet browsing, e-mail, and intranet applications. They then proceed into more Sprint/Cingular language which defines specifically excluded applications as those that turn computers into servers or drive heavy traffic. They exclude computer-to-computer applications wholesale, which is tricky because servers are computers, too, and their definition is overly broad.

But read the last line for the kicker. As the Washington Post pointed out in a column a few days ago, Verizon Wireless says that using more than 5 GB of data transfer (1 hour a day at 400 Kbps downstream) is unreasonable usage. A spokesperson tried to tell the Post reporter that the approved uses (email, Web, intranet) didn't count, so 5 GB wasn't a limit for those purposes. However, the Post reporter noted that Verizon's sign-up conditions state that using more than 5 GB a month was de facto proof of the use of unauthorized applications.

Helio's goes much, much farther. "Generally, excessive or abuse usage is characterized by monthly data usage of 160 megabytes or more." 160 MB. That's about 1/30th, oddly, of Verizon's acceptable use. One might suspect a typo. (While this appears to refer to all data usage, Helio told me it's 3G only that's restricted, not Wi-Fi. Some readers have suggested these limits apply just to 3G phones; Helio confirmed they apply to the Hybrid 3G service as well.)

But I also reject the tortured logic of Helio and Verizon. If you're going to put 5 GB in place as a hard and fast limit, do so. Charge excess fees above it. Warn users and allow an account setting that disables usage if the user doesn't want to pay overages. Stop playing games. If you're going to accuse people of abuse, you can't do it by implication. You need proof. And if you're not going to establish proof, then set reasonable limits and enforce them with good policies that make approaching the limit transparent.

And, by the way, stop advertising these services as unlimited.

Update: Helio doesn't advertise Hybrid as unlimited. In fact, nowhere on the site does it mention how much service you're allowed with Hybrid, except in the terms and services--where it uses the phrase unlimited. That's almost reverse marketing, isn't it?


Ha, I like the category you tagged this article with: "cluelessness".

At the CTIA Wireless IT show at the LA Convention Center I was asking the sellers of the EV-DO Routers (e.g., Junxion and Kyocera KR1 ) if using the service in this manner violated the carrier's terms of service.

They looked at me like I was from another planet and answered that of course not, nobody had ever been cut off/dunned/billed for overages/etc. but to "contact the carrier for details". Of course, we now know -- unlimited is not unlimited.

[Editor's Note: I've talked to Junxion about this a bit. Cingular and Sprint Nextel are different animals than Verizon. I'm not hearing these stories about the former two, only the latter.-gf]

I'm amazed Verizon is able to keep this so quiet. Thanks for posting about this. In EVDOinfo forum a user posted a response to his inquiry as to what specifically constituted a termination and he got this response:

"Also, we do not terminate customers account for usage, whether it be a lot or a little. Also, we do not send out termination notices either. You are free to use as much, or as little, as you desire.

Please keep in mind, you pay $59.99 for Unlimited Broadband, so no matter how much you use your service, you will not have overage."

This is absolutely not true as I know for I am one of many who have been terminated. Course I definitely used more bandwidth than 160 MB....