T-Mobile, AT&T join Verizon on unlimited plans

Verizon Wireless set off a stampede to unlimited voice plans among U.S. mobile operators on Tuesday.

After the carrier said it would let subscribers talk for as long as they want within the U.S. for $99.99 per month, rivals AT&T and T-Mobile USA followed suit. Sprint Nextel, which offers 2,000 anytime minutes per month for $99.99, did not.

Verizon’s unlimited individual plan, as well as a shared family plan starting at $199.98, is available now.

T-Mobile’s plan, becoming available Thursday, will allow unlimited voice as well as messaging. That carrier, which targets youth as a key demographic, has been offering several plans for big talkers, including an Individual Ultra plan with 2,500 minutes for $99.99 and Individual Supra with 5,000 minutes for $129.99. AT&T likewise had offered such plans, including a 6,000-minute service for $199.99.

The major U.S. carriers haven’t traditionally offered unlimited minutes. The rush to match Verizon’s plan indicated the level of competition in the mobile market, where carriers are now pushing e-mail, Web access and other data services as the price of voice minutes has fallen.

But the new plans will probably appeal to only a small segment of the market, analysts said. Realtors and small-business owners who spend a lot of time on the road might find it useful, they said. Most carriers already offer free calls on nights and weekends and plans that include free calling to frequent contacts or people on the same network. Mobile data services such as Verizon’s BroadbandAccess 3G (third-generation) will cost extra. And the $99.99 unlimited products are separate from family plans with shared minutes, which cost more.

Also Tuesday, Verizon revamped its data offerings to reach different types of customers. A $39.99 plan will allow for 50MB of data traffic per month, and a $59.99 offering will cover 5GB. The new data plans will become available March 2.

Sprint offers unlimited data on its EV-DO (Evolution-Data Optimized) network, which is similar to Verizon’s, for $59.99 per month. There are some uses that aren’t allowed, including continuous heavy data traffic and Web hosting. AT&T places a 5GB limit only on plans for mobile data cards to be used in notebook PCs, not on phone plans. Verizon and some other carriers have been criticized in the past for advertising unlimited data while actually cutting off users who went over a certain limit.

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