What is Data Deprioritization?

Let’s face it: cell phone carrier terminology can be confusing. 

Words like “throttling”, “deprioritization”, and “unlimited” are often thrown around, and without much clarification as to what they actually imply (hint: unlimited never really means unlimited). 

This article will help clear up any confusion surrounding all of the aforementioned terms, so you can better understand the details of your phone plan.

What is Data Deprioritization?

Simply put, data deprioritization is the temporary slowing of your phone’s data speeds, but only during times when the network is “congested” or experiencing high traffic—carriers do this in order to free up network space for other customers. Typically, you don’t have to worry about your data speeds possibly being deprioritized until you’ve reached your data deprioritization threshold that month. And even then, it’s only a possibility—there is no guarantee that you’ll experience slower speeds. It all depends on how crowded the network is at any given time.

What Causes Data Deprioritization?

More often than not, data deprioritization comes about as a result of your cell phone plan’s data-use “threshold,” meaning you may experience slower data speeds once you exceed this monthly threshold. 

AT&T’s Unlimited Elite Plan, for instance, includes 100GB of unrestricted, high-speed data before you may potentially experience decreased speeds as a result of deprioritization. 100GB is pretty darn high, and chances are unless you’re constantly streaming video or gaming on your phone, you’re probably not even going to reach that threshold.

Moreover, since MVNOs (mobile virtual network operators) run on one or more of the major networks—T-Mobile, Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint—these small carriers may deprioritize your data speeds in favor of customers who have a plan on the main network.

Data deprioritization can be frustrating, particularly if you are under the impression that your high-speed data is, in fact, unlimited. But it’s important to reiterate that these changes are only temporary, and your data speeds typically return to normal once network traffic clears up.

How is Throttling Different from Data Deprioritization?

Unlike data deprioritization, which may or may not occur, throttling is guaranteed to occur when you have reached your plan’s specific data cap. With throttling, carriers dramatically slow your data to basically unusable speeds—you may be able to get away with some basic tasks like browsing the web but even then, the pages may take a long time to load. Carriers do this instead of charging overage fees. While throttling is typically associated with limited data plans, some MVNOs will throttle your speeds on an unlimited plan after you’ve used a certain amount of data that month—in both cases, you won’t be able to access your high-speed data until the next billing cycle. Throttling is different from data deprioritization in that your speeds will be slowed for the rest of the month, whereas with data deprioritization your data speeds will return to normal once the network is no longer congested.

What Causes Data Throttling?

Throttling takes effect once you’ve met or exceeded your monthly data allowance—for example, if you’re on a 10GB plan, you’ll have 10GB of high-speed data, then your speeds will be slowed until the next billing cycle. As previously mentioned, network conditions have no bearing on whether data is throttled or not.

What Else Should I Know About Throttling and Data Deprioritization?

Carriers aren’t necessarily known for transparency when it comes to plan features, particularly data allowances. Because of this, it’s important to know what to look for when choosing a plan and an appropriate carrier.

Not all Unlimited Plans are Created Equal

Many of us rely on our phones now more than we ever have before, making the concept of the “unlimited” plan standard practice for most carriers—because carriers tend to put most of their marketing efforts behind their unlimited plans, those plans are what customers tend to sign up for. The term “unlimited,” however, is a bit of a misnomer, as plans often have restrictions that aren’t readily apparent—the devil is in the details, or rather, in the fine print.

Be Sure to Read the Fine Print

Many of the intricacies of your plan—threshold amounts, hotspot allowance, and overage fees—will almost always be hidden somewhere within the fine print. And depending on which carrier you’re with, plan details may be difficult to locate if you don’t know exactly what to look for.

Below are some of the most commonly used phrases and locations for deprioritization and data thresholds, by carrier:

CarrierCommonly Used PhrasingWhere You'll Likely Find It
Verizon"Plan Details"; "Unlimited 4G LTE" (on details page)Verizon will typically keep information relating to threshold amounts near the very bottom of a given plan’s features list.
AT&T"Data Restrictions"AT&T usually places data threshold specifics towards the bottom of their plan comparison pages.
T-Mobile"See (insert plan name) details"T-Mobile displays general deprioritization information in relative plain sight (still in fine print, though) underneath their plan listings. 
Sprint"Usage Limitations"; "Quality of Service (QoS)"Sprint's website requires two steps in order to find their deprioritization details:

1.Select the “Us vs. Them” tab towards the top of the plan comparison page

2.Scroll to the bottom of the page until you reach the fine print

Alternatively, their Quality of Service page has this information as well.

It’s worth noting that most carriers no longer charge overage fees and have opted to implement data deprioritization thresholds or soft data caps instead. That said, there are still some carriers that charge overage fees depending on the specific plan you choose.

Deprioritization vs. Throttling: Which One is Right for You?

When it comes down to it, the right answer will depend on your phone habits and individual needs. If you often find yourself using data-heavy apps (social media, video streaming, etc.), your best bet is to look for an unlimited plan with a high threshold for deprioritization (such as AT&T’s Unlimited Elite 100GB threshold).

Alternatively, if you tend to use data sparingly and aren’t all that concerned with the prospect of exceeding your threshold, a limited plan will likely save you some money and suit your needs perfectly fine. Keep in mind, if you’re thinking about going with some of the more cost-effective MVNOs, most of their data plans are subject to deprioritization during network congestion, regardless of whether or not you’ve exceeded your monthly allowance.

Which Plans Have the Highest Data Deprioritization Thresholds?

For customers who want it all—from streaming the newest TV shows and movies in HD to online gaming to posting live streams on YouTube and Instagram—fortunately there are several different plans with extremely high data deprioritization thresholds of 50GB or higher. These high data plans include:

  • Verizon Do More Unlimited: 50GB
  • AT&T Unlimited Extra: 50GB
  • Verizon Get More Unlimited: 75GB
  • AT&T Unlimited Elite: 100GB