How VoIP services define "unlimited"

Monday, May 25, 2009

I don't understand the legality of it, but they all do it. They all advertise their product as providing "unlimited" free calling - and then put limits on it.

We are used to minute bundles on our cell phones. We buy plans that include 500, or 1000, or whatever "free" minutes per month. However, in the VoIP space, they provide the same type of plan but they call them "unlimited" - I don't get it.

Here are a few examples:

  • Vonage
    The terms and conditions summary defines "unlimited" as "normal use." Looking further, "normal use" is defined as less than 5,000 minutes per line per month.

  • Comcast
    Comcast is less clear, but their terms of service say that they "reserve the right to limit or block any usage as deemed necessary to prevent harm to its network, fraud or abuse."

  • Skype
    Skype places a limit of 10,000 minutes per month on its "unlimited" plan, with a maximum of 6 hours per day.

  • ooma
    According to an Ooma FAQ: "Like all other 'unlimited services,' such as cell phone data plans and other VoIP services, we do have a limit of 3,000 minutes per month (for outbound calling) that we can enforce on a case-by-case basis in the event that a subscriber is clearly abusing the service."

  • MagicJack
    MagicJack is the least clear on the matter. They say they do not have limits, but customers report being disconnected at around the 30 minute mark (some report 60 minutes). Other users have been disconnected after they exceeded a certain unspecified limit of free calls in one month. Recently, their terms of service were modified to define "unlimited" as not more than 20 times average usage. What's average usage? About 100 minutes a month. Apparently, MagicJack is having some difficulties trying to get a handle on what limits they want to enforce on their "unlimited" service.

People often say "It's not lying, it's marketing." Well, maybe - but it is lying, too. The definition of "unlimited" is:

1 : lacking any controls: unrestricted

2 : boundless, infinite

3 : not bounded by exceptions

Further, claiming a service is "unlimited" is a statement of fact, not of opinion, so can't be excused in the same manner as phrases like "bolder than bold."

The other defense you often hear goes like this "I will never hit these limits." I think that completely misses the point. How one uses an "unlimited" plan is completely different than a capped plan, especially a plan that has potential overage charges, as all of the above do. If you know you might get charged if you use more than X minutes per month, you're going to use the phone differently and you're going to want to know whether you're running anywhere near those limits. With the services above, what's even worse is that, in most cases, you can't even check your usage to see if you're near the limit. If you go over the "secret" limit, the company can charge for "overages", without notice and without your prior consent.

It's terribly unfortunate that marketers are allowed to use outright lies like this in their primary marketing message as long as they disclose the actual terms somewhere (buried deep in the fine print). I don't understand how they're allowed to get away with it.

These plans should be called what they are, such as "3,000 minutes per month" - NOT "unlimited" plans.