Some recent Sprint commercials touting Sprint’s “truly unlimited” data warn consumers about how quickly they might burn through their data on their smartphone using a spinning data-odometer.  KB turns into MB, MB turns into GB, and before you know it, you’re downloading over 2.5 petabytes of information!

(I couldn’t get a screen grab right at the end, but the ticker goes over 30,000,000 GB.)  That would be a lot of data!  Back in 2010, AT&T said their backbone transferred an average of 19 petabytes of information on an average business day.  I guess a handful of customers really must use the majority of data….

How much data would 3 petabytes really be?  Well, it could be about 40 years of HD video or perhaps every photo on Facebook.  That would be one awesome cell phone.

Unfortunately, at Sprint’s typical 3-6 mbps 4G speeds (let’s just say 6mbps), that amount of data would take over 13,000 decades to download.  At a continuous 6mbps, you could download about 1.85 terabytes of data in a 30 day period.

Truly unlimited?

Well, it’s limited by what you can actually transmit in a one-month period, but let’s look at the fine print:

“Prohibited network use rules apply.”   Okay, let’s check the fine print on of Sprint’s unlimited data landing pages:

Voice/Data Usage Limitation: Sprint reserves the right, without notice, to deny, terminate, modify, disconnect or suspend service if off-network roaming usage in a month exceeds (1) voice: 800 minutes. or a majority of minutes; or (2) data: 300 MBs or a majority of KBs. Prohibited network use rules apply. As advertised and notwithstanding those restrictions, engaging in such uses will not result in throttling (limiting data throughput speeds) for customers on unlimited-data- included plans for phones, but could result in other adverse action. See for specific prohibited uses.

Hmm, only thing there is if you use a majority of your data on a non-Sprint network (or simply over 300MBs of data on a non-Sprint network).  But what are these “prohibited network use rules” that apply?

Examples of prohibited data uses: Sprint data services are provided solely for purposes of web surfing, sending and receiving email, photographs and other similar messaging activities, and the non-continuous streaming of videos, downloading of files or on line gaming.

So far, so good.  No continuous streaming of videos, downloading, etc, though.  So, the maximum must be less than our 1.85TB figure.

Our data services may not be used: (i) to generate excessive amounts of Internet traffic through the continuous, unattended streaming, downloading or uploading of videos or other files or to operate hosting services including, but not limited to, web or gaming hosting; (ii) to maintain continuous active network connections to the Internet such as through a web camera or machine-to-machine connections that do not involve active participation by a person;

Does that mean letting your apps sync in the background is a violation of Sprint’s terms and conditions?

(iii) to disrupt email use by others using automated or manual routines, including, but not limited to “auto-responders” or cancel bots or other similar routines; (iv) to transmit or facilitate any unsolicited or unauthorized advertising, telemarketing, promotional materials, “junk mail”, unsolicited commercial or bulk email, or fax; (v) for activities adversely affecting the ability of other people or systems to use either Sprint’s wireless services or other parties’ Internet-based resources, including, but not limited to, “denial of service” (DoS) attacks against another network host or individual user; (vi) for an activity that connects any device to Personal Computers (including without limitation, laptops), or other equipment for the purpose of transmitting wireless data over the network (unless customer is using a plan designated for such usage); or (vi) for any other reason that, in our sole discretion violates our policy of providing service for individual use.

Or, in other words, for any reason Sprint feels like your using too much bandwidth/data.

Unlimited Use Plans. If you subscribe to rate plans, services or features that are described as unlimited, you should be aware that such “unlimited” plans are subject to these Sprint Prohibited Network Uses.

So if Sprint feels that you use too much data, it can take corrective action.  They won’t throttle, so what would they do?  My guess: cut you off/cancel your plan.

Just to plow into the details for a bit of fun…