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There's a Black Market for Truly Unlimited Data Plans Hiding in Plain Sight

One small problem: the plans aren't cheap.

Unlimited data is having a moment right now. T-Mobile's wildly successful unlimited data plan, released in August 2016 to capture market share, set off a chain reaction. Verizon reintroduced its own unlimited data plan in February 2017, and soon AT&T was forced to follow suit, while Sprint keeps cutting the price of its unlimited plans. But the fine print reveals that there's nothing "unlimited" about these plans. Rack up enough gigabytes in a month, and your data speeds will be slowed to a halt. Every one of these carriers has its own data caps in place, no matter how the plans are pitched.

But there are black markets for everything these days—including a market for data plans that are truly unlimited. In fact, these plans are hiding in plain sight on eBay and Craigslist. What's for sale are the last survivors of a long-extinct breed: generous, short-lived carrier plans from the late 2000s that were rolled out with the introductions of the iPhone and iPad. At any time on eBay you can find 20 or more plans for sale. Some are not throttled, and many are tetherable (meaning you can use them to connect another device to the internet). The catch? They currently go for around $2,000 to $3,000—plus the buyer assumes the monthly fee (which is usually $29.99). That upfront cost is a huge investment for a phone plan.

Imagine whittling down your phone bill, internet bill and cable bill to just one monthly $29.99 payment by tethering everything to one device.

But those who are in it for the long haul can get a lot for their money. Imagine whittling down your phone bill, internet bill and cable bill to just one monthly $29.99 payment by tethering everything to one device. It's your own portable modem, so you've got all the Facebook, Netflix, Hulu, YouTube, HBO GO or Twitch that you can handle, accessible anywhere there's decent cell service. And AT&T often never touches its grandfathered plan's monthly rates. The unlimited data iPad plans in particular were only available for a couple months, and so few remain that AT&T is likely to just let them slide; the telecom giant has a mixed track record of litigation against the Federal Communications Commission and Federal Trade Commission when those government agencies take issue with its attempts to restrict its own data plans.

An analyst I talked to thinks that these plans are a very smart investment.

"The value of an unlimited plan with a locked-in price above today's price doesn't seem all that compelling," said Jonathan Chaplin, a mobile industry expert at New Street Research. "But if you take a long-term view, I think this is going to be a capacity-limited industry over time. Prices on a per-gigabyte basis are going to have to rise. And as they do, these perpetual unlimited plans are going to be more and more valuable."

In other words, recovering your investment (and then some) is a very safe bet with these plans—if you can afford to part with several thousand dollars upfront.

"I always looked at my plan as a safe purchase, since if my life changed such that I no longer needed it, I would have no trouble recouping my cost," said Sam D., a buyer of unlimited data plans I was introduced to over email. "Turns out that's pretty much true, as prices are pretty close to what I paid in 2012, plus all of the monthly plan fees I've paid for nearly five years. I'd say that's not bad."

But make no mistake, this is not a huge market. Even Chaplin wasn't aware of this little secondary economy for data plans, nor was another analyst I spoke to about them.

What's also surprising to most people—even to some analysts—is that transferring a plan is easy and straightforward. Once you agree to purchase a plan (and pay for it) then share your name and email address with the seller, he or she will usually contact AT&T to initiate the transfer of liability. AT&T then emails the seller, who then contacts AT&T to sign up and submit to a credit check. Other sellers will simply give you their login credentials, and it's up to you to change those and the billing information on your device.

But there are two catches: First, the buyer needs to already own an AT&T SIM card and an AT&T-compatible device. And secondly, it's a delicate process. The buyer can't change the plan in any way during the signup—and if you contact AT&T, its customer service representatives will do they are trained to do during most phone calls: offer a plan change or upgrade. If there are any changes made, the plan goes up in smoke … and good luck trying to talk AT&T into giving it back to you.

Even though this is all legal, I had a hard time getting unlimited plan sellers and buyers to talk to me about this, and fewer still allowed me to use their names. Some only agreed to talk if I bought their plan. The handful who did respond included impressively tech-savvy folks plus others who are jumping in with a ton of uncertainty. Some sellers were the original owners of the plans, while others were serial buyers and sellers who sell their plan when demand occasionally dries and prices skyrocket.

In this micro economy, most buyers simply set their price relative to others on eBay. But one person I talked to shared a super simple pricing formula for the rare iPad plans that has held true for several years: $30xM, where M is the number of months since June 2010, when AT&T's unlimited data plan for iPad (introduced along with the iPad just two months earlier, in April 2010) was discontinued. And some of the serial buyers and sellers confirmed that their first unlimited data purchase on eBay, five years ago or more, was for $500 or less.

Nowadays, several thousand dollars for a grandfathered plan on eBay can look crazy compared to prices for the latest unlimited data plans. But since data consumption is always increasing, those ephemeral, introductory plans from the past may be the best way to negotiate an increasingly digital future.