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Fine-Print Gotchas: Which Ones Actually Hurt?

In my post yesterday about T-Mobile's G1 phone, the first to run Google's Android software, we got into a brief discussion in the comments about a fine-print restriction on the use of this carrier's embryonic 3G mobile-broadband network.

As a perspicacious reader noted, T-Mobile says it will enforce a 1-gigabyte-a-month limit on users of the G1:

If your total data usage in any billing cycle is more than 1GB, your data throughput for the remainder of that cycle may be reduced to 50 kbps or less.

That makes the 5-gigabytes-a-month caps imposed by such competitors as Verizon Wireless look positively generous. This policy could easily be the single most restrictive user agreement in the entire broadband-Internet industry -- and yet T-Mobile chooses to spell it out in the smallest font on that page.

But while you can give this carrier credit for audacity, you can't tout its originality. It's only the latest in a long line of companies that undermine touted advantages of their products with poorly advertised restrictions, qualifications, limits or caveats, usually listed in the least obvious places and in the smallest of typefaces. It happens so often that it's acquired a term of art: "mouse print," and a Web site of the same name that collects examples of this kind of fine-print trickery.

It happens so often that, sometimes, you may have to set aside a company's effrontery and evaluate these gotchas on their own merits: Do they make a product a bad deal or not?

I've found that this isn't always the case. For example, I've decided that -- at least for my own use -- I don't care if I can't replace the battery on my MP3 player or cell phone, because I don't ever keep either kind of gadget long enough for its batteries to wear out. (My phone's battery can, in fact, easily be replaced, but I've only ever removed it when I've needed to reboot the phone.)

But maybe I'm being too accepting here. Let's talk about this: Would you set aside a company's sneaky presentation of a product's limits if the item in question still provides a fair value, or does that represent an unforgivable character flaw?

By Rob Pegoraro  |  September 24, 2008; 1:27 PM ET
Categories:  Gripes  
Save & Share:  Send E-mail   Facebook   Twitter   Digg   Yahoo Buzz   StumbleUpon   Technorati   Google Buzz   Previous: T-Mobile Unveils First Google Android Phone
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First impressions of the G1 and i feel its a genuine competitor to the iPhone!

A great site to see all the G1 Video reviews & features is

Posted by: mewoo | September 24, 2008 4:52 PM | Report abuse

This is sneaky but not as bad as some companies like Comcast that throttle and don't tell you. Still, I personally don't think T-Mobile should be allowed to use the words "unlimited" and "3G" to describe such a plan, since it's not both at the same time.

If they really have these capacity issues, I think they should do something analogous to a voice plan:
- advertise that you're paying a monthly rate for 1 GB of data (NOT "unlimited")
- make it really easy to track your data usage via the phone AND via a web portal (a la how dialing #MIN# on a tmo phone will tell you your minutes used this billing cycle)
- send a warning text message to a user who is approaching their monthly cap
- either throttle the user down, or set a per-MB fee for exceeding the cap. Ideally, *let the customer choose* which penalty to accept when they sign up (then they can choose whether money or performance matters more to them).

With the exception of giving choice in the last one, anything less than this I would consider sub-par customer service on the part of the carrier. If they implemented that last item I'd consider that going above and beyond.

(All that said, I did pre-order the G1 last night anyway)

Posted by: BR | September 24, 2008 5:23 PM | Report abuse

T-Mobile has removed the 1GB per month 3G cap as they "may temporarily reduce data throughput for a small fraction of customers who use a disproportionate amount of bandwidth"

,Michael Martin

Posted by: Michael Martin | September 24, 2008 7:39 PM | Report abuse

Wow, thanks for the compliment (though I had to look up perspicacious).
As to your question: I probably don't mind the stuff companies sneak into their fine print, as long as they put it in there (as the other commenter noted, Comcast wouldn't even admit to a cap). But I'm obviously perspicacious enough to catch such restrictions and evaluate them fairly. In this case though, if I were thinking about getting a G1, I'd have to pass. Why wouldn't I just go with an iPhone with no limitation?

Posted by: Brian | September 24, 2008 8:32 PM | Report abuse

The ones that bug me the most are one-year battery warranties on products like phones and laptops that have a life of 3 years or more. They know that even with normal use the battery will perform much worse after only one or two years, but unsuspecting consumers don't realize that.

Posted by: William | September 24, 2008 11:05 PM | Report abuse

Rob, I just read on CNET T-Mobile's rescinded the 1GB limit, and taken it out of their Terms of Service.

Posted by: Brendan West | September 25, 2008 8:44 AM | Report abuse

In an on-topic post, though:

I have to say, I was disappointed when AT&T capped iPhone 3G data usage. Their excuse was: "Everyone else has to live with bandwidth caps, what makes you so special, iPhone owner?" That's not A.) something you should be saying to a potential new customer nor B.) good business practices.

I still have my original iPhone, and enjoy my unlimited EDGE usage.

I do not appreciated when companies employ little fine-print tricks like that. It's as if they've announced a brilliant new health insurance plan in which you have no more health insurance and then pull a puppy out of a box and say "LOOK! CUTE PUPPY!"

Let's leave the misdirection to the magicians.

Posted by: Brendan West | September 25, 2008 8:48 AM | Report abuse

By imposing usage limits, all carriers are being pro-active to reduce the chances that their wireless networks will be overloaded, a situation in which all users suffer even if they "did nothing wrong".

It's a physical capacity limitation, which is why they don't offer the option of paying a premium to continue your high bandwidth consumption: they either don't have the bandwidth now or anticipate a squeeze before they can do anything about it.

Obviously, this varies by geographical area but once it happens then everybody in that service area suffers and will howl bloody murder about it. Something of a Hobson's Choice for the carriers.

Posted by: Bote Man | September 25, 2008 10:33 AM | Report abuse

I know this sounds Biblical, but... THE LARGE PRINT GIVETH, and the small print taketh away. Verizon says I have "unlimited" residential long distance calling, but if I use the phone too much to suit them, then I will be re-classified as a commercial user and have to pay a much steeper rate. What criteria are used to determine commercial usage is not defined. BOO-HISS!

Posted by: Bill | September 25, 2008 10:38 AM | Report abuse

I have adopted a rather simple policy. If I can’t read (or understand) the fine print, I disregard, dispose of, or delete the product ascribing its marketing to an infantile mind.

Posted by: Bill80 | September 26, 2008 1:44 AM | Report abuse

In regards to companies capping data transfer some of it has to do with their network. But alot of it has to do with an indirect attempt to Curb Illegal Downloading and file sharing. Alot of companies that are capping their data plans through wireless do it to maintin their good names so people don't go around preaching how horrible their services are. The home companies are doing it to keep up their speeds and try to discourage people from downloading movies and such that also bog down their networks but inevitably cut into their profits

Posted by: Joe | September 27, 2008 11:54 PM | Report abuse

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