'Unlimited' war just pedantic semantics?

'Unlimited' war just pedantic semantics?

Summary: Just what do telcos mean by 'unlimited'? And why do they insist on using loaded words to sell 'unlimited' and 'infinite' services that are in reality offering something much different? Is it just business as usual in marketing, or is it time to hold them to account for their chronic abuses of the English language?

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A while back, I saw an advertisement for a lifetime supply of twist ties — a large spool seemingly big enough to close millions of plastic bags. This was patently absurd, of course, because implying that it was a lifetime supply begs the question: what happens when you use them all? Assuming there's no Moirae-styled skulduggery going on, when you get to the end of the roll and you're still breathing, somebody has told a big, fat lie.

The answer, of course, is that the phrase "lifetime supply" has become synonymous with "heaps and heaps". In the same way, words like "infinite", "unlimited" and even the so-often-abused-as-to-have-become-meaningless "ultimate" have become endemic in our telecommunications industry, where they're used to try to drum up customer excitement over plans that are usually anything but unlimited.


(Twist ties mage by Evan Amos, public domain)

As always, there is a fine line between marketing and downright deception — and many carriers seem hell-bent on both straddling and crossing it. Yet where they might have gotten away with it years ago, a spate of legal successes by an emboldened ACCC has no doubt sent shudders through telco marketing departments everywhere. TPG has come in the crosshairs, Dodo received a significant fine and Optus has copped one sanction after another for its "unlimited" advertising.

The latest Optus slap-down, penalties for which are yet to be determined, reminds me of an email exchange I had with Optus marketing folks several months ago. I had written to inquire about the fine print on a mobile TV ad, which spruiked a deal that included unlimited calls to "GSM mobiles". Surely this was a mistake, I asked, since basically nobody has had a GSM mobile service for years — GSM, of course, being the ubiquitous 2G mobile standard that stopped being state-of-the-art half a decade ago.

Optus defended the ads, arguing that "GSM" refers to all mobiles but satellite phones. But did you know that? Would you consider the iPhone, or HTC Desire, or Nokia N8 to be GSM mobiles? And would the midday chat-show audience be familiar with this rather unusual turn of phrase?

It's important that telcos consider what their customers would consider reasonable. Vodafone customers, for example, would consider it reasonable that their mobile services actually provide reception when they want to make a call.

I certainly wouldn't; in common usage, GSM is a precursor to 3G, which made the Optus ad sound like you could only make free calls to 3G Luddites and would pay normal rates to ring anybody that had bothered to update their mobiles in the past five years. It seemed to make perfect sense to Optus, but in cases like this it's important that telcos consider what their customers would consider reasonable. Vodafone customers, for example, would consider it reasonable that their mobile services actually provide reception when they want to make a call, but Vodafone has had very different ideas until recently.

My email exchange with Optus ended when I suggested it probably needed a new advertising agency, given the ever-growing number of instances where the wording in its ads has been unclear and given it trouble on several occasions.

Yet even a new advertising agency won't save Optus from itself: the ACCC's initial victory clearly suggested that our number-two telco needs to change its approach — and imposed a three-year ban on similar campaigns — but I don't think it was talking about adding a line of microscopic T&Cs at the bottom of the ad.

Years of trial and error have conditioned us to accept that the actual experience of technology is usually far less than we imagine it to be. Ditto with internet access, which I'd venture most people have already experienced at one time or another, and have certainly come to appreciate as being something with both advantages and limitations.

In this case, the limitations lie in semantics around the definition of "unlimited".

It would be so easy for carriers to step away from these words, but they stubbornly insist on poking the ACCC with a short stick. Dodo's "Unlimited" plans, which I note it is still selling, seem equally problematic. And, of course, Vodafone's adoption of the word "infinite" when we all know that its network, in particular, has proved to be extremely finite indeed. The people choosing these words are like the people that decided to label that lifetime supply of twist ties — they figure nobody would ever call them on it.

Telcos would make consumers a lot happier if they just named their plans to something more accurate — say, Use Lots Get Nobbled or Yes Uploads Do Count or Fast Until Two Users Log On or No Quota Free Video Here.

Who do they think they're fooling? The way the industry is going, the telcos would make consumers a lot happier if they just named their plans to something more accurate — say, Use Lots Get Nobbled or Yes Uploads Do Count or Fast Until Two Users Log On or No Quota Free Video Here? Like the hapless managers and players of the St Kilda Saints — who are definitely not saints — carriers just try, over and over again, to promote themselves as responsible and caring, but with the same loaded words.

Perhaps, if we can accept that the Brisbane Lions are not in fact a pack of large cats and the Melbourne Demons are not actually hellspawn bent on the destruction of the world as we know it, we can accept that use of words "unlimited" and "infinite" are just typical exaggerations of marketing, like when Ferrero claims Nutella is healthy?

Yet, that often-used legal test — whether a reasonable person would have reached a certain conclusion on the basis of the evidence presented — seems to have little relevance in the telco-regulation space (although Optus tried to use it with little success). The ACCC is regulating telco advertising as though customers have the intelligence of primordial mould.

At face value, the spirit with which the ACCC has pursued our telcos' hopeless telco advertising companies seems to reflect such egregiously semantic pickiness that it's not clear whether the telcos are more deserving of punishment, or their government overlords. Yet telcos have shown themselves to be willing, time and again, to stretch the meanings of words to suit their marketing; perhaps, given their track record and the fast-escalating rate of complaints against them, clamping down is just a necessary part of getting the sector to clean up its act.

What do you think? Is the ACCC being too picky, or should telcos stop trying to use such loaded words to trick their customers? And have you been stung by limited unlimited plans?

Topics: Broadband, E-Commerce, Government, Government AU, Telcos, Optus, NBN

About

Australia’s first-world economy relies on first-rate IT and telecommunications innovation. David Braue, an award-winning IT journalist and former Macworld editor, covers its challenges, successes and lessons learned as it uses ICT to assert its leadership in the developing Asia-Pacific region – and strengthen its reputation on the world stage.

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12 comments
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  • What's the problem with Dodo's "unlimited" plan? As far as I can see, it's actually unlimited - the ACCC's problem was that they didn't include the cost of line rental in the advertised price, which they now do. A similar situation with TPG's "unlimited" plan: REALLY unlimited, the ACCC's problem was also to do with the advertising of their prices.
    Dean Harding
  • From my experiences Optus is the worst offender.
    They offer all sorts of enticing short-term plans then switch the customer to another without prior notice & in my case, lie about what is still being offered in their advertising.
    grump3
  • We had no problems with our "unlimited" Optus internet plan for many years. We paid good money and each invoice was clearly marked "Unlimited Plan". Then last year our internet went into a crawl toward the end of each month. Optus claimed that this was due to neighbours using remaining time on their fixed plans at the end of each month. Wading through the information on their website we found that Optus had put a 12 GB limit on our plan but sold 150 GB plans for 25% less. And of course on contact they claimed that the word "unlimited" in the name of the plan was just… well a word without meaning. Makes you very happy!!! Now we pay less for more but you fell cheated.
    sfabians1
  • TPG's really unlimited plans are great. Why should Optus be able to call theirs unlimited when comparing the two shows that they are completely different beasts.

    Unlimited means without limit. Shaping doesnt count because you are given say a 50gig *limit*.
    Cheater-27882
  • Well I think you have made a mistake with this article. You say that GSM is not good marketing and confusing people. Well GSM is the standard on most of the Australian mobile system runs on.. You yourself has linked to a wikipedia article explaining GSM. We dont use CDMA based phones in australia well not since telstra decommissioned theirs. Plus all mobile phones including smartphones drop back to 2G when 3G is not available. 3G is mainly used as the data part of the phone not the voice part. best to get the facts straight first before writing your article
    the.daedalus@...
    • I am not sure how the technical specialists use these terms, but whenever I have spoken to telco sales people (which I have done frequently for many years), the terms they almost invariably use are 2G and 3G, as meaning two different versions of mobile phone coverage. Thus I am sure that, to the average man in the street, 3G means mobile phone with data, and 2G means phone without data. Everything else is alphabet soup! Except, of course, to the boffins.
      Arafurian
  • Well Unlimited even with a 50gig before shaping is still unlimited you can still use the internet just not in a way you dont wanna pull your hair out
    MOMO-055d1
    • I would like to disagree. My line doesn't feel unlimited anymore if I suddenly realised I was throttled, causing pages to load slower, downloads to take longer, and who knows what else. That kind of thing has frustrated me enough, and would in fact have me pulling my hair out.
      Being able to use your internet for a month is unlimited, but using it to its full potential for a month from start to end is the unlimited you would expect if you were paying for broadband with speeds at the fastest that the speeds allow.
      Jay_JWLH
  • I don't buy a Subway sandwich wanting to know what's NOT in it!

    [And, of course, Vodafone's adoption of the word "infinite" when we all know that its network, in particular, has proved to be extremely finite indeed. The people choosing these words are like the people that decided to label that lifetime supply of twist ties — they figure nobody would ever call them on it.]

    I take offence at this because sweeping statements are not good journalism and frankly as a Vodafone customer I've been delighted with the service and have not experienced these issues you keep rehashing. It really is an infinite plan by the way. There is nothing hidden. By 'we all know', do you mean the metro-few that can't download their fruit chopping games in Martin Pl at lunch time on their Iphones because it gets a little congested?

    All sweeping statements are inherently false...(maybe even this one)
    Voodoofone
  • No. No.

    No.

    If I had a "lifetime supply", say if I'd won a competition, I'd expect a request for more from the company would be honoured.

    "Unlimited" does not mean "Actually has a limit". You would choose to have no limits as an active decision, on the premise that "I'll never have to worry about it." To then find that it's limited is a joke.
    junk@...
  • And if I actually am trying to sell an Unlimited plan, as some companies are, how shall I do that if the word unlimited has lost its meaning?

    I can assure you that I am a reasonable person, and if I purchase a plan that supposedly gives me unlimited access to something then I will not expect my access to be limited artificially by the seller at any point.
    DVC-6fbe9
  • I would hate for the word Unlimited to be made to mean anything but just that!

    If I were to spend for example a hundred dollars on a mobile call plan that gave a large amount of minutes, I would expect to recieve a reasonable amount of service to get that. But if that service level doesn't get reached, I would get reasonable compensation like I have recieved once before, since that is reality sometimes. However once you reach Unlimited, I would be expected to be charged something to make that literally possible, maybe two or three hundred dollars if needed, and the provider can spend that money in advance before offering this to make it possible to their customers to let them take full advantage of that. That could even mean a little too many cell sites if needed, which in the case with wireless providers wouldn't be feasible so they shouldn't be offering it on their end.

    The same kind of story applies to broadband, but they also need to remain unthrottled and truly what you would expect. If they (the provider) just can't afford to do it, then maybe they should charge a price in order to make it happen. If something monstrous of a price is charged, and you could use up your broadband 24/7 full speed for the entire month, at that point you have truly offered something unlimited.
    Jay_JWLH