What is Premium Data?
You likely have seen by now that some cell phone plans have “premium data,” while other plans say they “may temporarily slow data speeds if the network is busy.”
What does this mean, and what even is “premium data”?
Put simply, premium data is an allotment of cellular data that receives higher priority on the network. This means when the network is busy, such as at crowded stadiums, sports games, concerts, airports, or during rush-hour traffic, customers with premium data will have faster speeds than customers who do not.
Each network has different levels of network priority.
These levels of priority are controlled by a network setting called Quality of Service Class Identifiers, or QCI values for short.
Each QCI value corresponds to a level of priority on the network.
The QCI values you need to know about range from 1 to 9, where 1 has the highest priority and 9 has the lowest priority.
QCI values 1-5 are used for conversational voice, live streaming video calls (think FaceTime, Google Duo, or Zoom), buffered video streaming, and group and picture messaging.
These tasks receive higher priority on the network because they are more critical parts of communication and the carriers want to ensure you have a good experience making a phone call or FaceTime call.
QCI values 6-9 are used to indicate the data priority level of cell phone plans. During times of network congestion, or when there are a lot of users connecting to a single cell site at a time, people with higher priority plans will get faster data speeds than people with lower priority plans.
You can find more technical info on Wikipedia if you’re interested in a deeper understanding of QCI values.
What is Data Priority?
Think of data priority as every device connected to a tower being in line to have their data processed. When a lot of devices are downloading and uploading data on a tower, the higher priority, or higher QCI, data will be first in line while lower-priority traffic will be at the back of line.
How each network handles QCI level varies slightly, but they all prioritize voice traffic as QCI 1.
Data priority is trickier, as AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon all have different levels set up. Some data plans spell out clearly what priority they have on the network, while others have to be presumed.
There are also apps like Network Signal Guru that can be used to determine what QCI level any MVNO or plan may be given.
Verizon's Data Priority Levels Explained
On Verizon, there are only a few data priority levels: QCI 7, 8, 9.
QCI 7 is reserved for first responders and likely government uses.
QCI 8 is what Verizon Postpaid uses for “Premium Network Access” on Play More, Do More, and Get More Unlimited plans.
Xfinity Mobile also gets access to Verizon’s “Premium Data” for their by-the-gig plans and for their unlimited plan when you activate on a 5G device. If you activate on an LTE device, then the unlimited plan is deprioritized at QCI 9.
An interesting note is that Spectrum Mobile used to offer QCI 8 data with their data-bucket plans, however a recent Reddit post indicates they have changed their agreement with Verizon. All Spectrum Mobile plans are now deprioritized at QCI 9.
Visible data is also at QCI 9. And, since Visible sends all their traffic through two data centers located in Colorado and New Jersey, their data also has higher pings than normal Verizon data. The higher ping times can cause apps, games, and websites to feel slightly slower due to the increased latency, even if the data speeds are fast.
All other Verizon MVNOs, such as US Mobile, Red Pocket, and Twigby, and Verizon Prepaid have QCI 9 data, which is deprioritized lower than Verizon postpaid data. This is why in areas where Verizon has a lot of traffic, users on MVNOs will notice significantly worse data speeds than Verizon postpaid users do with priority data.
AT&T's Data Priority Levels Explained
Moving on to AT&T, we know they use QCI 6, 7, 8, and 9.
QCI 6 is reserved for FirstNet connections. FirstNet accounts have a feature that prioritizes their traffic above business during emergencies. This feature can also reserve LTE Band 14 for public safety use. The first 100GB usage on Business plans are also prioritized on QCI 6.
QCI 7 is used for AT&T Unlimited Elite. This plan is prioritized above the other postpaid unlimited plans, but below business and FirstNet. That said, business plans will drop to this level as well after using their respective amounts of priority data.
The following priority level is QCI 8. Unlimited Extra is QCI 8, along with the AT&T Prepaid data bucket plans (8GB and 15GB) and the first 22GB of AT&T Prepaid Unlimited Plus.
What’s especially interesting is that AT&T gives MVNOs QCI 8, too. Prepaid carriers like Red Pocket, Consumer Cellular, and even AT&T’s own Cricket Wireless will give you the same priority level as AT&T Unlimited Extra.
Lastly is QCI 9. There are only two plans with QCI 9: AT&T’s own Unlimited Starter plan, and the Cricket Core unlimited plan. These plans have their network traffic prioritized below all other connections on the AT&T network.
High data users who use over 50GB on AT&T Unlimited Extra will also be deprioritized down to this level.
However, having the lowest data priority may actually not matter on the AT&T network.
One thing many people have noticed about AT&T’s network is how gracefully it handles congestion compared to Verizon.
AT&T customers often experience fast data speeds even when they are on deprioritized plans. This is thanks to AT&T’s network having excellent capacity and managing the priority levels well.
Verizon customers, on the other hand, more often observe slower slower speeds when their priority data runs out or if they are on deprioritized plans to begin with.
This is because Verizon currently has the most subscribers and their towers are more likely to become congested.
Of course, any tower on any network can get to the point where data speeds are slow for all customers, even those with priority data, if resources are strained enough.
T-Mobile Premium Data Explained
Finally, we will look at T-Mobile’s QCI levels.
T-Mobile QCI levels are similar to AT&T, being QCI 6, 7, 8, and 9.
One way to explain these T-Mobile priority levels is that QCI 6 is Top Priority, QCI 7 is Middle Priority, and QCI 9 is Bottom Priority.
The postpaid Magenta and Magenta Max plans are QCI 6 of course, and so are all plans from T-Mobile Prepaid.
Plans that are a step below postpaid priority are QCI 7. These include T-Mobile Essentials, and Metro by T-Mobile. MVNOs that use the T-Mobile network, like US Mobile and Mint Mobile, are QCI 7 as well.
QCI 8 on T-Mobile is reserved for hotspot data.
And QCI 9 is for heavy data users. Customers who use over 100GB on T-Mobile Magenta, over 50GB on T-Mobile Prepaid, over 50GB on T-Mobile Essentials, or over 35GB on Metro by T-Mobile will have their data deprioritized to QCI 9.
T-Mobile Home Internet is also deprioritized data at QCI 9. This means that Home Internet data is always at the bottom of the totem pole for data. You are more likely to notice your speeds slow down during times when the cell site becomes more busy.