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. During times when the network is busy, such as at crowded stadiums, concerts, or during rush-hour traffic, you will get faster data speeds on a plan with premium data than a plan that does not have premium data.
Premium data is also called "priority data."
They mean the same thing.
Be warned though: some carriers use "premium data" to mean "high-speed data." These are not the same thing. Premium data, or priority data, means getting a higher tier of access on the network. High-speed data is simply the amount of fast data you get each billing cycle, regardless of what priority tier that high-speed data is on.
A prime example is T-Mobile's Essentials plan.
T-Mobile clearly lists the plan as including 50GB of premium data.
This is not true. T-Mobile Essentials is deprioritized. How do we know? T-Mobile says so themselves on their website:
Essentials customers may notice speeds lower than other customers and further reduction if using >50GB/mo., due to data prioritization.
The line "speeds lower than other customers" is what indicates that the Essentials plan is deprioritized.
Because of this misuse of the label "premium data," I have chosen to use "priority data" on this website to indicate plans that have a higher-tier of network access.
How Do Network Priority Levels Vary Between Carriers?
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 three data priority levels:
- QCI 7
- QCI 8
- QCI 9
QCI 7 has the highest priority and is reserved for first responders and likely government use cases.
QCI 8 is consumer priority data. When Verizon advertises a plan includes "premium data," it is QCI 8.
QCI 9 is deprioritized data. It will get the slowest speeds during times when the Verizon network is busy.
What plans have priority data on Verizon?
The two Verizon plans with QCI 8 priority data are Verizon Unlimited Plus and Verizon Unlimited Ultimate.
Other Verizon MVNOs also offer plans with priority data.
Xfinity Mobile also gets access to Verizon’s priority data. You get priority data if you activate with a 5G phone on one of Xfinity Mobile's by-the-gig plans. You also get priority data on Unlimited Plus and Unlimited Premium. The Unlimited Intro plan is deprioritized and only comes with QCI 9 data.
AT&T's Data Priority Levels Explained
AT&T uses four priority levels:
- QCI 6
- QCI 7
- QCI 8
- QCI 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 the AT&T Unlimited Premium plan. This plan is prioritized above the other postpaid unlimited plans, but below business customers and FirstNet.
QCI 8 is the second tier of priority data on AT&T. It is still considered priority data, but its speeds will be a bit slower than QCI 7 or QCI 6 data during times when the AT&T network is congested. Plans with QCI 8 priority are AT&T Unlimited Extra, Cricket Unlimited + 15GB Hotspot, AT&T Prepaid Unlimited MAX, and AT&T Prepaid Unlimited MAX Plus. After you use your allotment of priority data on these plans, you will be dropped down to QCI 9.
QCI 9 is last. It is considered deprioritized data on AT&T. Plans with QCI 9 data include AT&T's own Unlimited Starter plan, Cricket Unlimited, and pretty much all plans from AT&T MVNOs such as Red Pocket, Pure Talk, and Boost Infinite.
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.