Representation of the concept of a limit

Google Fi’s Unlimited Plan Has Limits

Last month, I published a blog post titled Unlimited Plans At 2G Speeds Are Bogus. I argued that wireless carriers that throttle data speeds to 128Kbps after a threshold amount of data use shouldn’t call their plans “unlimited.” Doing things on the internet at 128Kbps is often frustrating or impossible. Beyond that, imposing a maximum speed implicitly limits the amount of data a subscriber can use in a month.

In a follow-up post, I was critical of Atlice Mobile for labeling a plan as “unlimited” while imposing a bunch of limits that it did not clearly disclose. Google Fi seems to be following in Altice Mobile’s footsteps. Today, Fi Launched a new “unlimited” plan. Subscribers on this plan only get to use 22GB of data at regular speeds:[1]

If you use more than 15 GB of data in a cycle on the Fi Flexible plan or more than 22 GB in a cycle on the Fi Unlimited plan (less than 1% of individual Fi users as of Jan. 2018), you’ll experience slower speeds (256 kbps) above those respective data thresholds until your next billing cycle begins.
While I expect Fi is accurately reporting that less than 1% of users as of January 2018 exceeded 22GB of use, the statement might mislead people. Until now, Fi didn’t try to entice heavy data users with an option it labeled as an unlimited plan.[2]

256Kbps is slow

Data at 256Kbps will be more usable than data at 128Kbps, but many online activities will still be impractical. I don’t think continuous video streaming will work even at fairly low resolutions. Many web pages will load extremely slowly. As mentioned earlier, imposing a max speed of 256Kbps does limit the maximum data subscribers can use. Even if a subscriber manages to transfer a full 256 kilobits every single second after using 22GB of regular data, she’ll still have a theoretical limit of about 100GB of data use each month.[3]

Market pressures

While I haven’t always been a fan of Google Fi’s prices, I have thought of Google Fi as being a company that’s offering wireless service in an unusually transparent and consumer-friendly manner. I’m sad to see Google Fi caving to marketing pressures. That said, I realize the pressures are real. So let me make something clear: most people are not heavy data users; most people do not need unlimited plans. If enough consumers recognize that, there will be less pressure for companies to offer silly, not-really-unlimited plans.

Altice’s Unlimited Plan Has Lots of Limits

Altice Mobile just launched with a tempting offer. Altice’s only plan, its “unlimited everything” plan, is only $30 per line each month.[1] A lot of technology websites have been writing about the new offering, and most of them aren’t mentioning how many limits Altice puts on its subscribers. Altice Mobile is at fault here. The company has been unusually non-transparent about the limitations it imposes.

In my previous post, I was critical of Total Wireless for marketing one of its plans as an unlimited plan, even though it involved a significant limitation:

Total Wireless is at least is transparent in letting customers know that some limits do exist despite labeling the plan as unlimited. Altice Mobile doesn’t put a disclaimer or an asterisk next to its claims:

Altice’s press release is even more misleading:[2]

Altice Mobile offers one simple plan with unlimited everything:

  • unlimited data, text, and talk nationwide,
  • unlimited mobile hotspot,
  • unlimited video streaming,
  • unlimited international text and talk from the U.S. to more than 35 countries, including Canada, Mexico, Dominican Republic, Israel, most of Europe, and more, and
  • unlimited data, text and talk while traveling abroad in those same countries.

Potential customers wanting to understand Altice Mobile’s limitations need to find their way to a web page full of legalese titled Broadband Disclosure Information.[3] As it turns out, Altice has lots of limitations:

  • Mobile hotspot is typically throttled to a maximum of 600Kbps (a fairly slow speed).[4]
  • Video is typically throttled to a maximum of 480p.[5]
  • After 50GB of use in a month, video traffic and hotspot traffic are throttled to 128Kbps.[6]
  • Roaming data is throttled to 128Kbps.[7]

As I discussed in my last post, it’s silly to call a service unlimited while throttling to especially low speeds. The claim in the press release that Altice offers “unlimited video streaming” is particularly misleading. 128Kbps can’t support stable streaming of even low-resolution, 240p video.[8] Turns out the claim of unlimited international data in 35 countries is also misleading. International data after the first gigabyte is throttled to 128Kbps.[9]

Despite the limitations, there’s a lot that’s exciting about Altice Mobile. It might be a good option for people who live in the limited set of regions where it’s available. Even with its limitations, the service still has a competitive price. I hope we’ll see Altice move towards being more transparent with consumers.

Pinocchio

Unlimited Plans At 2G Speeds Are Bogus

It’s becoming more common for carriers to offer additional data at 2G speeds after subscribers use up all of the regular-speed data that they’ve been allotted. In most cases, this means subscribers who’ve run out of regular data are throttled to a maximum speed of 128Kbps. It’s a great perk. Imagine you’ve run out of regular data, but really need to use the internet for a moment to pull up a boarding pass, look up directions, or view an email. At 2G speeds, it will probably be frustratingly slow to do any of those things, but that’s a much better scenario than being unable to use data at all.

Most consumers have little clue what 2G speeds amount to in practice. Let me be clear: 2G speeds are really slow for most things people want to do. Music streaming probably won’t work well. Video streaming at low, 240p resolution won’t be possible. Most websites will take a long time to load.

Carriers vary in how they present the perk of extra data at 2G speeds. In my opinion, Mint Mobile and Verizon handle the perk in a commendable way. Both carriers generally describe their plans and data allotments based on the amount of regular data allotted. In contrast, Total Wireless and Tello offer “unlimited” plans. These plans have caps on regular data use. After the cap is reached, subscribers continue to have data at 2G speeds. I think it’s misleading, bordering on outright lying, to call these unlimited plans. It’s just not possible to use data in a normal manner once speeds are throttled to 128Kbps.

In fact, imposing a throttle creates a limit on how much data can be used in a month. If a subscriber manages to transmit 128 kilobits of data every second for an entire month, they’ll use about 40GB of data.[1] While almost no subscribers will come close to reaching it, there is a theoretical limit on these supposedly unlimited plans. It’s roughly: amount of regular data + 40GB.


Disclosure: I have financial relationships with Verizon, Mint Mobile, Tello, and Total Wireless (more details).

Avoid Mismatched Phone Plans

There are probably millions of people in the U.S. that could save a lot of money by switching to a different plan offered by their existing cell phone carrier. For example, plenty of people pay for expensive plans with unlimited data, even though they only use a few gigabytes of data each month.

Recently, I angered a lot of people when I said Google Fi is generally too expensive for me to recommend the service. Several commenters argued I was wrong. Some of the commenters were polite. Others called me an idiot. Commenters often mentioned how much they used to pay for service from a major carrier and how much they saved by switching to Google Fi.

In many cases, commenters appeared to have purchased the wrong plans when they used major carriers. They were paying for data they didn’t need. Since Google Fi has a pay-for-what-you-use pricing structure, Fi subscribers basically cannot be on a plan that is mismatched with their data use.

Unsurprisingly, a person who barely uses data can probably get a better rate on a Google Fi plan than she can get on a high-data plan from Verizon. But Verizon also offers plans with small data allotments. We should make apples-to-apples comparisons when we can.

Examples

Below, I share excerpts from previous comments and my follow-up thoughts.


My wireless bill with Fi is $100 cheaper than it was with two phones on Verizon’s cheapest plan…a plan that includes more than 1gb per a phone is costly and unnecessary.
$100 cheaper!? I don’t think this commenter could have been on Verizon’s cheapest plan. Today, two lines of Verizon prepaid with 6 GB of data on each line (way more than the commenter desires) would cost only a bit more than $60 per month.


Google Fi unlimited calls and texts only costs $20 a month and when you add that to their pay-for-what-you-use data your monthly cost could be around mine at roughly $28/month, as I barely use any data…Now compare that with Verizon’s bare minimum unlimited plan starting at $70 before taxes and fees…Fi allows us to escape the tyranny of major cellular corporations and their overpriced plan structures.[1]
No! It’s inappropriate to compare the cost of service with barely any data use to the cost of an unlimited data plan.


Our monthly bill for all 3 lines with Verizon was around $180. It was reduced to less than $70 after switching to FI for the last 5 months.
Under $70 for three lines is a pretty good deal! No need to switch away from Fi, but let’s consider what comparable service would cost today with Verizon. With three Fi lines and a total cost under $70 per month, total data use is probably under 2GB per month.[2] A postpaid, Verizon plan with 3 lines and 2GB of shared data is about $100 per month right now. Prepaid options could come out under $100 per month.


My bill with Verizon was always $105 a month for two gigs of Internet.
One of Verizon’s prepaid options right now offers three times that amount of data for about a third of the price!


Carriers create confusion

People who are on mismatched plans aren’t idiots. Many carriers like it went customers pay extra money for unnecessary amounts of data. Instead of alerting subscribers who are paying for too much data, carriers often take steps to encourage customers to over-purchase data. I call the cell phone industry a confusopoly for a reason.

Finding plans that fit

As mentioned earlier, one way to ensure that you’re not paying for data you don’t need is to choose a carrier with a pay-for-what-you-use model (e.g., Ting or Google Fi). That said, I think most people can find better prices with carriers that use conventional pricing structures.

If you know how much data you typically use (or have records of data use you can look back on), you can probably figure out how much data you’d like your cell phone plan to offer. If you’re unsure about your data use, I suggest starting small. Choose a plan with the smallest amount of data that you think might be adequate. Experiment with that plan for a few months. Add more data if the initial data allotment you started with turns out to be insufficient.

Buy Your Own Router And Modem

Earlier this week, I signed up for Comcast’s Xfinity internet at a new apartment. If a subscriber doesn’t bring his or her own modem and router, Xfinity will rent a device for $13 per month. As far as I can tell, the majority of subscribers opt to rent. Renting is a terrible deal.

I purchased a modem and a router in 2017 for a total of about $70. While I don’t mind having a separate modem and router, there are plenty of options for simple devices that combine a router and a modem into a single unit. Amazon’s best-selling combination devices can be seen here. At the time of writing, several high-quality devices are available for between $80 and $130.

A $13 per month rental fee works out to $156 per year. A router can easily be used for 3 years, possibly much longer.

The table below shows the overall cost of renting a $13 per month router/modem for different lengths of time. I assume that rental fees will not increase over time. The assumption is generous. In the last decade, Comcast’s rental costs have risen by about 4X from $3 per month to $13 per month. The table also shows how much a subscriber could save by buying a high-end, $150 router/modem instead of renting.

Years usedRental costSavings by purchasingRental cost vs. purchase cost
1$156$64%
2$312$162108%
3$468$318212%
4$624$474316%
5$780$630420%
6$936$786524%
7$1,092$942628%

If you only use a $150 device for a single year, renting and buying are about equally cost-effective. In the off chance you use your service for less than a year, renting may make financial sense. That said, most Xfinity plans come with a one-year commitment. I doubt many customers subscribe for short enough periods to justify renting. If you keep your service for a few years or more, you can save a ton of money by buying your own modem and router.

Renting a modem/router may appeal to people since it’s simple. If you rent a device from Xfinity, you may not worry about compatibility and performance as much as you would when buying your own modem/router.

If the technical aspects of buying a modem or router concern you, here’s my advice for keeping things simple:

  • Visit Amazon’s page listing its best-selling modem/router combination devices.
  • Limit yourself to devices that are well-reviewed.
  • Find a listing explicitly states that the device is (a) compatible with the service you will use (e.g., Comcast Xfinity) and (b) able to support service at the speed you want.[1]

Some people will struggle when deciding which device to purchase. A lot of consumers aren’t sure about the speeds they’ll want. They might find a cheap device that is probably good enough but wonder whether they should spend some extra cash to get a device they’re confident is good enough. Remember that even if you spend more than you need to on a router/modem, you’re probably still getting a way better deal than you would with a rented device.

Photo of a frustrated person with a broken phone

Consumer Reports’ Broken Cell Service Rankings

Several months ago, I published a blog post arguing that Consumer Reports’ cell phone rankings were broken. This month, Consumer Reports updated those rankings with data from another round of surveying its subscribers. The rankings are still broken.

Consumer Reports slightly changed its approach this round. While Consumer Reports used to share results on 7 metrics, it now uses 5 metrics:

  1. Value
  2. Customer support
  3. Data
  4. Reception
  5. Telemarketing call frequency

Of the 19 carriers Consumer Reports’ assesses, only 5 operate their own network hardware.[1] The other 14 carriers resell access to other companies’ networks while maintaining their own customer support teams and retail presences.[2]

Several of the carriers that don’t run their own network offer service over only one host network:

  • Cricket Wireless – AT&T’s network
  • Page Plus Cellular – Verizon’s network
  • MetroPCS – T-Mobile’s network
  • CREDO Mobile – Verizon’s network
  • Boost Mobile – Sprint’s network
  • GreatCall – Verizon’s network
  • Virgin Mobile – Sprint’s network

To test the validity of Consumer Reports’ methodology, we can compare scores on metrics assessing network quality between each of these carriers and their host network. At first glance, it looks like the reception and data metrics should both be exclusively about network quality. However, the scores for data account for value as well as quality:[3]

Data service indicates overall experience (e.g., cost, speed, reliability) with the data service.
I think it was a methodological mistake to account for value within the data metric then account for value again in the value metric. That leaves us with only the reception scores.[4] Here are the scores the four host operators get for reception:

  • Verizon – Good
  • T-Mobile – Fair
  • AT&T – Poor
  • Sprint – Poor

How do those companies’ scores compare to scores earned by carriers that piggyback on their networks?

  • Cricket Wireless has good reception while AT&T has poor reception.
  • Page Plus and Verizon both have good reception.
  • MetroPCS has good reception while T-Mobile has fair reception.
  • CREDO and Verizon both have good reception.
  • Boost has very good reception while Sprint has poor reception.
  • GreatCall and Verizon both have good reception.
  • Virgin has good reception while Sprint has poor reception.

In the majority of cases, carriers beat their host networks. The massive differences between Cricket/AT&T and Boost/Sprint are especially concerning. In no cases do host operators beat the carriers that piggyback on their networks. I would have expected the opposite outcome. Host networks generally give higher priority to their direct subscribers when networks are busy.

The rankings are broken.

What’s the problem?

I see two especially plausible explanations for why the survey results aren’t valid for comparison purposes:

  • Non-independent scoring – Respondents may take prices into account when assessing metrics other than value. If that happens, scores won’t be valid for comparisons across carriers.
  • Selection bias – Respondents were not randomly selected to try certain carriers. Accordingly, respondents who use a given carrier probably differ systematically from respondents that use another carrier. Differences in scores between two carriers could reflect either (a) genuine differences in service quality or (b) differences in the type of people who use each service.

Consumer Reports, please do better!

My earlier blog post about Consumer Reports’ methodology is one of the most popular articles I’ve written. I’m nearly certain staff at Consumer Reports have read it. I’ve tried to reach out to Consumer Reports through two different channels. First, I was ignored. Later, I got a response indicating that an editor might reach out to me. So far, that hasn’t happened.

I see three reasonable ways for Consumer Reports’ to respond to the issues I’ve raised:

  • Adjust the survey methodology.
  • Cease ranking cell phone carriers.
  • Continue with the existing methodology, but mention its serious problems prominently when discussing results.

Continuing to publishing rankings based on a broken methodology without disclosing problems is irresponsible.

Markets Are Honest

I’ve been reading a ton of articles with commentators’ takes on whether a merger between Sprint and T-Mobile will be good or bad for consumers. Almost everything I’ve read has taken a strong position one way or the other. I don’t think I’ve seen a single article that expressed substantial uncertainty about whether a merger would be good or bad.

It could be that everyone is hugely biased on both sides of the argument. Or maybe the deal is so bad that only incredibly biased people would consider making an argument that the merger will be good for consumers. I’m not sure.


I like to look at how markets handle situations I’m uncertain about. In the last few years, I’ve regularly seen liberal politicians and liberal news agencies arguing that we’re about to see the end of Trump’s presidency because of some supposedly impeachable action that just came to light. I’m not Trump’s biggest fan, but I’ve found a lot of arguments about how he’s about to be impeached too far-fetched. I have a habit of going to the political betting market PredictIt when I see new arguments of this sort. PredictIt has markets on lots of topics, including whether or not Trump will be impeached.

Politicians and newspapers have an incentive to say things that will generate attention. A lot of the time, doing what gets attention is at odds with saying what’s true. People putting money in markets have incentives that are better aligned with truth.

Most of the time I’ve seen articles about Trump’s impending impeachment, political betting markets haven’t moved much. In rare occasions where markets moved significantly, I’ve had a good indication that something major actually happened.


Wall Street investors have a strong incentive to understand how the merger will actually affect network operators’ success. Unsurprisingly, T-Mobile’s stock increased substantially when key information indicating likely approval of a merger came out. Sprint’s stock also increased in value.

What’s much weirder is that neither Verizon’s stock nor AT&T’s stock seemed to take a negative hit on the days when important information about the merger’s likelihood came out. In fact, it actually looks like the stocks may have increased slightly in value.[1]

You could tell complicated stories to explain why a merger could be good for competing companies’ stock prices and also good for consumers. I think the simpler story is much more plausible: Wall Street is betting the merger will be bad for consumers.

Maybe none of this should be surprising. There were other honest signals earlier on in the approval process. As far as I can tell, neither Verizon nor AT&T seriously resisted the merger:[2]


Disclosure: At the time of writing, I have financial relationships with a bunch of telecommunications companies, including all of the major U.S. network operators except T-Mobile.

DOJ Clears T-Mobile’s Merger With Sprint

As expected, the Department of Justice made an announcement today approving a merger between Sprint and T-Mobile. While the merger isn’t officially closed, DOJ approval was the largest hurdle T-Mobile and Sprint needed to jump before making their merger a reality.

As far as I can tell, the terms of the merger were consistent with what most commentators were expecting:

  • Most of Sprint’s prepaid business will be divested to DISH[1]
  • DISH will get Sprint’s 800 MHz spectrum
  • DISH will receive access to the New T-Mobile’s network for at least 7 years[2]
  • DISH will have the option to take over leases on some retail stores and cell sites

I don’t think mergers between telecom companies have a good track record of benefiting consumers. I hope this merger will be different, but I’m not betting on it. As many others have pointed out, something is odd about the whole arrangement. The divestitures to DISH are ostensibly intended to allow DISH to create a viable, facilities-based carrier (i.e., a carrier that has its own hardware and doesn’t just piggyback off other companies’ networks). If DISH is likely to succeed, it’s hard to explain why Sprint couldn’t remain a viable force. Maybe I’m misunderstanding something important.

I expect the merger-related transitions to take a few years, and I plan to write about new developments as they occur. Should be interesting.


For those interested, here are a few excerpts from T-Mobile’s announcement:
The proposed New T-Mobile, will divest Sprint’s prepaid businesses and Sprint’s 800 MHz spectrum assets to DISH. Additionally, upon the closing of the divestiture transaction, the companies will provide DISH wireless customers access to the New T-Mobile network for seven years and offer standard transition services arrangements to DISH during a transition period of up to three years. DISH will also have an option to take on leases for certain cell sites and retail locations that are decommissioned by the New T-Mobile, subject to any assignment restrictions.
The New T-Mobile will be committed to divest Sprint’s entire prepaid businesses including Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile and Sprint-branded prepaid customers (excluding the Assurance brand Lifeline customers and the prepaid wireless customers of Shenandoah Telecommunications Company and Swiftel Communications, Inc.), to DISH for approximately $1.4 billion. These brands serve approximately 9.3 million customers in total.
With this agreement, Boost Mobile, Virgin Mobile, and Sprint-branded prepaid customers, as well as new DISH wireless customers, will have full access to the legacy Sprint network and the New T-Mobile network in a phased approach. Access to the New T-Mobile network will be through an MVNO arrangement, as well as through an Infrastructure MNO arrangement enabling roaming in certain areas until DISH’s 5G network is built out.
The companies have also committed to engage in good faith negotiations regarding the leasing of some or all of DISH’s 600 MHz spectrum to T-Mobile.
Evolution of cell phones

Phones & Keeping Up With The Joneses

People buy a lot of shit they don’t need to impress other people. The phrase “keeping up with the Joneses” often has a negative connotation. I’m not sure that’s entirely fair.

People care a lot about their social status. Status is helpful for everything from getting jobs to finding romantic partners. Like it or not, buying fancy things can improve people’s social status.

Products do a better job signaling social status when they are conspicuous. Product designers and marketers know this. You don’t see sports cars with fancy engines and subtle, Honda Civic-like exteriors. Sports cars are flashy.

Electric cars tend to look like vehicles Martians might drive. There’s no engineering reason why electric cars need to look goofy. However, carmakers know that electric car owners want other people to know which cars are electric. Unique aesthetics send signals.


Recently, there’s been indications that high-end phones aren’t selling as well as they used to. I’ve seen a lot of plausible explanations: innovations have been limited, cheap phones are awfully good these days, and carriers don’t subsidize devices the way they used to. I want to throw out another possibility: fancy phones are way less conspicuous than they used to be.

The first time one of my friends got a cell phone, I was in fifth grade. At that time, just having a cell phone was cool. But my friend didn’t just have a phone. You see, his phone could flip.

Flip phone photo

Even from a distance, you could tell my buddy’s phone wasn’t just any old phone. It was a flip phone.

When flip phones advanced, the fancier ones tended to look cooler. Remember the Razr?

For the next several years, top-tier phones continued to have unique aesthetics. In 2007, the first iPhone was released. At the time, you knew an iPhone when you saw one. Only the iPhone had a screen almost as large as the phone.[1]

A few iPhone generations later, Apple managed to keep its iPhone 4 conspicuous with a sleeker appearance than earlier models.

In the last few years, companies have run out of ways to keep fancy phones conspicuous. It seems like the goal has been to develop phones that (a) are thin and (b) have as much of the body devoted to screen space as possible. Almost every phone these days is rectangular, sleek, and almost all screen. The Motorola G6 Play is a budget phone these days. It’s still thin, sleek, and mostly covered by a screen:

g6 play

It used to be relatively easy to tell what phone people were using just by looking at it for a second. Now that most phones look similar, that’s much harder.

Woman making a skeptical face

Opensignal Released a New Report – I’m Skeptical

Opensignal just released a new report on the performance of U.S. wireless networks. The report ranks major U.S. networks in five categories based on crowdsourced data:

  • 4G availability
  • Video experience
  • Download speed experience
  • Upload speed experience
  • Latency experience

Verizon took the top spot for 4G availability and video experience. T-Mobile came out on top for both of the speed metrics. T-Mobile and AT&T shared the top placement for the latency experience metric.

Selection bias

I’ve previously raised concerns about selection bias in Opensignal’s data collection methodology. Opensignal crowdsources data from typical users. Crowdsourcing introduces issues since there are systematic differences between the typical users of different networks. Imagine that Network A has far more extensive coverage in rural areas than Network B. It stands to reason that Network A likely has more subscribers in rural areas than Network B. Lots of attributes of subscribers vary in similar ways between networks. E.g., expensive networks likely have subscribers that are wealthier.

Analyses of crowdsourced data can capture both (a) genuine differences in network performance and (b) differences in how subscribers on each network use their devices. Opensignal’s national results shouldn’t be taken too seriously unless Opensignal can make a compelling argument that either (a) its methodology doesn’t lead to serious selection bias or (b) it’s able to adequately adjust for the bias.

Speed metrics

Opensignal ranks carriers based on average download and upload speeds. In my opinion, average speeds are overrated. The portion of time where speeds are good enough is much more important than the average speed a service offers.

Opensignal’s average download speed results are awfully similar between carriers:

  • Verizon – 22.9 Mbps
  • T-Mobile – 23.6 Mbps
  • AT&T – 22.5 Mbps
  • Sprint – 19.2 Mbps

Service at any of those speeds would be sufficient for almost any activities people typically use their phones for. Without information about how often speeds were especially low on each network, it’s hard to come to conclusions about differences in the actual experience on each network.