Abstract photo representing wireless technology

New RootMetrics Report – Verizon Wins Again

Yesterday, RootMetrics released its report on mobile network performance in the first half of 2019. Here are the overall, national scores for each network:[1]

  • Verizon – 94.8 points
  • AT&T – 93.2 points
  • T-Mobile – 86.9 points
  • Sprint – 86.7 points

While Verizon was the overall winner, AT&T wasn’t too far behind. T-Mobile came in a distant third with Sprint just behind it.

RootMetrics also reports which carriers scored the best on each of its metrics within individual metro areas. Here’s how many metro area awards each carrier won along with the change in the number of rewards received since the last report:[2]

  • Verizon – 672 awards (+5)
  • AT&T – 380 (+31)
  • T-Mobile – 237 (-86)
  • Sprint – 89 (+9)

My thoughts

Overall this report wasn’t too surprising since the overall results were so similar to those from the previous report. The decline in the number of metro area awards T-Mobile won is large, but I’m not sure I should take the change too seriously. There may have been a big change in T-Mobile’s quality relative to other networks, but I think it’s also possible the change can be explained by noise or a change in methodology. In its report, RootMetrics notes the following:[3]

T-Mobile’s performance didn’t necessarily get worse. Rather, AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon each made award gains in the test period, which corresponded with T-Mobile’s decreased award count.

I continue to believe RootMetrics’ data collection methodology is far better than Opensignal’s methodology for assessing networks at the national level. I take this latest set of results more seriously than I take the Opensignal results I discussed yesterday. That said, I continue to be worried about a lack of transparency in how RootMetrics aggregates its underlying data to arrive at final results. Doing that aggregation well is hard.

A final note for RootMetrics:
PLEASE DISCLOSE FINANCIAL RELATIONSHIPS WITH COMPANIES YOU EVALUATE!

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.

PCMag’s 2019 Network Tests — My thoughts

Summary

On June 20, PCMag published its latest results from performance testing on the major U.S. wireless networks. Surprisingly, AT&T rather than Verizon took the top spot in the overall rankings. I expect this was because PCMag places far more weight on network performance within cities than performance in less-populated areas.

In my opinion, PCMag’s methodology overweights average upload and download speeds at the expense of network reliability. Despite my qualms, I found the results interesting to dig into. PCMag deserves a lot of credit for its thoroughness and unusual level of transparency.

Testing methodology

PCMag claims to be more transparent about its methodology than other entities that evaluate wireless networks.[1] I’ve found this to be true. PCMag’s web page covering its methodology is detailed. Sascha Segan, the individual who leads the testing, quickly responded to my questions with detailed answers. I can’t say anything this positive about transparency demonstrated by RootMetrics or OpenSignal.

To measure network performance, PCMag used custom speed test software developed by Ookla. The software was deployed on Samsung Galaxy S10 phones that were driven to 30 U.S. cities as they collected data.[2] In each city, stops were made in several locations for additional data collection. PCMag only recorded performance on LTE networks. If a phone was connected to a non-LTE network (e.g., a 3G network) during a test, the phone would fail that test.[3] PCMag collected data on six metrics:[4]

  • Average download speed
  • Percent of downloads over a 5Mbps speed threshold
  • Average upload speed
  • Percent of uploads over a 2Mbps speed threshold
  • Reliability (percent of the time a connection was available)
  • Latency

The Galaxy S10 is a recent, flagship device and has essentially the best technology available for high-performance on LTE networks. Accordingly, PCMag’s test are likely to show better performance than consumers using lower-end devices will experience. PCMag’s decision to use the same high-performance device on all networks may prevent selection bias that sometimes creeps up in crowdsourced data when subscribers on one network tend to use different devices than subscribers on another network.[5]

In my opinion, PCMag’s decision not to account for performance on non-LTE networks somewhat limits the usefulness of its results. Some network operators still use a lot of non-LTE technologies.

Scoring

PCMag accounts for networks’ performance on several different metrics. To arrive at overall rankings, PCMag gives networks a score for each metric and assigns specific weights to each metric. Scoring multiple metrics and reasonably assigning weights is far trickier than most people realize. A lot of evaluation methodologies lose their credibility during this process (see Beware of Scoring Systems).

PCMag shares this pie chart when describing the weights assigned to each metric:[6]

The pie chart doesn’t tell the full story. For each metric, PCMag gives the best-performing network all the points available for that metric. Other networks are scored based on how far they are away from the best-performing network. For example, if the best-performing network has an average download speed of 100Mbps (a great speed), it will get 100% of the points available for average download speed. Another network with an average speed of 60Mbps (a good speed) would get 60% of the points available for average download speed.

The importance of a metric is determined not just by the weight it’s assigned. The variance in a metric is also extraordinarily important. PCMag measures reliability in terms of how often a phone has an LTE connection. Reliability has low variance. 100% reliability indicates great coverage (i.e., a connection is always available). 80% reliability is bad. Networks’ reliability barely affects PCMag’s rankings since reliability measures are fairly close to 100% even on unreliable networks.

The scoring system is sensitive to how reliability numbers are presented. Imagine there are only two networks:

  • Network A with 99% reliability
  • Network B with 98% reliability

Using PCMag’s approach, both network A and B would get a very similar number of points for reliability. However, it’s easy to change how the same metric is presented:

  • Network A has no connection 1% of the time
  • Network B has no connection 2% of the time

If PCMag put the reliability metric in this format, network B would only get half of the points available for reliability.

As a general rule, I think average speed metrics are hugely overrated. It’s important that speeds are good enough for people to do what they want to do on their phones. Having speeds that are way faster than the minimum speed that’s sufficient won’t benefit people much.

I’m glad that PCMag put some weight on reliability and on the proportion of tests that exceeded fairly minimum upload and download speed thresholds. However, these metrics just don’t have nearly as much of an effect on PCMag’s final results as I think they should. The scores for Chicago provide a good illustration:

Despite having the worst reliability score and by far the worst score for downloads above a 5Mbps threshold, T-Mobile still manages to take the top ranking. Without hesitation, I’d choose service with Verizon or AT&T’s performance in Chicago over service with T-Mobile’s performance in Chicago. (If you’d like to get a better sense of how scores for different metrics drove the results in Chicago, see this Google sheet where I’ve reverse engineered the scoring.)

To create rankings for regions and final rankings for the nation, PCMag combines city scores and scores for suburban/rural areas. As I understand it, PCMag mostly collected data in cities, and roughly 20% of the overall weight is placed on data from rural/suburban areas. Since a lot more than 20% of the U.S. population lives in rural or suburban areas, one could argue the national results overrepresent performance in cities. I think this puts Verizon at a serious disadvantage in the rankings. Verizon has more extensive coverage than other networks in sparsely populated areas.

While I’ve been critical in this post, I want to give PCMag the credit it’s due. First, the results for each metric in individual cities are useful and interesting. It’s a shame that many people won’t go that deep into the results and will instead walk away with the less-useful conclusion that AT&T took the top spot in the national rankings.

PCMag also deserves credit for not claiming that its results are the be-all-end-all of network evaluation:[7]

Other studies may focus on downloads, or use a different measurement of latency, or (in Nielsen’s case) attempt to measure the speeds coming into various mobile apps. We think our balance makes the most sense, but we also respect the different decisions others have made.

RootMetrics and OpenSignal are far less modest.

SpeedTalk Mobile Incentivising Reviews

I recently purchased a cheap service plan I wanted to trial from SpeedTalk Mobile. During the checkout process, I was shown the following:

This clearly violates Google’s guidelines.[1]

Reviews are only valuable when they are honest and unbiased. (For example, business owners shouldn’t offer incentives to customers in exchange for reviews.)

I also noticed SpeedTalk keyword stuffing in its website’s footer—another questionable strategy:[2]


I was pretty excited about SpeedTalk. Not anymore.

Is Google Fi Worth It?

Google Fi uses an admirably simple pricing structure. A base rate of $20 per month offers subscribers unlimited talk and text. Beyond that, users are charged $10 per gigabyte of data. Single-line plans are capped at a monthly charge of $80, so subscribers that use 6GB of data will pay the same monthly price as subscribers that use 10GB of data.[1] While I like the simplicity of the pricing structure, plans end up being fairly expensive. It’s my impression that Google Fi has had its current pricing structure in place for several years despite the cost per byte of data dropping in the industry at large.

Fi-enabled devices have technology that allows them to switch between T-Mobile, U.S. Cellular, and Sprint’s networks. While the technology is cool, I’m not sure I’d choose seamless switching between three networks with mediocre coverage over exclusive access to Verizon’s more reliable network.[2]

Fi now officially supports devices that are not Fi-enabled. When these devices are used with Fi, they’ll only have access to T-Mobile’s network. Many mobile virtual network operators use T-Mobile’s network and offer far better prices than Fi. For example, Mint Mobile’s plans blow Fi’s prices out of the water.[3] Even with a Fi-enabled device, I think most people can find a better deal. A light user would pay $30 per month before taxes and fees for texts, talk, and 1GB of data on Fi’s network. You could get the same unlimited texting, unlimited talk, and 1GB of data with Verizon’s prepaid service for $30.[4] RedPocket can offer those resources on any of the major networks for $19 per month.[5]

For heavy data users, the case against Fi is even clearer. Using 6+ gigabytes of data brings the Fi monthly bill to $80 before taxes and fees. At that cost, I expect you could purchase an unlimited, postpaid plan with any of the Big Four carriers.

Despite my negativity, I’m still a huge fan of Fi’s simplicity and remarkable international roaming policies. Hopeful Fi will revamp its prices in the near future to become more competitive with the other options on the market.

Verizon’s Double Data Promo on Prepaid Plans

Earlier this month, Verizon improved its prepaid plan offerings by relaunching the double data promotion it has run in the past. As before, all of prepaid phone plans include unlimited talk and text. Plans differ in the amount of high-speed data allotted each month. Here are the current monthly prices for each plan before taxes, fees, or discounts:[1]

  • $30 – 1GB high-speed data
  • $40 – 6GB high-speed data
  • $50 – 16GB high-speed data
  • $65 – Unlimited high-speed data

Streaming video will likely be limited to 480p quality on Verizon’s prepaid plans. Unlimited data at low (2G) speeds is available if a customer uses up all of his or her allotted high-speed data.

Discounts

A $5 per month per line discount is usually available if subscribers pay automatically each month. The discount cannot be applied to the $30 per month plan or the first month of service.

When an initial line is purchased at full price, the following multiline discounts are available:[2]

  • $10 off — Additional line with 6GB high-speed data
  • $15 off — Additional line with 16GB high-speed data
  • $20 off — Additional line with unlimited high-speed data

Terms

The current deals appear to be part of a temporary promotion, but I haven’t seen any indication of an end date for the promotion. When the promotion ends, it looks like customers who’ve already taken advantage of the promotion will continue to receive the deal for the lifetime of their plan:

Limited time offer. Available to new activations only. Bonus data added each month as long as your account remains active. Once activated, customers can move between eligible plans anytime and keep the bonus data. Your promotional data allowance will not appear in your shopping cart, but will be seen in your account after activation.

My thoughts

I’m not aware of any mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) operating on Verizon’s network offering better deals to heavy data-users than Verizon is now offering directly. However, consumers that use small amounts of data each month may still be able to find better deals with MVNOs operating over Verizon’s network.

I’ve been trying Verizon’s prepaid service for a few weeks now, and I’m a fan. While Verizon’s prepaid subscribers may be deprioritized in times of congestion, I believe the prepaid service offers nearly the same coverage as Verizon’s postpaid service.

Potential bias

I have a financial relationship with Verizon. As of 5/28/2019, I’m likely to receive a $24 commission when I refer a new prepaid subscriber to Verizon. I share more details about my relationship with Verizon here.

When Will 3G Be Phased Out?

Last updated: May 24, 2019

Major U.S. network operators are slowly phasing out their 3G technology. In this post, I share my impressions about the status of the Big Four networks’ 3G phase-outs. For what it’s worth, I’m not confident all of the information is correct, and it’s possible some network operators won’t stick to their current deadlines.

Verizon

Verizon plans to mostly retire its 3G network by the end of 2019. 3G-only devices can no longer be activated on the network. Here’s an excerpt from Verizon’s knowledgebase:[1]

Verizon Wireless is retiring its CDMA (3G) network at the end of 2019. As a result, we are no longer allowing activation of CDMA-only devices, including CDMA-only basic phones and smartphones, or 4G LTE smartphones that do not support HD Voice service.
Although the network will largely be retired, FirceWireless explains that some of Verizon’s enterprise customers will continue to have access to 3G service after 2019.

AT&T

AT&T appears to have plans to retire its 3G network in early 2022. Here’s an excerpt found on AT&T’s website as of 5/24/2019:[2]

We currently plan to end service on our 3G wireless networks in February 2022.

I’m not sure it’s correct, but I’ve seen an indication that AT&T plans to cease activating 3G-only devices on June 30, 2019.

T-Mobile

As far as I know, T-Mobile hasn’t made any announcements about when its 3G network will be retired. I haven’t seen any information about intentions to block 3G device activation.

Sprint

A document published by Multi-Tech indicates that Sprint may sunset its 3G network on 12/31/2022. I don’t know what source Multi-Tech relies on for that date.

Sprint appears to have had an intention to stop activating 3G-only devices on 4/30/2019. I haven’t confirmed that activations actually ceased.

Your Mileage May Vary

It’s common to see some consumers giving a cell phone carrier glowing reviews while other consumers publish long rants about the same carrier. When it comes to cell phone service, your mileage may vary.

Cell phone users differ from each other in a lot of ways. It should be unsurprising that a T-Mobile customer in New York City might feel differently about the quality of his T-Mobile’s service than another customer in rural Wisconsin feels about her T-Mobile service. Even within a single geographic region, the way people feel about the quality of a given carrier will vary substantially. People use different phones and do different things with their phones. People are also pretty different. Some people don’t mind if they occasionally don’t have service while traveling in sparsely populated areas. I hate it. Some people are frustrated if their video streaming is limited to 480p quality. That doesn’t bother me.

When choosing cell service, realizing that individual experiences with a carrier will be highly variable can prevent a lot of frustration. Taking advantage of the fact that people’s mileage may vary can allow frugal consumers to save a lot on wireless service.

The frugal strategy

I would guess that there are millions of consumers paying $50-$100 per line each month for postpaid Verizon service that could switch to Mint Mobile plans costing about $20 per line each month without experiencing a recognizable decrease in service quality. While Verizon’s postpaid service is going to generally be better than Mint’s service, many consumers have great experiences with Mint.

Even if you expect to have a good experience with a premium carrier, it may be worth trying low-cost carriers beforehand. There’s a chance the low-cost carriers are capable of providing you with good service. Let’s assume a low-cost, prepaid service would cost you $20 per month while a premium service would cost you $70 per month and require a two-year commitment. If you try the prepaid service first and end up liking it enough to choose it over the premium service, the upside is huge. You can save $50 per month on each line and don’t get locked into a long contract. Over a two-year period, the financial savings come out to $1,200 per line. If you try the prepaid service and disklike it, the downside is pretty low. You experience one month of mediocre service before upgrading to something better.

Strategy outline

  • Consider getting an unlocked phone with near-universal compatibility if you don’t already have one[1]
  • Try a cheap, prepaid carrier for one month
  • If you love the carrier, stick with it
  • If not, try a slightly more expensive carrier
  • Keep trying more expensive carriers until you find one you like

Most people don’t use anything like this strategy. Some of them are leaving a lot of money on the table.

Google Voice Review

I love Google Voice, and I want more people to know how awesome it is. I find Voice to be most useful when paired with a wireless device, but it’s also great as a stand-alone service you can use from a desktop.

Stand-alone Google Voice

The stand-alone, personal version of Voice is free and easy to get started with (much like Google Docs or Gmail). Once you’re signed up for the web platform, you’ll be given a free Google Voice phone number. From Voice’s web interface, you can send and receive calls and texts. Calls and texts in the U.S. are free.

Here are a few examples of situations where Voice’s stand-alone service can be useful:

  • You’re selling something on Craigslist and want to list your phone number. You don’t want to share your normal phone number because you don’t want to be contacted at odd hours or receive spam calls. Listing your Google Voice number in your ad solves the problems.
  • You misplaced your phone in your house. No one else is around to call it to make it ring. After accessing Google Voice from a computer, you can call your phone yourself.
  • You’re seated comfortably at your computer, but you need to make a call. No problem! Make your call from Goole Voice.

I don’t think most people will want to use stand-alone Google Voice regularly, but it’s a super helpful tool in rare situations. I once had a phone die while traveling. Using Voice, I was able to reach out to a friend I was meeting with, confirm our plans, and let them know I wouldn’t be reachable through my usual phone number. That prevented a lot of stress.

Google Voice paired with a phone

Google Voice can be extremely useful when paired with a mobile device and a primary number. Once you’ve downloaded a Google Voice app to a device, you can send and receive calls or texts from either the Voice web platform or your mobile device. It’s a best-of-both-worlds situation. If I’m at my computer, I prefer to take calls over Voice since my computer has a solid internet connection and I often have a nice headset connected. Texting is also more pleasant with a full-sized keyboard. The Voice web interface even lets me view visual voicemails and contacts from my desktop. None of this requires me to sacrifice my mobile experience. Calls and texts will continue to come through to my phone when I’m away from my computer.

If you don’t have a primary phone number you rely on, all of this can be done free of charge. Just take the free number Google Voice gives you, pair it with your device, and treat it as your primary number going forward. Alternatively, if you have a primary number, you can port it to Google Voice for a one-time fee of $20.[1] Having your number live with Google rather than a traditional carrier has amazing perks. Normally, regularly switching phone companies is kind of a pain in the ass because you need to port numbers between carriers. The porting process takes time, and issues can arise while porting. With Google Voice, no porting is necessary. I’ve used the same Google Voice number with a handful of different carriers. When I switch between carriers’ SIM cards, my primary number stays associated with the Voice app on my phone.

Voice may even allow you to lower your typical phone bill. If you make calls from your computer, you can avoid using minutes from your mobile plan. While calls made from the Google Voice app on your phone will use your plan’s minutes, you can choose to download the Hangouts app which allows you to make calls from your phone using data (Wi-Fi or cellular) instead of minutes.

Configuring Google Voice

It may take a bit of tinkering to get Google Voice working optimally. Here are a few settings I’ve selected to get the experience I want:

  • I have the option to screen calls turned off.
  • I have the option to always use my phone to place calls turned off.
  • I only pair Google Voice with one phone.[2]

Downsides

  • I’ve found Google Voice’s web application to have some issues when accessed via Firefox.
  • Occasionally, I’ve found text messages to fail to send through the web application (fortunately, the application alerts me when this happens).[3]

5G: Awesome But Overhyped

5G network technologies have the potential to deliver far faster wireless speeds than 4G technologies. 5G will also enable data transfer with much lower latency (delay) than 4G. The technology is awesome. However, I’ve had a nagging suspicion that aspects of 5G are being overhyped to consumers.

Earlier this month, I attended the Big 5G Event in Denver. Many executives in the telecommunications industry spoke at the conference, including speakers from each of the major U.S. networks. While I felt like some network operators had been misleading consumers about 5G, I hoped statements network operators made at the conference would be more reliable. After all, most attendees of the conference were telecommunications professionals capable of seeing through bogus claims. Unfortunately, excessive hype and silly claims showed up in many of the presentations.

That said, a couple of folks deserve applause for calling out bullshit related to 5G. From the beginning of his presentation, Ibrahim Gedeon, CTO of the Canadian operator Telus, indicated that he was going to be unusually straightforward:

How the hell am I going to spend 20 minutes looking very smart and say nothing…I should abandon that…I think 5G is letting us down.

Gedeon didn’t pull any punches when discussing AT&T’s recent shenanigans:

I feel like we have to 5G something…Maybe we can find out from some of our peers how we can fake the 5G icon on the phone…That is the cheapest way to deliver 5G…I have nothing but the ultimate respect for good marketing.

5G use cases

Prior to the conference, I was skeptical about many of the proposed use cases for 5G. After the event, I’m even more skeptical.

Nicki Palmer, a senior vice president at Verizon, explained how 5G combined with machine learning could allow people with food allergies to scan items they pass in the grocery store to detect whether items contain allergens. It’s a neat idea. It might be technically impressive. However, 5G speeds aren’t required.

Some speakers mentioned that 5G could allow augmented reality technology to be used during surgical operations. Technology of this sort might be developed eventually, but I’m awfully skeptical that we’ll see next-generation wireless revolutionizing surgery in the next decade. There are hurdles in the way of that technology being used on a large scale well beyond limitations in wireless speeds and latency.

I also heard a lot about the potential 5G has to improve education. None of it made sense to me. Schools are buildings with wired internet. Wired internet can be awfully fast. Limitations in mobile speeds are not holding back education.

When I mentioned my skepticism about 5G use cases to Chris Pearson, president of 5G Americas, he emphasized that it might not be possible to predict many of the best use cases ahead of time. It’s a good point. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to think through new use cases emerged after the 3G to 4G transition. A lot of existing applications improved in a predictable manner. E.g., video streaming became a lot better with 4G speeds. Were there a lot of new, unanticipated use cases enabled by 4G? I’m not sure.

While I have a lot of skepticism about proposed 5G use cases, I’m still awfully excited about 5G. One specific use case that the conference made me more optimistic about is fixed wireless (delivering internet to buildings via wireless transmission instead of wired transmission). In a future post, I’ll explain why I find fixed wireless so exciting.

5G & prices

Could 5G lead to drastic declines in the cost consumers pay for each gigabyte of data? Unfortunately, I heard almost nothing on the topic.

In a panel that included executives from Verizon and AT&T, the moderator asked about 5G monetization and pricing. Nicki Palmer of Verizon and Igor Glubochansky of AT&T both dodged the question with politician-like non-answers.

5G timelines

In several different presentations, representatives of U.S. network operators suggested that they would have large-scale 5G networks deployed within a year or two. If these claims are taken seriously, I think they should be interpreted as indicating that some 5G technologies will be deployed on a large scale (e.g., the 5G air interface) alongside 4G technology. I think we are still several years away from large-scale, fully 5G networks.