Google Fi’s Unlimited Plan – Is It Worth It?

Yesterday, Google Fi launched an unlimited plan. While Fi labels the new plan as “unlimited,” it has a couple of limitations potential customers should recognize:

  • Video streaming will be limited to 480p quality.
  • After 22GB of regular data use on a line, data speeds will be throttled to 256Kbps.

In my opinion, 480p quality (sometimes described as DVD-quality) is perfectly fine. However, plenty of people disagree with me and like to watch videos in higher resolutions. I see the reduced speeds after 22GB of use as a more serious limitation. 256Kbps is slow enough to make some online activities frustrating or impossible.

Google Fi customers can now choose between Fi’s old, Flexible plan or the new, Unlimited plan:

Fi’s Flexible Plan

The flexible plan uses the following pricing structure before taxes and fees:

  • $20 for unlimited talk and text on the first line. $15 for each additional line.
  • Pay-for-what-you-use data charged at $10 for each gigabyte of use. Data charges are capped after a threshold amount of data use that varies with the number of lines on the plan (6GB for a single-line plan).

The flexible plan has slightly different policies:

  • After 15GB of use on a line in a single month, speeds are capped to 256Kbps.
  • Video can be streamed at 1080p quality.
  • International calls from the U.S. incur reasonable, per-minute charges (subscribers on Fi’s unlimited plan can make calls from the U.S. to over 50 countries at no additional cost).

Fi’s Unlimited Plan

Google Fi’s unlimited plan is priced based on the number of lines used:[1]

Number of LinesCost Per Unlimited LineBreak-even Point
(Gigs per line)
1$705.00GB
2$604.25GB
3$503.33GB
4$452.88GB
5$452.90GB
6$452.92GB

Fi Flexible Vs. Fi Unlimited

If you expect the average data use across lines on your plan will consistently fall below the appropriate break-even point listed in the table above, you should probably subscribe to Fi’s Flexible plan. If you expect data use to be above the break-even point consistently, you should probably subscribe to Fi’s Unlimited plan.

If you’re unsure about your data use or use very different amounts of data each month, choosing a plan may be harder. Google Fi’s Unlimited plan allows 7GB per line more of regular-speed data use each month (22GB vs. 15GB). If you expect you’ll always use less than 15GB of data per line, you may still want to consider Fi’s Flexible plan. Since the flexible plan has caps on data charges, Fi’s Flexible plan will rarely be much more expensive than Fi’s Unlimited plan:

Number of LinesTotal Cost (Unlimited plan)Max Cost (Flexible plan)Difference
1$70$80$10
2$120$135$15
3$150$170$20
4$180$205$25
5$225$240$15
6$270$275$5
If you expect to use under 15GB per line and occasionally (but not always) have data use that exceeds the break-even point, Fi’s Flexible plan is likely the best option.


You can view the math behind the tables in this post here.

VerHIDEzon – Brought To You By T-Mobile

T-Mobile just started a satirical ad campaign criticizing Verizon. T-Mobile’s CEO, John Legere, kicked the campaign off with this tweet:

Tweet from T-Mobile's CEO

The ad campaign criticizes Verizon for its decision to charge a premium for 5G service without publishing a map of areas where 5G service is available. The website for the campaign, VerHIDEzon.com, has some entertaining content:

We believe in charging a premium for 5G, without telling you where you’ll have coverage.
Why do we do this? Because we’re VerHIDEzon, and we do whatever we want…Every day we wake up with one goal in mind: charge our customers as much as possible.


T-Mobile makes a good point. It’s silly for Verizon to charge for 5G service without publishing information that indicates the extent of Verizon’s 5G coverage. Still, I find the campaign kind of odd. Neither company has much 5G coverage at the moment. Almost no one is using 5G-compatible phones yet. It may make business sense for T-Mobile to run the campaign today, but more time will need to pass before 5G has a lot of relevance for typical consumers.

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.

Image representing high-tech metrics

How To Find QCI Values

QoS Class Identifiers (QCIs) play a large role in the implementation of prioritization procedures on LTE networks. With the right tools, you can figure out the QCI your service is using. The approach I’ve taken requires the app Network Signal Guru (NSG) running on a rooted Android device with a Qualcomm chipset. Rooting devices presents some security threats, so I don’t recommend anyone root their device without doing some research first.

When NSG is running, users can scroll through a number of screens that display metrics related to network performance. If you’re connected to an LTE network, one of the screens will be titled “EUTRA Sessions.” The screenshot below comes from a test I ran using Google Fi’s service over T-Mobile’s network:


My Google Fi service had a QCI of 6. To get a better sense of how that stacked up to other services, I also ran a test with service from Mint Mobile (an MVNO that uses T-Mobile’s network). Mint Mobile had a QCI of 7, which is associated with lower priority service than a QCI of 6.


Making sense of networks’ prioritization procedures can be complicated. Network operators are usually not transparent about their policies. Disclosures and legal information published by the major networks provide some sense of each network’s policies, but the disclosures generally don’t shed as much light as I’d like. To get a better understanding of networks’ policies, I plan to collect QCI information from more carriers going forward. I’ll be sharing that information here. If you also use Network Signal Guru and would like to contribute your observations, let me know.

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).

T-Mobile Launches New Test Drive Program

In the last couple of days, T-Mobile has begun a new trial program. Non-customers can get a mobile hotspot along with 30 days of service and 30GB of data at no cost.

The program provides an easy option for people to test how well T-Mobile’s network could work for them. Once a hotspot is turned on, users can connect their existing phones and devices via Wi-Fi. The hotspots are compatible with LTE band 71, so hotspot users can experience the benefits of T-Mobile’s new Extended Range LTE signal.[1]

What’s the catch? As far as I can tell, there isn’t one. Signing up is easy, no credit card is required, and it’s not even necessary to return the hotspot at the end of the trial. I’ve joined the program, and I’ll probably post again in about a month with an update on my experience.

You can sign up for the program here. T-Mobile’s CEO, John Legere, discusses the program in more detail in the video below.

Unihertz Atom Review – A Postmortem

If you happen to stumble upon a tiny phone on the bottom of the San Marcos river, please let me know. It’s mine.

Towards the end of last year, I supported the Indiegogo campaign for the Unihertz Atom. The Atom is a tiny, ultra-durable phone. I have a habit of putting my personal phones through hell, and I hate how large most of today’s mainstream phones are. I thought the Atom might be just what I needed.

I used the Atom for something like nine months before losing it this weekend. The form factor of the phone is probably the most interesting thing about it:[1]

The phone is thick but otherwise tiny. Before buying the phone, I didn’t realize how much of a conversation piece it would become. If you buy one, prepare yourself for endless questions along the lines of “Is that a [pause] phone?” and “How do you text on that?”

Performance

I’m not going to dive into details about the phone’s hardware specs. Plenty of other reviewers have already done that. At a high-level, the phone has decent hardware given its small size and low price (about $250). I never had any trouble with sluggish performance. After all, given the phone’s small size, it’s not too tempting to multitask aggressively or use intensely demanding apps in the same way you might on a conventional phone.

Size constraints

Most apps were surprisingly good at accommodating the Atom’s small screen. Texting and emailing weren’t as pleasant as they would be on a larger device, but neither activity involved a lot of struggling. Android’s auto-correct features were pretty useful for keeping the typing experience fluid despite occasionally hitting the wrong letters on the keyboard. That said, I have small fingers and good eyes. Other people might find typing more painful than I did.

Despite the phone’s size, it still has basically everything I expect a normal phone to have. The Atom has a flashlight. There’s a rear camera and a front-facing camera. Both cameras are lousy, but they work.

Overall, I think most aspects of the phone can be described as: passable but not great. That’s sort of the point of the Atom. You can use the Atom to waste time on social media, but it’s not as pleasant as the same time wasting would be on another phone.

While using the Atom, I found myself being less responsive to messages than I usually am. Reduced responsiveness could be a good thing if you’re frustrated with how attached you are to your phone. In my case, I think reduced responsiveness was a bad thing.

Durability

Unihertz claims the Atom is IP68 rated, meaning that it is both dust-proof and waterproof. Neither the headphone jack or the charging port are sealed, so I was initially afraid to put the phone to the test. Once I got over the fear, my Atom survived plenty of time underwater.

I’m not sure how it happened, but I did manage to put a decent scratch into the Atom’s screen at some point. I don’t think the screen is especially fragile, but it’s less scratch-resistant than sapphire screens seen on some rugged phones.

Other issues

  • Call quality often seemed bad. I don’t think this was so much about the phone being unable to offer good call quality as it was about me struggling to position the phone so that my ear was by the speaker while the microphone was well-placed.
  • The Atom’s vibrate function is weak. I wouldn’t always feel it in my pocket. I see this as a substantial negative. I don’t like putting my phone on ring.
  • Unihertz’s communication between the time when I supported the Indiegogo campaign and the time when I received the device was not very good. The phone also shipped slowly. I would have got my device sooner if I had just purchased an Atom via Amazon after the release date.

Other positives

  • Unihertz has some accessories (an armband, a bike mount, a clip mount) built specifically for the Atom. Rather than charging a premium for these accessories since normal accessories won’t fit the Atom, Unihertz sells them for entirely reasonable prices in the $10-$20 range.
  • The Atom works with AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile. However, it doesn’t qualify as what I call a nearly universal unlocked phone since it lacks whitelisting from Sprint and does not have complete support for all the important LTE bands used in the U.S.
  • The Atom has a dual SIM tray. You can attach multiple lines of service to a single device.
  • The Atom’s battery life is excellent. This may be more about the Atom being unappealing for frequent use than the battery capacity being especially good.

Closing thoughts

Would I recommend the Atom? I’m not sure. It was a fun experiment using it for most of a year. If you’re weird in the same sorts of ways I am, you’ll enjoy a lot of things about the Atom. It’s certainly durable, it doesn’t take up a lot of room in pockets, and it’s great for bringing along on bike rides. That said, the Atom was sometimes a pain to use as a primary phone. When I lost the phone while tubing down a river last week, I may have been more relieved than upset.

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.

Did Google Fi Shoot Itself In The Foot?

Google Fi has a lot going for it: amazing international roaming options, fancy network-switching technology, and a simple pricing structure. Despite all Fi’s great aspects, I don’t usually recommend it. For most users, it’s just too expensive. Google Fi typically charges $10 per gigabyte of data. A lot of other carriers offer plans with far lower rates for data.

All Fi subscribers have roughly the same plan with the same pricing structure.[1] There aren’t ten different plans with different names and policies. This is in sharp contrast with Verizon. Looking at just unlimited plans, Verizon has several options:

  1. Start Unlimited
  2. Play More Unlimited
  3. Do More Unlimited
  4. Get More Unlimited

In fact, Verizon actually has a fifth unlimited plan it offers as a prepaid option. Each unlimited plan is a bit different. Some of the plans have more limits than others—inviting critics to joke about how Verizon doesn’t understand the meaning of the word “unlimited.”

While it feels silly, there are a handful of reasons why it makes business sense for Verizon to have several unlimited plans. Today, I’ll only touch on one of those reasons: when a carrier has multiple plans, it’s easier to introduce new prices and policies without immediately affecting existing customers. We just saw Verizon do this. A month ago, Verizon was offering three postpaid, unlimited plans. They were different from today’s plans:

  • GoUnlimited
  • BeyondUnlimited
  • AboveUnlimited

When Verizon introduces new plans, it can cease offering old plans to new customers while offering existing customers the same service on legacy plans. Since there are several plans that all have different policies, it’s difficult for people to make simple, apples-to-apples comparisons between legacy plans and plans available to new customers.

Back to Fi. Google Fi has been charging almost everyone $10 per gigabyte for a long time.[2] Years ago, that was a decent price for data. Today it’s not. Data costs have gone down in most of the industry.

I don’t have any inside knowledge about Fi, but I’m suspicious Fi’s simple pricing structure makes it hard for the company to change its prices. If Fi wanted to offer new customers data for $5 per gigabyte, existing Google Fi subscribers would want that deal too. If existing subscribers had to continue paying $10 per gigabyte, they’d get angry. If Fi reduced prices for existing subscribers, Fi’s revenue would plummet.


Added after publication: The idea I share in this post probably doesn’t explain why Fi charges so much for data (or at least, it is probably an incomplete explanation). There are a lot of other plausible explanations. E.g., Fi’s agreements with network operators may not lead to Fi getting good rates on data.

Added even later: When I said I don’t usually recommend Google Fi, I didn’t mean to imply that Fi’s prices are uniquely awful or that no one should use Fi. Rather, I don’t typically recommend Google Fi since most consumers can find comparable service at a lower price (see carriers I recommend).