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.

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).

Image representing the idea of paths diverging

Cheaper Alternatives To Google Fi

My last post about Google Fi has been getting a lot of traffic. Two sentences from the post provoked a lot of disagreement:

Despite all Fi’s great aspects, I don’t usually recommend it. For most users, it’s just too expensive.

I’m going to double down on that statement, but I want to clarify a few points. I’m not saying no one should use Fi. I’m also not saying Google Fi is one of the worst possible options for most people. A lot of comments disagreeing with me stated a version of the following:

What a dumb post! My wife and I were on T-Mobile paying $150 per month. We switched to Fi. Now we only pay $90 per month!
When I say that Fi is too expensive to recommend it to most people, I don’t mean that no one could save money by switching to Fi. Instead, I mean that most people who could save money switching to Google Fi could save even more money switching to another carrier.

Who should use Fi?

Before diving into alternatives to Google Fi, I want to make it clear that Fi may be a good match for some cell phone users. For example:

  • Extremely light data users who value reliability
  • Frequent international travelers who value the convenience of Fi’s roaming policies
  • People who want to take advantage of Fi’s free data-only SIMs on several low-use devices

Alternatives to Google Fi

The best alternative to Google Fi will depend on a number of factors. For example:

  • Is service being purchased for a single line or multiple lines?
  • How much data will be used each month?
  • How does the subscriber want to make trade-offs between the cost of cell service and the service’s performance?

Below I’ll run through a couple of my preferred alternatives to Google Fi. More details about these carriers can be found within my list of recommended wireless carriers.


As a heads up, I’m affiliated with most of these carriers. If you click a link on my website then purchase service from a carrier I’m affiliated with, I’ll likely get a commission. If you’d prefer I don’t receive a commission, just navigate directly to the carriers’ websites. Details about arrangements I have with carriers can be found on my transparency page. Prices I mention below generally do not include taxes and fees. Headings below link to each carrier’s website.


Tello


Tello offers rock-bottom prices for service over Sprint’s network. Prices are especially good on plans with limited data allotments. For example, $10 per month buys a plan with unlimited texts, unlimited minutes, and 1GB of data.

The downside of Tello is that it runs over Sprint’s network, which has less-extensive coverage than the other nationwide wireless networks.

Mint Mobile


Mint Mobile offers excellent prices for plans with decent data allotments and service over T-Mobile’s network. A plan with unlimited minutes, unlimited talk, and 8GB of data is only $20 per month.

T-Mobile’s network has a more extensive coverage profile than Sprint’s network, but nationwide coverage will still be inferior to service with AT&T, Google Fi (with a Fi-enabled device)[1], or Verizon.

Verizon Prepaid


Verizon’s prepaid plans will generally be more expensive than Tello’s plans or Mint Mobile’s plans. However, Verizon’s network offers more extensive nationwide coverage. Verizon has several different plan options with different data allotments. As one example, a single-line plan with unlimited minutes, unlimited texts, and 16GB of data is available for $45 per month.[2]

Total Wireless

Total Wireless Logo


Total Wireless operates over Verizon’s extensive network and has especially good prices on family plans with large allotments of shared data. For example, a plan with four lines, unlimited minutes, unlimited texts, and 100GB of shared data is available for $100 per month ($95 per month with automatic payments).

US Mobile


As I mentioned earlier, Google Fi might be a good option for those who don’t use their phone much. However, it’s not the only good option. US Mobile offers service over Verizon’s extensive network at great prices for plans with limited resource allotments.[3] US Mobile has a highly-customizable plan structure that allows customers to pick and choose the allotments of minutes, texts, and data that they’d like.

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).

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.

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!

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.