Why Are Major Carriers’ Websites So Bad?

In my experience, major wireless carriers have terrible websites. It’s hard to figure out all of the plans major carriers offer and the prices of those plans. Finding details about plans’ policies and limitations is often tricky. In contrast, a lot of small, MVNO carriers have easy-to-use websites.

Among the major carriers, I’ve spent the most time using Verizon’s website. While doing things that Verizon suggested I should be able to do online, I’d regularly be served error messages indicating that I should call Verizon’s telephone support.

A recent Reddit thread titled Why is the official Verizon website so bad? touched on the same topic. Commenters indicated that bad websites are par for the course with the major carriers. Here’s the top-voted comment in the thread:1

AT&Ts website and app are far worse. I promise you.

So why are major carriers’ websites so bad? I think part of the explanation is that mobile phone service in the U.S. is a confusopoly. Incompetence doesn’t explain why it’s difficult to find clear descriptions of carriers’ policies and limitations. Carriers make some information hard to find because keeping that information in hard-to-reach areas is in their interests. Carriers often default to showing website visitors a subset of their plans. Visitors often need to search to find prepaid and budget plans. Carriers know that price-sensitive consumers will be more likely to put effort into searching while price-insensitive consumers may spend more than they need to for premium service.

I don’t think my argument that mobile phone service is a confusopoly is sufficient to explain all of the ways in which major carriers websites are bad. It’s hard to see how some of the issues I’ve experienced could serve carriers’ interests. For example, Verizon’s website went down last week. I don’t think the outage was good for Verizon.

Maybe all of the complexity large carriers deal with contributes to their websites being so bad. Subscribers with major carriers are on all sorts of different plans with different policies, features, etc. On the other hand, lots of companies deal with complexity and still have good websites. Financial institutions offer complicated services; their websites seem to work a lot better than major carriers’ websites.

I’m not sure what to think. If other explanations make a lot of sense to you, let me know in the comments.

Why Are Family Plans Cheaper?

Wireless carriers often offer service with a lower price per line for customers on multi-line plans. For example, here’s how Verizon prices its Start Unlimited Plan:1

  • 1 line – $70 per line
  • 2 lines – $60 per line
  • 3 lines – $45 per line
  • 4 lines – $35 per line
  • 5 lines – $30 per line

The cost per line with five users is less than half of the cost per line with only one user. I can think of a few reasonable-seeming explanations for why carriers price their plans this way.

Reduced logistical costs

There may be higher overhead costs per subscriber on single-line plans than on multi-line plans. For example, carriers incur costs when sending bills and processing payments. Even if a multi-line plan has five lines, there is only one bill that needs to be paid each month. Similarly, support costs per line may be lower for multi-line plans. Offering support to an account with five lines probably does not take 5x the effort it takes to offer support to an account with only one line.

Different price sensitivity

Multi-line plans tend to be purchased by families. People may be more price-sensitive when shopping for family plans. Maybe people are often willing to pay top-dollar for an individual (single-line) plan but unwilling to pay top-dollar for service for a whole family.

Looking at it another way, shopping around for deals makes more sense as the price of a service increases. The total cost of a family plan tends to be higher than the total cost of a single-line plan.

Inconsistent use

Not everyone uses their phones in the same way. When my family shared a plan, my sister and I used a fair amount of data. My brother used a little bit of data. My parents barely used any data. On the flip side, I barely used minutes; many of my family members talked on their phones regularly.

When buying a single-line plan, it’s often easy for people to find a plan that’s well-matched to how they use their phone. When family plans require all subscribers to be on the same plan, some people will be forced into plans that are mismatched with their levels of use. I expect it’s common for families to put everyone on an unlimited plan because one or two family members use a lot of data. As a result, lots of light data users end up on multi-line, unlimited plans. In contrast, light data users purchasing single-line plans rarely end up on unlimited plans.

I expect the average person on a single-line, unlimited plan from Verizon uses more data than the average person on a multi-line, unlimited plan from Verizon. Subscribers that use Verizon’s network more heavily contribute more to Verizon’s expenses. As a result, Verizon charges single-line users a higher rate per line.

If everyone in your family uses their phones in about the same way, consider yourself lucky. Your family may be able to get an unusually good deal on wireless service.

Visible Continues To Throttle Some Phones

When the wireless carrier Visible first launched, Visible throttled data speeds to a maximum of 5Mbps. In June, Visible announced a removal of the cap for new and existing customers:

Starting today, and for a limited time, we’re removing the 5 Mbps data speed cap for our current and new members at no added cost…everyone who gets to experience uncapped speeds will get to keep them — again, at no additional cost — as long as they are a member.

Last week, I started trialing Visible’s service. Speed tests I ran all found download speeds of about 5 or 6 Mbps. Whether I had a strong LTE connection or a weak one, I experienced about the same download speed.

Summary of several Visible speed test results showing download speeds around 5Mbps

Each of the tests showed a weird pattern. After initiating a test, speeds would briefly shoot up well beyond 5Mbps (red arrow) before stabilizing around 5Mbps (green arrows).

Speed test result showing speeds stabilize around 5Mbps

Shortly after experiencing these weird test results, I found a Reddit thread where other Visible subscribers mentioned similar problems. Here’s the original post by Reddit user n0ki:

I now have 2 phones moved over to Visible. Both phones max out at 5mbps. After spending an hour or so with chat support and going through all their troubleshooting, I finally convince her that even though my account shows its not capped, that is is acting like it is. She finally decides to “reset” the cap and that resolves the issue.

I reach out to support on my 2nd phone and explain I’m having the same problem and what the solution is. They want me to spend another hour going through all the same troubleshooting steps.

Frustrating that it’s currently advertised as unlimited but all these new accounts still seem to be capped at 5!

Most of the people experiencing the issue were using the Visible R2, the same phone I experienced an issue with.

I went ahead and reached out to Visible’s support. After a live chat conversation that took about 20 minutes, I was experiencing much faster download speeds:

Speed test result finding a download speed of 17Mbps

While it’s unimpressive that Visible seems to still be throttling some subscribers, I’m inclined to believe the issue is due to an honest mistake on Visible’s end.

Image of a hard hat and a construction cone

Verizon Website Outage on 9/23/2019

3:20PM MT update: The outage is has ended.

VerizonWireless.com appears to be down at the moment. If you’re having trouble accessing the website right now, the issue is not on your end. As far as I can tell, the problem is not related to the browser or device visitors are using to access Verizon’s website.

At the moment, I’m being served a “Page is unavailable” message on all of the web pages I’ve tried to load:

Earlier, I was presented with a different error message:

The outage appears to be unrelated to the locations users try to access Verizon’s website from. I continued to receive error messages when accessing Verizon’s website from other locations via a VPN.

The outage appears to have started by about 1:30MT and hasn’t been resolved at the time of writing (about an hour later). Android Central and at least one Twitter user have also picked up on the outage.

Stay tuned.

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)

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
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 role in the implementation of prioritization procedures on LTE networks.

I rely on the app Network Signal Guru (NSG) to find QCI information. The QCI-related features of the NSG app only work on rooted Android devices with appropriate Qualcomm chipsets.1 Rooting devices presents security risks. I don’t recommend rooting any device without doing some research first.

When NSG is running, users can scroll through a number of screens with network performance metrics. 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 during regular data use. I also ran a test with service from Mint Mobile (an MVNO that uses T-Mobile’s network). During my test, Mint Mobile had a QCI of 7.

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 maintain a list of QCI test results 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 places on its subscribers.

(Added 2/26/2020: Since this post came out, Altice Mobile’s price has changed to $40 per month for most people and $30 per month for Optimum and Suddenlink customers.)


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 limits exist despite the plan’s unlimited label. 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 sluggish speeds. The claim in the press release that Altice offers “unlimited video streaming” is particularly misleading. 128Kbps can’t even support stable streaming of low-resolution 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. The service has a competitive price. It might be a good option for people who live in the regions where it’s available.

I hope we’ll see Altice move towards being more transparent with consumers.


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).