Mint Mobile’s Unlimited Plan Has Limits

Today, Mint Mobile launched an “unlimited” plan. Mint has officially joined the ranks of carriers like Google Fi, Altice, Total Wireless, Wing, Tello. What do all these carriers have in common? Each offers an allegedly “unlimited” plan that strictly limits how much data subscribers can use.

The rest of this post is a rant. To be clear, I think Mint’s new plan is great. I just hate seeing the cellular industry move towards a scenario where every carrier has to offer plans that are misleadingly labeled “unlimited” in order to remain competitive. If you’re looking for a level-headed overview of Mint’s new plan, see my previous post. If you’re looking for cynicism and entertainment, keep reading.

Limits

Mint’s unlimited plan has three major restrictions:

  • Subscribers can only use 35GB of full-speed data each month. After 35GB of data use, Mint throttles data to sluggish speeds.
  • Mint limits mobile hotspot use to 5GB per month.
  • Mint throttles video streaming to a maximum of 480p.

How slow are speeds after 35GB?

Mint screwed up its communications about the throttling it imposes after 35GB of data use. Pre-launch information I received said subscribers would be throttled to 128Kbps. The only specific speed I’ve found mentioned on Mint’s updated website is 64Kbps:

Mint Mobile’s ‘Unlimited Data’ plan comes with 35GB of high-speed data, which is slowed to 64 kbps thereafter and reset at the next billing cycle.

I expect Mint will clarify its policies by the end of the day. For the rest of this post, I’ll give Mint the benefit of the doubt and say the throttle is 128Kbps. In some sense, it doesn’t matter if the throttle is 128Kbps or 64Kbps. The internet will be almost unusable at either speed.

(Update: Mint clarified that users exceeding 35GB of data use will be throttled to 128Kbps)

Objections

But Chris! Mint lets you use unlimited data at 128Kbps! Sure, 128Kbps is slow as hell, but the plan is still unlimited!

No. At 128Kbps, a lot of things won’t work. Video won’t stream. Some web pages won’t load at all.

More importantly, a rate limit can’t coexist with unlimited data. If a full 128 kilobits is transferred every second for an entire month, only 41GB of data is used.1 There’s an absolute cap on Mint’s unlimited plan on data use of about 76GB (35GB + 41GB). Realistically, almost no subscribers will get much past 35GB of use in a month, since the internet will be so frustrating to use after the 35GB of full-speed data runs out.

But Chris! 35GB is practically unlimited! Almost everyone uses way less data than that!
Agreed! If you’re excited about the plan, this post probably shouldn’t dissuade you.

I don’t even fault Mint for calling the new plan “unlimited.” I’m impressed Mint managed to hold out so long while its competitors offered unlimited-but-not-really-unlimited plans.

My point is that consumers would be better off in the long run if carriers weren’t incentivized to mislabel plans.

Anyhow, if you’re interested in Mint’s new plan, go for it. It’s an awesome deal for $30 per month. Just realize it’s a 35GB plan.

Mint Mobile Launches An Unlimited Plan

Mint Mobile launched an unlimited plan this morning. It’s available for as little as $30 per month.

Plan terms

Like many unlimited plans offered by mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs), the plan isn’t actually “unlimited” in the mainstream sense of the word:

  • Subscribers can use 35GB of regular, full-speed data each month. After 35GB of data use, Mint throttles speeds to a sluggish 128Kbps.1
  • Mint caps mobile hotspot use at 5GB per month.

I’ll save my complaints about Mint misusing the word “unlimited” for a second post. 35GB of data and 5GB of mobile hotspot access will be sufficient for the vast majority of people.2

Like Mint’s old plans, the new plan includes unlimited minutes and texts. Calling to Canada and Mexico is also included at no charge.

Subscribers with 5G-capable devices will get access to 5G coverage from T-Mobile’s network. While T-Mobile’s 5G network is lackluster in terms of speeds, it leads the nation in 5G availability. You can check coverage at your location with Mint’s interactive map.

Pricing

With the new unlimited plan, Mint is continuing to price service based on how many months of service customers pay for upfront.

  • $30 per month – 12 months of service
  • $35 per month – 6 months of service
  • $40 per month – 3 months of service

The unlimited plan is eligible for the same introductory offer that Mint offers on its other plans. New customers can purchase three months of service at the rate Mint usually reserves for customers that purchase 12 months of service. I.e., three months of service on the unlimited plan costs $90 ($30 per month).

Reflections

Competitiveness

I’m glad to see Mint offering a plan for heavy data users with such a low price point. I expect the plan will be popular, especially among people who only need one or two lines of service. The new Mint plan should be competitive with other low-cost unlimited plans offered by carriers like Visible and Cricket. While I don’t think Mint’s new plan will make T-Mobile’s Essentials plan irrelevant, I’m ready to argue Mint’s plan is almost strictly the better option.

Pricing strategy

Interestingly, Mint has narrowed the distance between pricing tiers with the new plan. Mint’s 8GB plan costs $20 per month for customers that purchase a year of service upfront. The plan is 75% more expensive ($35 per month) for customers that purchase 3 months of service.3 Mint’s unlimited plan is only 33% more expensive for customers that opt for 3 months of service.4

In the past, I’ve wondered whether Mint’s pricing structure made volume discounts too aggressive. The large difference between monthly rates on three-month terms and twelve-month terms may have made the carrier unappealing to budget-sensitive consumers that could have been a good fit for Mint. Is it possible we’ll soon see Mint narrow the gap between pricing tiers on its old plans?

Mint’s new approach to pricing has a funny consequence. In some situations, Mint’s 12GB plan is now $5 per month more expensive than the 35GB (unlimited) plan.5

PCMag Releases 2020 Cellular Performance Report

PCMag just released its 2020 report on the performance of cellular networks.

  • Verizon took the top spot for overall performance.
  • AT&T came in a close second.
  • T-Mobile came in third place but led in 5G availability.

Differences from previous years’ tests

Due to logistical issues from the pandemic, PCMag altered its methodology:

Traditionally, we’d tour each city and then test rural areas between cities before moving on to the next one. But that involves flights, rental cars, and hotels, none of which we felt safe using this year. So we hired roughly two dozen drivers to each test their own cities, in their own cars, sleeping in their own beds, shipping the testing kits from place to place. The result is a nationwide, COVID-safe test, but without the rural data we usually provide.

PCMag also started placing more emphasis on 5G connections. I’m a big fan of how PCMag handled 5G performance in its scoring (emphasis mine):

We had separate sets of 4G and 5G phones running tests offset by 60 seconds from each other…We ended up choosing the best result from each of the two devices on the same network, no matter what G they were on…What people really want is a consistent broadband experience—they don’t care what the icon on their phone says.

Reservations

Most of my reservations last year still stand. Notably:

  • PCMag focuses on performance within cities, while the largest differences between networks’ performance tend to show up in less-populated areas.
  • Average speed metrics get more weight than I think is reasonable.
  • Scores on different metrics get aggregated in a problematic way.

Highlights

While my reservations are serious, they’re not relevant to the granular, city-specific results. If you live in a large metro area, PCMag’s scorecard for your city could be handy.

The 5G-availability data is interesting. Here’s each network’s overall score for 5G availability:

  • T-Mobile: 54%
  • AT&T: 38%
  • Verizon: 4%

I’m surprised how close AT&T came to T-Mobile. While Verizon’s 4% availability score isn’t impressive, it’s higher than I anticipated. Verizon has been getting berated for the horrible availability of its exclusively millimeter wave 5G. Since Verizon hasn’t rolled out any 5G in some cities, the overall result masks heterogeneity between cities. E.g., PCMag found 9% 5G availability for Verizon in Chicago.

AT&T Wins in GWS’s New Report – Reservations Remain

Global Wireless Solutions (GWS) released its latest report ranking the performance of cellular networks in the U.S. AT&T again took the top spot in GWS’s rankings.

I previously wrote about my reservations around the methodology GWS used in 2019. My reservations stand nearly unchanged. GWS continues to assess about 500 markets rather than the U.S. at large. I think this makes GWS biased against Verizon, the network that indisputably leads in coverage.

In its latest report, GWS boasts about having the largest and most comprehensive assessment of cellular networks. The claims seem to be based on the large number of data points GWS collects. In my view, the extra data points don’t make up for the fact that GWS’s underlying methodology isn’t as good as RootMetrics’ methodology.

Network operators pay evaluators to license their awards. Is GWS using a funky methodology because the company stands to earn more from declaring AT&T the best network than it would earn from declaring Verizon the best network?

Ting To Drop Hotspot Pricing

Ting has been offering one of the best deals for mobile hotspot service. For $25 per month, subscribers using a Franklin R850 Hotspot get 30GB of data over Sprint’s network. It looks like that deal will come to a close:1

After extending it as long as possible, Ting Mobile will be discontinuing its special hotspot pricing plan after October 14, 2020. Any customers currently using this pricing plan will receive an email informing them that they will switch to regular Ting Mobile rates from their first full billing cycle after this date.

I expect this change in policy is due to either (a) T-Mobile’s merger with Sprint or (b) DISH’s acquisition of Ting’s subscriber base.