Internet abstract

Dawson On Measuring Speeds

Doug Dawson of CCG Consulting shared an excellent blog post this morning titled The Fantasy of Measuring Speeds. He gives an excellent overview of why two people who live in the same city might experience different speeds despite subscribing to the same plan offered by an internet service provider.

Dawson argues that lots of important information is thrown away when we pretend that a single measure of speed can explain the quality of a service a provider offers. Internet services don’t even offer individual customers a fixed speed:

What’s the right speed on a broadband network? The speed that can be obtained at 4:00 in the morning when the network is empty or the speed at 8:30 in the evening when the network is bogged down with the heaviest neighborhood usage?

If you’ve never done it, I suggest you run multiple speed tests, back-to-back. I am on a Charter cable network and I ran speed tests for any hour recently and I saw reported speed varying by as much as 50%. What speed is my broadband connection?…The FCC is about to embark on a grand new scheme to force ISPs to better define and report broadband speeds. It’s bound to fail. If I can’t figure out the speed on my cable modem connection, then the FCC is on a fool’s mission.

The trouble with the FCC’s approach is that the agency wants an ISP to report actual speed by clusters of homes – today it’s by Census block and soon it will be polygons. But this is a waste of everybody’s time when nobody can even define the speed for an individual home.

I strongly recommend the full post.

While I largely agree with Dawson, I take a more optimistic stance. Transitioning from collecting data at the census-block level to collecting data at the level of polygons may bring incremental improvements. I’d like to see that transition, even if it won’t solve underlying issues with the FCC’s approach.

Phone abstract

Verizon Sweeps In RootMetrics’ Late 2020 Assessment

RootMetrics recently released a teaser of its results from network testing in the second half of 2020. As is usual in RootMetrics’ assessments, Verizon came out as the big winner. In all seven of RootMetrics’ primary scoring categories, Verizon either took first place or tied first place.

I didn’t find a lot of big surprises in the information that’s come out so far. While AT&T has been winning the top spot for speeds from some evaluators, Verizon had the highest median download speed in RootMetrics’ assessment.

RootMetrics’ full report on network performance in the second half of 2020 comes out on February 3. That report might include some interesting updates on the status of 5G deployments.


Does T-Mobile Have The Best 5G?

T-Mobile has started bragging about having the best 5G speeds in Opensignal’s latest report. Here’s an excerpt from today’s press release from T-Mobile:

New independent data from Opensignal, based on real world customer usage from millions of device measurements, shows T-Mobile customers now get the fastest 5G download speeds, fastest 5G upload speeds AND a 5G signal more often than anyone else.

I’ve been critical of selection bias issues inherent in Opensignal’s methodology. I continue to think there are serious selection bias issues with Opensignal’s latest 5G metrics. Still, I don’t think my qualms are significant enough to dismiss T-Mobile’s apparent lead in 5G speeds and 5G coverage. T-Mobile is killing it. Here’s another bit from today’s press release:

With the first and largest nationwide 5G network, T-Mobile’s Extended Range 5G covers more than 280 million people across nearly 1.6 million square miles – offering 2.5x more geographic coverage than AT&T and nearly 4x more than Verizon. With Sprint now part of T-Mobile, the Un-carrier is widening its lead, using dedicated spectrum to bring customers with capable devices download speeds of around 300 Mbps and peak speeds up to 1 Gbps. The Un-carrier’s Ultra Capacity 5G already reaches more than 1,000 cities and towns and covers 106 million people.

Early in its 5G rollout, T-Mobile relied on low-frequency spectrum around 600MHz. While this spectrum was great for coverage, it had lousy speed potential. In 2020, T-Mobile put a lot of effort into bragging about how it led the nation in 5G coverage. While the bragging was technically accurate, the whole thing was bullshit in practical terms. 5G delivered with T-Mobile’s low-frequency spectrum was often slower than a typical 4G connection.

Recently, T-Mobile started rolling out large-scale 5G deployments using mid-band spectrum. T-Mobile’s mid-band 5G now covers about a third of Americans. Mid-band 5G actually delivers speeds that are substantially better than consumers are used to with 4G.

Verizon is still crushing the competition in terms of coverage with ultra-fast, millimeter wave 5G. However, Verizon’s achievements with millimeter wave don’t have much value for consumers yet. Even Verizon’s millimeter wave coverage is lackluster, and practical applications for ultra-fast cellular speeds are rare.

While I think T-Mobile legitimately holds the top spot for 5G coverage and average 5G speeds, I also think Verizon will overtake T-Mobile as 5G rollouts reach more mature stages. In my view, the interesting thing to watch will be whether T-Mobile or AT&T ends up with the second-place spot in the 5G competition.1 T-Mobile’s spectrum holdings and financial position may give the network a significant edge over AT&T.

More Data Coming To Mint Mobile

Mint Mobile just announced that it will soon offer more data on some of its plans. The carrier’s prices won’t change.

Right now, Mint offers 3 plans with fixed data allotments (all the plans include unlimited minutes and texts):

  • 3GB per month – As low as $15 per month
  • 8GB per month – As low as $20 per month
  • 12GB per month – As low as $25 per month

Starting January 28, the monthly data allotments will increase between 1GB and 3GB:

  • 4GB per month – As low as $15 per month
  • 10GB per month – As low as $20 per month
  • 15GB per month – As low as $25 per month

I assume the data increase will be available to both new customers and existing customers, but I haven’t confirmed. As far as I know, there will be no changes to Mint’s unlimited plan.

Ryan Reynolds, an owner of Mint, shared a video about the upcoming change:

FCC Politics & Media Bias

I’m a big believer in a free and open internet. I’m also wary of unchecked corporatism. Yesterday, many people who share my views were rejoicing as Ajit Pai, the FCC Chairman, stepped down. As Pai left his role, journalists published a bunch of hit pieces about Pai and the last several years of the FCC’s work. Despite having plenty of sympathies with the journalists, I was rubbed the wrong way.

Vice’s article was emblematic of what bothered me. The article’s title started with: “Gigantic Asshole Ajit Pai Is Officially Gone.” Vice went on to give a long list of everything it could construe as a failure of Pai’s FCC term. Not an ounce of effort was put into expressing anything positive.

I would love to see journalists shedding more light on the FCC’s actions. However, I’m concerned with how popular media outlets’ coverage of the FCC gets mixed up with broader political conflicts. We should keep what happened yesterday in mind if the same media outlets that published hit pieces yesterday are only willing to say positive things about the Biden-era FCC and the next FCC chairperson.

If you have suggestions for where to turn for nuanced commentary on the FCC, please chime in with a comment!

Verizon Prepaid’s New Ultra Wideband Plan

For a while now, Verizon has offered a prepaid plan with unlimited minutes, texts, and data. Yesterday, Verizon Prepaid launched a second and more expensive unlimited plan. While the old plan had a base price of $65 per month, the new plan has a base price of $75 per month. Both plans are eligible for loyalty discounts and a discount for automatic payments. Together, discounts can decrease the monthly cost of either plan by up to $15 per month.

Verizon’s new plan includes two features that aren’t included with the old unlimited plan:

  • 10GB per month of regular mobile hotspot data
  • 5G Ultra Wideband access

Ultra Wideband 5G

Verizon splits its 5G service into two buckets: 5G Nationwide and 5G Ultra Wideband. 5G Nationwide is Verizon’s widely available 5G service. While the 5G Nationwide coverage profile is solid, the speeds 5G Nationwide delivers are not especially impressive. 5G Ultra Wideband is outrageously fast, but the service has extremely limited availability.

All of Verizon’s prepaid plans give subscribers with compatible devices access to Verizon’s 5G Nationwide service. The new prepaid plan is the only one that offers 5G Ultra Wideband service. Given 5G Ultra Wideband’s terrible coverage, not many people will benefit from the added feature. I suppose the tiny minority of people that live or work where 5G Ultra Wideband is available might have a rationale for paying extra to get Verizon’s latest plan.

Hotspot access

Verizon’s cheaper prepaid unlimited plan does not include mobile hotspot access by default. However, subscribers can add a 10GB per month hotspot allotment for an extra $5 each month. Subscribers on Verizon’s new unlimited plan will get a 10GB hotspot allotment at no extra charge. Additionally, subscribers on the new plan can use an unlimited amount of mobile hotspot data when connected to Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband network.

Is the new plan worth it?

For most people, it will be hard to justify the extra $10 per month that Verizon’s new plan costs relative to Verizon Prepaid’s old unlimited plan. If you need hotspot access, I’d recommend just using the old plan with a $65 base price and adding the $5 per month hotspot feature.

In the off chance you happen to spend a lot of time covered by Verizon’s Ultra Wideband service, the more expensive plan might be justifiable. However, the choice still might not be a no-brainer. While Ultra Wideband delivers impressive speeds, it’s rare for consumers to see many real-world benefits from the added speeds. 4G LTE and 5G Nationwide deliver speeds that are sufficient for most people.

Spectrum Is Expensive

The FCC’s C band auction recently closed with a total of about 81 billion dollars in bids. This was by far the highest-grossing spectrum auction in U.S. history. Previously, the largest auction garnered about 45 billion dollars.1

In the C band auction, about 280 megahertz of spectrum in the 3.7-3.98GHz range was reallocated to cellular companies. Spectrum in this frequency range is particularly appealing to operators of cellular networks. The spectrum offers great characteristics, combining a potential for covering large areas with a potential for delivering fast speeds.

The amount of money committed in the recent auction drives home a point that I think most casual observers miss: spectrum is an enormous expense for cellular networks in the U.S. With the auction closing at about 81 billion dollars, U.S. networks are spending over $250 per person in the United States in a single auction.2

Grayscale phone

Let’s Retire The CDMA/GSM Distinction

Understanding cell phone compatibility across networks can be tough. A common understanding has emerged: some cell phones are CDMA devices while other phones are GSM devices. According to the common understanding, GSM phones work with GSM networks, and CDMA phones work with CDMA networks. The common understanding has never been entirely accurate. For many years, a CDMA phone sold by Sprint wouldn’t necessarily work on Verizon’s CDMA network. Similarly, a GSM phone sold by AT&T wouldn’t necessarily work with T-Mobile’s GSM network. Beyond that, plenty of phone models have supported both CDMA and GSM.

Although the common understanding of the CDMA/GSM dichotomy wasn’t ever entirely right, it was at least useful or directionally accurate for many years. Not anymore. Networks are phasing out 2G and 3G technologies. All of the major networks in the U.S. today are dominated by 4G LTE technology. LTE isn’t GSM or CDMA. LTE is its own thing.

MVNOs typically can’t explicitly name their host networks. As a result, MVNOs often use the CDMA and GSM acronyms to label their networks. An MVNO that offers service over AT&T and Verizon’s networks might refer to the AT&T service as “the GSM service” and the Verizon service “the CDMA service.”

Just this week, the carrier Tello launched service over T-Mobile’s network. Tello is calling the T-Mobile network the “New GSM Network.” While I understand Tello’s rationale, I worry Tello is continuing a trend that ultimately confuses consumers about cellular technologies and phone compatibility.

Tello Launches T-Mobile Service

Tello, a carrier that has historically run over Sprint’s network, is now offering new customers service over T-Mobile’s network. Despite switching to a network with much better coverage, Tello has not increased its prices.

I think Tello is now one of the best options on the market for customers that don’t need a lot of data. For example, a plan with 2GB of data and unlimited minutes and texts costs only $14 per month. Unlike Mint Mobile, another low-cost service running over T-Mobile’s network, Tello offers service on a month-to-month basis without any long-term commitment.

As far as I know, Tello has not announced when it will migrate existing customers from Sprint’s network to T-Mobile’s network. I expect customers who want to make the switch will be able to sometime in the next month or two. Customers that want to remain on Sprint’s network should be able to do so until at least the middle of 2021:

Older CDMA phones will work up until at least mid-2021, and we will enable a gradual switch with lots of opportunities to change trains.

I’m planning to update my Tello review after trailing Tello’s new network. On another page, I share information about phone compatibility with Tello’s T-Mobile service.

eSIM abstract

Mint Mobile Officially Launches eSIM

In November, Mint Mobile started offering eSIMs to a small subset of its customers. Earlier this week, Mint opened its eSIM product to all customers with eSIM-compatible iPhones.

Compatible Phones

Mint eSIMs work with all recent iPhone models:

  • iPhone XR
  • iPhone XS
  • iPhone XS Max
  • iPhone 11
  • iPhone 11 Pro
  • iPhone 11 Pro Max
  • iPhone SE (second generation)
  • iPhone 12
  • iPhone 12 mini
  • iPhone 12 Pro
  • iPhone 12 Pro Max

Mint doesn’t support eSIMs for any Android phones yet. Here’s what Mint’s cofounder, Rizwan Kassim, said when asked about eSIMs for Android devices:

There are relatively few Android devices in our base that support eSIM. OS support, app support and documentation are all better starting grounds for iOS as well.

Supporting Android is on the roadmap (Mid-2021), but it’ll be specific per device model and a slower rollout.

Getting an eSIM

Here’s how Kassim explains the process for switching to an eSIM:

Physical SIM to eSIM –

First, make sure you have the most recent update of the app.

Login to the app > tap on “Account” > select “Order Replacement SIM.” You’ll be asked to provide a form of payment for your replacement SIM; but you won’t be charged anything at completion.

Select “Get an eSIM” as your option (please note that this option will only be visible on an eligible device)

Select “This is my new device” and make sure that you are using the device that you want to install eSIM on.

Tap “Checkout”

Once it’s processed, you will be prompted to install your eSIM. Please follow the steps carefully to set your eSIM.

Once it’s installed, you’re done.

Kassim suggested new customers who want an eSIM should select eSIM as a shipping method during checkout. In my testing, I didn’t see an eSIM option. I expect the issue will be resolved soon.

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