Helium Mobile’s $5 Unlimited Plan

Helium Mobile is coming out of beta and offering an unlimited plan for $5 per month.1 It’s arguably the cheapest unlimited plan on the US market. But the price is kind of contrived.

Helium Mobile’s Networks

First some background details. Helium Mobile is an MVNO running over T-Mobile’s network. However, the carrier has a novel differentiator. It supplements T-Mobile’s coverage with coverage from Helium’s network of CBRS radios.

The Helium network has roughly 10,000 CBRS radios scattered throughout the country. I won’t get into the weeds here, but Helium got normal people to set up these radios by incentivizing them with the project’s cryptocurrency tokens.

The radios making up Helium’s network are weak and usually poorly located. Helium hasn’t (yet) figured out mechanisms to adequately incentivize good placements. While I don’t know how much area Helium’s network covers, I’m confident it’s far less than 1% of the US by land area.

Currently, Helium Mobile is only accepting signups from people in Miami.2 Helium may be able to build a denser network in Miami than it has in the wider US. But for now, Helium’s coverage footprint within Miami is tiny compared to T-Mobile’s footprint in the city. That will remain true for the foreseeable future.3

How Is Helium Mobile So Cheap?

Nova Labs, the company behind Helium Mobile, raised a ton of money from crypto-adjacent venture capital firms. The $5 price is only possible through subsidization.

It’s normal for new MVNOs to start with prices slightly below their costs while betting that the cost per subscriber will fall after hitting economies of scale.

Helium Mobile is making a bolder bet. At $5 per month, Helium Mobile is taking a huge loss on each subscriber. Helium Mobile is betting on the regular economies of scale while also hoping for a second shift in its underlying cost structure.

While I don’t know the actual numbers, Helium Mobile probably pays a few bucks for each gigabyte of data on T-Mobile’s network. On the Helium network, data comes in at $0.50 per gigabyte. If Helium Mobile gets enough data flowing over Helium’s network, it could achieve a better cost structure than other MVNOs.

Could the cost structure become so good that Nova Labs actually turns a profit on a $5 per month unlimited plan? No. I don’t think that’s Nova Labs’ ultimate goal, though.

A Real-World Crypto Use Case?

Nova Labs’ COO shared this post on Twitter yesterday:

In my view, the “real world crypto use case” point is aspirational. Or perhaps it has been realized but in a convoluted way. Crypto allowed Nova Labs to raise a bunch of funding. That funding is subsidizing what is, for the moment, a largely conventional cellular service.

Integration Woes

Conventional roaming allows a phone to switch networks when it enters an area where the usual network lacks coverage. I expect Helium wanted to offer something better: seamless coverage with phones intelligently switching between multiple networks serving the same location.

Dynamic network switching of that sort is a technical challenge. It probably takes a lot of buy-in from the networks involved. As far as I can tell, Helium couldn’t pull off this kind of integration with T-Mobile.

For now, Helium Mobile relies on a less streamlined approach. Subscribers must use multiple SIM cards for their service. According to anecdotal reports, handoffs between T-Mobile’s network and Helium’s radios are clunky. For technical and regulatory reasons, Helium’s radios only support data traffic. T-Mobile handles texts and calls.

Scaling Challenges

A $5 price point may attract a lot of customers. More customers means a larger volume of customer support queries. Initially limiting service to Miami may ease the burden of support queries, but I expect Helium Mobile will have to either prioritize building a massive customer support team or settle for a lousy standard.

The Bright Side

While performance issues and integration difficulties plague Helium’s cellular network, there are tractable paths forward. Helium Mobile’s ridiculously low price point may make subscribers more tolerant of bumps in the road as Helium Mobile fine-tunes its service.

Recently, Nova Labs has been teasing an upcoming WiFi product. It’s too soon to say anything confidently, but the product may allow the Helium community to sidestep many of the regulatory and technical challenges cellular presents.

The People’s Network?

Nova Labs’ CEO shared a nice sentiment in a recent blog post:

For most of history, technology has been held tightly in the grasp of the few — from monarchies and aristocracies to corporations and billionaires. The internet, despite its ability to create instant and open communication with each other, is no exception: it came at a price that many cannot afford.

We believe technology — especially the internet — should be the inheritance of the whole human race. We are all its heirs, and access should be in the hands of the people.

There’s a history of telecom companies talking a big game about connecting the unconnected and other pro-social goals while ruthlessly pursuing profits and screwing consumers. Something similar could be said about much of the cryptocurrency ecosystem. Will Helium buck the trends and lean into its high-minded ambitions?


Verizon Now Has Full Access To Its C-Band Spectrum

Verizon shared a press release indicating it’s now able to use of all of the C-Band spectrum it purchased licenses for two years ago:

Today, Verizon announced that it now has access to the total amount of 5G C-band spectrum awarded at auction in March 2021 – four months ahead of schedule. This allows Verizon to more quickly expand and enhance its 5G Ultra Wideband network nationwide, more than doubling and, in some markets, tripling the 5G bandwidth available to serve customers.

Verizon already deployed a lot of hardware that can use the newly available C-Band spectrum. Improved network quality should hit consumers almost immediately. Here’s another bit from the press release (emphasis mine):

Verizon has been deploying equipment that is capable of the full 200MHz of bandwidth, so with a mere software update, customers will start to see the effects of this dramatic increase in bandwidth in the immediate next few days and weeks.

Verizon’s network has increasingly been plagued by congestion issues. I hope the new spectrum will have a material affect on the performance seen by subscribers in some congested areas.

Screenshot from Version 2 of Coverage Critic's coverage map

Coverage Map V2 Beta

A beta of version 2 of Coverage Critic’s map is now available.

I’ll discuss the changes in more detail when the map comes out of beta, but the new version includes:

  • A more recent round of data from the FCC
  • Data for two more networks (Dish & US Cellular)
  • New features accessible from the settings menu

Additional features and bug fixes will be added before the map comes out of beta, but I wanted to share something now.

Abstract map of USA

What Happened To Opensignal’s Reach Metric?

Say a country has two cellular networks. Network A offers coverage nearly everywhere. Network B offers a much smaller coverage footprint. You could crowdsource data from ordinary subscribers on the networks and track what proportion of the time users are connected to their networks.

If you compare the availability metrics for both networks, I’m unsure what insights you glean. Conventional crowdsourcing doesn’t involve random samples of people within a country. Even if Network B is crummy and has a small coverage footprint, people who use it will tend to live within its coverage footprint. People living elsewhere will opt for Network A and its larger coverage footprint. It’s a classic case of selection bias.

Even if the people you’re crowdsourcing data from represent a random sample of people within a country, a 95% availability metric wouldn’t indicate that a network covers 95% of the country’s land. People concentrate in certain areas. Although urban areas comprise a small fraction of the US, 80% of people live within them.

Opensignal’s Conundrums

Opensignal is arguably the leader in crowdsourced assessments of networks. To Opensignal’s credit, it acknowledges the limitations of its crowdsourced availability metrics:

Our availability metrics are not a measure of a network’s geographical extent. They won’t tell you whether you are likely to get a signal if you plan to visit a remote rural or nearly uninhabited region.

At some point, Opensignal started publishing another coverage metric called “Reach.” As far as I can tell, Opensignal only used this metric in the US for its 5G assessments.1

Here’s how Opensignal explains Reach:

5G Reach measures how users experience the geographical extent of an operator’s 5G network. It analyzes the average proportion of locations where users were connected to a 5G network out of all the locations those users have visited.

Reach addresses part of my concern with the crowdsourced availability metric. Interestingly, the metric doesn’t appear in the most recent reports on 5G performance in the US. I wonder why.2

Abstract image

Boost Infinite’s Networks

Dish, the company behind Boost Infinite, is building its own network. The company also has deals that could allow it to put customers on either T-Mobile’s network or AT&T’s network.

Initially, Boost Infinite put most (perhaps almost all) subscribers on AT&T’s network. Recently, the company quietly shifted to placing most new subscribers on T-Mobile’s network.

Rumors suggest that a small handful of subscribers are getting multi-network service that involves Dish’s own network and at least one partner network. For the moment, multiple-network service is probably limited to a few markets and/or retail channels.

Give Consumers Clarity

Boost Infinite’s website tells prospective customers they’ll get coverage from one of America’s top networks.

Screenshot from Boost Infinite's website with a picture of a map and the words "Boost Infinite gives you access to superfast 5G coverage on one of America's top networks."

While it’s true that Boost Infinite service will use “one of America’s top networks”, it’s a nearly meaningless statement. AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon are America’s top networks. Basically every carrier relies on one of those networks.1

While carriers are often prohibited from explicitly stating the names of their partner networks, they sometimes come up with some kind of nomenclature that makes it clear to consumers that there are different underlying networks. For example, US Mobile brands its Verizon-based service as Warp 5G and its T-Mobile-based service as GSM. When carriers use this kind of nomenclature, subscribers that have a good experience can recommend a specific network to their friends or neighbors.

I’d like to see Boost Infinite adopt something similar.

Visible Brings Back $25 Unlimited Plan

For much of 2023, Visible offered its standard unlimited plan for $25 per month. The deal was framed as a promotion or limited-time offer, but Visible pushed back the promotion’s end date a number of times.

In July, Visible ceased extending the offer. The cost of the standard plan shifted to its supposed normal price of $30 per month. As of today, the $25 per month rate is back, and it’s no longer being framed as a limited-time offer.

Will Visible+ Come Down To $35/Mo?

For most of the time Visible offered its standard plan for $25 per month, the company also offered the premium Visible+ plan for $35 per month (a $10 discount from the regular price of $45).

As of today, the Visible+ plan still comes with a $45 price tag. Through August 31, there’s a promotion running where customers who bring their own device and use a coupon code can get the plan for $35 per month. I wonder what we’ll see happen when that promotion ends. I’m a big fan of Visible+, and I’d be pleased if it becomes broadly available at $35 per month.