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TracFone Teases SmartSIM

TracFone, the company behind several large MVNOs, appears to be working on a new product called SmartSIM. Apparently, some TracFone customers recently received a marketing email that mentioned SmartSIM.[1] I was briefly able to access NoDeadZone.com, a website that shared some basic information about SmartSIM. Oddly, the website now automatically redirects to locations.totalwireless.com (Total Wireless is a brand owned by TracFone).

While NoDeadZone.com was accessible, it offered a short video explaining SmartSIM. Apparently, the technology will allow subscribers to switch rapidly between multiple networks based on which network offers the best signal. There’s been some speculation about how up-and-coming eSim technology may enable more people to take advantage of dynamic network switching of this sort. However, the video I gave me the impression that SmartSIM would involve a conventional, removable SIM card rather than an eSIM. At the moment, I’m unsure if TracFone is licensing switching technology Google Fi built, introducing new technology, or something else.

NoDeadZones.com allowed visitors to enter their zip codes to see if SmartSIM was available where they lived. I tried several zip codes, and all were ineligible. It seems that other people had the same experience. I’m not sure whether any zip codes were really eligible for the service.

So far, I haven’t heard of TracFone responding to any requests for more information about SmartSIM. I’m curious about the lack of communication along with the decision to redirect NoDeadZone.com to the main Total Wireless site. It’s enough to make me wonder whether a mistake was made that led SmartSIM to become public knowledge before TracFone intended.

I’ll be keeping close tabs on how the story develops. Dynamic network switching has the potential to improve wireless service and change how it’s priced. With switching technology, it may be possible to charge different rates to different subscribers based on factors like a subscriber’s location, the extent of network congestion, or the quality of service a subscriber receives. Dynamic pricing could potentially lead to far more efficient network usage than conventional pricing—which might ultimately lead to a decrease in how much consumers pay for wireless service.

Infinity symbol

Tello Launches “Unlimited Everything” Plan

Today, Tello launched its “unlimited everything” plan for $39 per month. I’m frustrated by how Tello named its new plan. I say that as a fan of the company; Tello has some of the best options on the market for budget-sensitive consumers who don’t use a lot of data.

If subscribers on Tello’s unlimited everything plan use 25GB of data in a billing period, they will be throttled to sluggish, 2G speeds. As I’ve previously argued, unlimited plans at 2G speeds are bogus. Once the throttle kicks in, subscribers will find that data is unusable or barely usable for many purposes. While I’ve argued that many so-called “unlimited” plans are misnamed, Tello seems to have doubled down on its misnomer. Both “unlimited” and “everything” do a poor job of describing Tello’s new plan.

When carriers throttle data to 2G speeds, that usually means speeds are capped at 128Kbps. Imposing a maximum speed of 128Kbps puts a theoretical limit on total data use of about 65GB per month.[1] In practice, few subscribers will use more than 26GB per month because the internet will be sluggish and frustrating use after the 25GB threshold is reached.

To Tello’s credit, the company does an unusually good job of disclosing the throttle. Here’s an example from the banner on Tello’s homepage this morning:

Tello Homepage Banner

Virgin Mobile USA Is Shutting Down: Subscribers To Be Transferred To Boost Mobile

Virgin Mobile USA, a flanker brand owned by Sprint, is shutting down. Today, reports surfaced from many Virgin Mobile customers who received texts that started like this:

Virgin Mobile USA is discontinuing and your account will auto-transfer to Boost Mobile.

Boost Mobile is another flanker brand owned by Sprint, and it should offer almost all customers service that is quite similar to the service Virgin Mobile USA has been offering.

Interestingly, I can’t find a press release from Virgin Mobile about the shutdown. However, the company has published a web page with an FAQ about the upcoming changes. The page illuminates several details about how the automated transfer of subscribers from Virgin to Boost will be handled:

  • Subscribers will keep their existing phone numbers.
  • Subscribers should be able to keep their current phones.
  • The transfers will begin in February.
  • Boost Mobile will not accept Paypal. Subscribers that paid for Virgin service with PayPal will need to choose a new payment method.
  • Payment dates will usually be unaffected by the transfer from Virgin to Boost.
  • Subscribers automatically paying for Virgin service via credit card or debit card will have their payment methods transferred automatically.
  • Device insurance purchased from Virgin should carry over to Boost.
  • Devices using Virgin’s Mobile Broadband service will not automatically be transferred to Boost. Subscribers using these devices will need to find new carriers.[1]

Virgin Mobile USA suggests that most subscribers will receive pricing with Boost that is the same or better than existing pricing with Virgin:

In most instances, your existing account will be transferred to Boost Mobile with your device, and a comparable or better Boost Mobile service plan at no extra cost to you… In fact, since Boost Mobile accounts have taxes and fees included, customers will end up paying less than you do now on similar plans.

While Virgin Mobile USA is suggesting customers will not face increased prices, I suggest that subscribers pay attention to any changes in their bills and plans over time. While I expect most subscribers will not be affected adversely in the short-term, it doesn’t look like Boost has committed not to raising prices or forcing plan changes in the future. I’d be especially vigilant if you currently have a grandfathered plan that Virgin no longer offers to new customers.

In most cases, I think Virgin subscribers should anticipate a smooth transition to Boost. Still, the transition may present a good moment for subscribers to consider other options on the market. Mint Mobile, a relatively new, low-cost carrier, may offer many people better coverage and lower prices than Virgin or Boost.

Why is Virgin Mobile USA shutting down?

On the FAQ page about Virgin’s shut down, one of the questions listed is: “I have been a Virgin Mobile customer for a long time, why is my account being transferred to Boost Mobile?” Virgin responds to the question with a non-answer:

We appreciate your loyalty. To ensure that we offer the best service to our customers, we regularly examine our plans. At this time a decision to discontinue the Virgin Mobile USA service has been made. As we are committed to providing you with great service, we will transfer your account to our sister brand Boost Mobile.

While I’m unsure exactly what’s going on, I expect there’s an effort underway to consolidate Sprint’s flanker brands in advance of news about whether a merger between Sprint and T-Mobile will go through.

AT&T’s Claim To Being America’s Best Network

AT&T has been running an ad campaign with commercials where the company claims to offer the best network.

These commercials start with a funny skit that leads to the line, “just ok is not ok.” The commercials’ narrator then says something along the lines of: “AT&T is America’s best wireless network according to America’s biggest test.”

Here’s an example:



Alternate versions of the commercial involve ok babysitters, ok sushi, ok surgeons, and more.

AT&T bases its “best network” claim on the results of Global Wireless Solutions’s (GWS) 2018 tests. The claim is at odds with the results of many other companies’ evaluations and my own view.

The meaning of the word “best” is ambiguous, but I’d guess that a survey of professionals in the wireless industry would find that most people consider RootMetrics to be the best evaluation firm in the wireless industry. Verizon fared far better than AT&T in RootMetrics’s most recent evaluation.

It’s unclear to me what AT&T is claiming when it calls GWS’s test, “America’s biggest test.” Is it the biggest test in terms of miles driven, data points collected, area covered, or something else? GWS may have the biggest test according to one metric, but it’s not unambiguously the biggest test in the nation.

GWS’s OneScore Methodology & 2019 Results

Global Wireless Solutions (GWS) evaluates wireless networks according to the company’s OneScore methodology. At the moment, AT&T cites GWS’s results in commercials where AT&T claims to offer the best network.

In an article about performance tests of wireless networks, GWS’s founder, Dr. Paul Carter, writes:[1]

With so many conflicting research reports and with every network touting itself as number one, it’s critical that wireless carriers are transparent about how and what they actually test. If what was tested doesn’t match up with the average consumer experience, then was that test truly worthwhile?

Unfortunately, GWS itself is not especially transparent about its methodology. The public-facing information about the company’s methodology is sparse, and I did not receive a response to my email requesting additional information.

As I understand it, GWS’s methodology has two components:

  • Technical performance testing in about 500 markets
  • Consumer surveying that helps determine how much weight to give different metrics

Technical testing

In 2019, GWS conducted extensive drive testing; GWS employees drove close to 1,000,000 miles as phones in their vehicles performed automated tests of networks’ performance.[2]

The drive testing took place in about 500 of the markets, including all of the largest metropolitan areas. GWS says the testing represents about 94% of the U.S. population.[3] I expect that GWS’s focus on these markets limits the weight placed on rural and remote areas. Accordingly, GWS’s results may be biased against Verizon (Verizon tends to have better coverage than other networks in sparsely populated areas).

Consumer surveying

In 2019, GWS surveyed about 5,000 consumers to figure out how much they value different aspects of wireless performance.[4] GWS finds that consumers place a lot of importance on phone call voice quality, despite the fact the people are using their phones for more and more activities unrelated to phone calls.[5] GWS also finds that, as I’ve suggested, consumers care a lot more about the reliability of their wireless service than its raw speed.[6]

Combining components

As I understand it, GWS draws on the results of its surveying to decide how much weight to place of different aspects parts of the technical performance tests:

The consumer survey includes questions asking respondents to rank the importance of different tasks they perform on their mobile device, as well as the importance of different aspects of network performance. Our network test results are then weighted according to how consumers prioritize what’s important to them, and evaluated in eleven different network performance areas related to voice, data, network reliability and network coverage.

The methodology’s name, OneScore, and the graphic below suggest that the company combines all of its data to arrive at final, numerical scores for each network:[7]

GWS OneScore Visual

Oddly enough, I can’t find GWS publishing anything that looks like final scores. That may be a good thing. I’ve previously gone into great detail about why scoring systems that use weighted rubrics to give companies or products a single, overall score tend to work poorly.

2019 Results

In GWS’s 2019 report, the company lists which networks had the best performance in several different areas:

AT&T:

  • Download speed
  • Data reliability
  • Network capacity
  • Video streaming experience
  • Voice accessibility
  • Voice retainability

T-Mobile:

  • Voice quality

Verizon:

  • Upload speed

Open questions

I have a bunch of open questions about GWS’s methodology. If you represent GWS and can shed light on any of these topics, please reach out.

  • Does the focus on 501 markets (94% of the U.S.) tend to leave out rural areas where Verizon has a strong network relative to other operators?
  • Do operators pay GWS? Does AT&T pay to advertise GWS’s results?
  • What does the consumer survey entail?
  • How directly are the results of the consumer survey used to determine weights used later in GWS’s analysis?
  • What does GWS make of the discrepancies between its results and those of RootMetrics?
  • How close were different networks’ scores in each category?
  • GWS shares the best-performing network in several categories. Is information available about the second, third, and fourth-place networks in each category?
  • Does GWS coerce its raw data into a single overall score for each network?
    • Are those results publicly available?
    • How are the raw performance data coerced into scores that can be aggregated?

Dawson On The Government’s Role In 5G

I recently stumbled across a fantastic post by Doug Dawson about the government’s role in 5G. Here’s a bit of it (emphasis mine):

It’s been really interesting to watch how much the federal government talks about 5G technology. I’ve not seen anything else like this in my adult lifetime…I’ve been hearing about the 5G war for a few years now and I still don’t know what it means. 5G is ultimately a broadband technology. I can’t figure out how the US is harmed if China gets better broadband. If there is now a 5G war, then why hasn’t there been a fiber-to-the-home war? I saw recently where China passed us in the number of last-mile fiber connections, and there wasn’t a peep about it out of Congress…Cellular carriers worldwide are crowing about 5G deployment, yet those deployments contain none of the key technology that defines 5G performance. There is no frequency slicing. There is no bonding together of multiple frequencies to create larger data pipes. There is no massive expansion of the number of connections that can be made at a website. Cellphones can’t yet connect to multiple cell sites. What we have instead, for now, are new frequencies layered on top of 4G LTE…The carriers admit that the 600 MHz and the 850 MHz spectrum being deployed won’t result in faster speeds than 4G LTE…It’s starting to look like the real reason for the talk about a 5G war is to drum up sympathy for the big cellular carriers as a justification for big government giveaways.

I mostly agree with Dawson, and I strongly recommend the full post.

Boost’s “Super Reliable, Super Fast” Network

Boost Mobile is running a new commercial that features Pitbull and pitches the company’s low prices. Towards the end of the ad, a narrator says that Boost has a “super fast, super reliable network.” The narration is accompanied by this image:



In most commercials that involve carriers making claims about service quality, carriers will use fine print to cite research that backs up their claims. The Boost ad doesn’t include a citation; perhaps that’s because Boost’s claim doesn’t have much substance. “Super fast, super reliable” is super vague. Boost’s service probably is super fast compared to wireless service from 15 years ago. On the other hand, Boost’s service is not super fast compared to most services currently offered by other U.S. carriers.

Boost runs over Sprint’s network. There are a lot of different companies that evaluate network performance, and Sprint tends to do poorly relative to its competitors in the rigorous evaluations. Sprint had the lowest speeds among all four major networks in both RootMetrics’ and Opensignal’s most recent national assessments.

Boost’s claim looks even sillier in light of the fact that its subscribers tend to have low priority data access on Sprint’s network. When Sprint’s network is congested, Boost Mobile’s subscribers will tend to experience slower data speeds than those who subscribe directly to Sprint’s service.

A misleading image accompanies Boost’s misleading claims about quality. The image looks like a coverage map showing extensive coverage, but a disclaimer states: Coverage not available everywhere. Not a depiction of actual coverage.

Here’s the full commercial:

BOOM! Mobile Launches T-Mobile Plans

The mobile virtual network operator BOOM! Mobile recently launched wireless plans that run over T-Mobile’s network. With this addition, BOOM! now offers three types of plans:

  • Boom! Red – service over Verizon’s network
  • Boom! Blue – service over AT&T’s network
  • Boom! Pink – service over T-Mobile’s network

Many of the Boom! Pink plans have the same allotments of minutes, texts, and data as well as the same price points as previously existing Boom! Red plans. Boom! Blue plans with allotments equivalent to those in Pink and Red plans are sometimes available, but they tend to have higher price points.

BOOM! Mobile is also offering several Boom! Pink plans that are unlike the company’s previous offerings. These plans each offer a certain number of Flex Points. Each point can be redeemed for either 1 minute of calling, 1 text message, or 1MB of data.

  • 450 Flex Points (7 Day Plan) – $5
  • 900 Flex Points (14 Day Plan) – $10
  • 3,000 Flex Points (Yearly Plan) – $60

My thoughts

It’s great to see BOOM! Mobile expanding its offerings. For most consumers, I think the Red plans will continue to be the best option since (a) they aren’t more expensive than the Pink plans and (b) they run over Verizon’s extensive network. I expect most consumers looking for coverage over T-Mobile’s could find better deals with an alternative MVNO (e.g., Mint Mobile). Still, I’m glad to see BOOM! Mobile offering access to more networks. The new flex plans are particularly interesting. I’d love to see more carriers come out with plans that use similar structures.

NYT Story On Location Tracking

The New York Times is running a series of articles on cell phone location tracking. The Times received access to a database with location data from about 12 million devices. In the series, reporters explain how easy it is to de-anonymize the allegedly anonymous location data. Here’s an excerpt from the first article:

Dozens of companies — largely unregulated, little scrutinized — are logging the movements of tens of millions of people with mobile phones and storing the information in gigantic data files. The Times Privacy Project obtained one such file, by far the largest and most sensitive ever to be reviewed by journalists. It holds more than 50 billion location pings from the phones of more than 12 million Americans…The data reviewed by Times Opinion didn’t come from a telecom or giant tech company, nor did it come from a governmental surveillance operation. It originated from a location data company, one of dozens quietly collecting precise movements using software slipped onto mobile phone apps. You’ve probably never heard of most of the companies — and yet to anyone who has access to this data, your life is an open book. They can see the places you go every moment of the day, whom you meet with or spend the night with, where you pray, whether you visit a methadone clinic, a psychiatrist’s office or a massage parlor…Yes, the location data contains billions of data points with no identifiable information like names or email addresses. But it’s child’s play to connect real names to the dots that appear on the maps.

I have quibbles with the articles, but I strongly recommend them. It looks like the Times is currently four articles into what will be a seven-article series.

US Mobile’s New Unlimited Plans – Well-Priced With Some Limits & Hidden Fees

The carrier US Mobile recently released new unlimited plans. As with US Mobile’s old plans, customers can choose either the Super LTE network or the GSM LTE network. Super LTE runs over Verizon’s network while GSM LTE runs over T-Mobile’s network. Plans appear to be priced the same regardless of the network a subscriber chooses.[1]

“Unlimited” is a bit of a misnomer for US Mobile’s new plans. The plans have limits, but the limits are dependent on which options subscribers select. Customers can choose either US Mobile’s “Fast” plan or its “Ludicrous” plan.

Limits

As I understand them, here are the limits on the Fast plan (base price of $40 per month):

  • Speeds are usually throttled to a maximum of 5Mbps
  • If 50GB of data is used in a single month, speeds are throttled intensely (15GB with GSM)
  • Hotspot use is not permitted (can be added for an additional $5 per month)

The Ludicrous plan has a base price of $50 per month. The Ludicrous plan does not have a 5Mbps throttle, and mobile hotspot is included. As with the Fast plan, data use beyond 50GB (15GB with GSM) is throttled intensely.

I use the phrase “throttled intensely” because US Mobile doesn’t disclose its policies clearly. On its website, the company writes:

Super LTE plans come with 50GB of high-speed data. A tiny fraction of heavier data users may notice reduced speeds afterwards.
While I appreciate the disclosure, I think there’s a lot wrong with it. While I interpreted it as indicating that speeds would be throttled intensely, a Reddit user thought the disclosure implied US Mobile customers normally would have high priority during congestion but would receive low priority after 50GB of data use.

A US Mobile agent I reached out to confirmed that there is a throttle after the threshold level of data use is reached. The agent seemed reluctant to mention a specific speed cap but explained that speeds would feel like 2G. Following the argument I made in Unlimited Plans At 2G Speeds Are Bogus, I think it would be more transparent if US Mobile called their plan a 50GB plan. Extra data at slow speeds could just be a little perk. That said, I understand the carrier caving to the pressure to call its plans “unlimited”.

I don’t love the phrasing of “A tiny fraction of heavier data users may notice reduced speeds.” It seems to suggest that only some of the people who pass the threshold will have reduced speeds. As I understand it, US Mobile is imposing a serious speed cap on everyone who passes the threshold of 50GB. I’d suggest an alternate phrasing along the lines of Heavy data users, who make up a tiny fraction of our subscriber base, will experience substantially reduced speeds after 50GB of use..”

Are The Plans Competitive?

US Mobile’s Super LTE unlimited plans look competitively priced for those who only need one or two lines and want service over Verizon’s network. Large families can probably get better per-line rates by purchasing service from Verizon directly (Verizon drops its per-line rates on unlimited plans as more lines are added).

Unlimited plans purchased from Verizon’s Flanker brand, Visible, may be cheaper than US Mobile’s plans, but regular issues and limited device options with Visible may make US Mobile a better bet.

US Mobile also includes some other companies’ services as perks with their unlimited plans. Here’s a screenshot from the carrier’s website:

List of US Mobile Perks

Hidden Fees

On the new unlimited plans, it seems US Mobile is still hiding fees. Most consumers won’t see these fees until after they’ve ordered a SIM card:

US Mobile's hidden fees

Both fees are annoying. One could argue the regulatory recovery fee is at least a fee that many other carriers are also hiding. The $2 per month service fee is unusual.