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eSIM concept art

US Mobile Launches eSIM Beta

Yesterday, US Mobile launched a beta version of eSIM plans. Initially, eSIMs are only available with US Mobile’s service over Verizon’s network (the Super LTE network according to US Mobile’s parlance).

Device Compatibility

At the moment, only a handful of devices are will work with US Mobile’s eSIMs:

  • iPhone SE (second generation)
  • iPhone 11, 11 Pro, and 11 Pro Max
  • iPhone XS and XS Max
  • iPhone XR
  • Google Pixel 4a.

US Mobile suggests eSIM options are coming soon for the iPhone 12 & 13 lines along with the Pixel 5, Pixel 5a, and Pixel 6.

US Mobile Is Early With eSIMs

Additional details about the beta program were shared in an announcement on Reddit. One part of the announcement stuck out to me:

We’re also proud to be one of the first major carriers to make the step of bringing eSIMs to our domestic customers. In fact, we’re now one of two (outside of the big three carriers or carriers owned by them…) to offer eSIMs.
Earlier this year, Mint Mobile launched eSIMs, and I believe Mint is the one other carrier referenced by US Mobile. While Straight Talk quietly started offering eSIMs before US Mobile, Straight Talk is technically owned by Verizon thanks to last week’s TracFone acquisition.1

US Mobile has tried to brand itself as a next-generation carrier that leverages technology better than its competitors. While the company has sometimes overpromised, it’s impressive that a company of its size managed to become one of the first MVNOs offering eSIMs.

Document getting an approval stamp

Verizon’s Acquisition Of TracFone Gets FCC Approval

Update: The acquisition is officially complete.


In September of 2020, Verizon announced plans to acquire TracFone and its roughly 20 million subscribers. A while back, the deal was cleared by the FTC and the DOJ declined to hold back the process. The acquisition got its final green lights from the California Public Utilities Commission last Thursday and the FCC yesterday.

I expect the deal to close shortly with Verizon meeting its original goal of closing the deal in the second half of 2021. As expected, the FCC’s approval is conditional on Verizon adhering to some terms. The terms center around consumer protections. Most of the protections relate to the government’s Lifeline program which offers subsidies on phone service for low-income consumers.

Terms of Consumer Protections

Here’s my understanding of the most important and/or interesting terms based on a reading of the FCC’s press release and a skim of the 70-page Memorandum Opinion and Order:

  • For at least seven years, Verizon must continue to offer TracFone’s Lifeline services in the areas they’re currently offered.
  • For at least three years, Verizon must continue to offer existing Lifeline plans that provide service at no cost to consumers.
  • Verizon must maintain some of TracFone’s existing roaming agreements to serve customers in some regions where Verizon does not offer coverage (I think this requirement lasts 3 years).
  • Verizon must offer free devices and/or SIM cards to Lifeline subscribers that are required to transition to Verizon’s network.
  • Verizon must extend its usual (60 day) unlocking policy to acquired customers.
  • For three years, Verizon must extend agreements with MVNOs using its network without altering the terms of the agreements.

As a whole, the terms are less burdensome on Verizon than I’d expected. I previously wondered if Verizon would be required to sell competitors the almost ten million TracFone subscribers who are not currently on Verizon’s network. It looks like no one will force Verizon to do so, and I expect Verizon will transition most of these users to its network.

What Does This Mean For MVNOs?

With Verizon acquiring all of TracFone’s brands and customers, the size of the MVNO market in the U.S. will contract significantly. Further, Verizon may see reduced economic incentives to allow MVNOs to use its network. The FCC acknowledged this concern:1

Verizon, as a result of the transaction, may have an increased incentive to raise the costs of mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) that compete directly against TracFone for Lifeline and other low-cost prepaid customers and for which Verizon is their wholesale provider…

Commenters argue that, because post-transaction, all significant MVNOs would be vertically integrated with the nationwide facilities-based providers, the vertically integrated MVNOs could coordinate to exclude or otherwise harm competing, standalone MVNOs or adopt parallel strategies to discourage postpaid customers from migrating to lower-cost prepaid plans. Second, commenters claim that coordination would be more likely because the transaction would remove an independently-competing maverick MVNO from the market.

However, it seems the FCC doesn’t take the concern too seriously:

We find that this transaction is unlikely to significantly increase the risk of coordinated effects. Post-transaction, there will remain, in addition to the prepaid brands offered by the three nationwide MNOs, prepaid brands offered by regional MNOs and by numerous independent MVNOs, including Boost and the other MVNOs served by Verizon. These MVNOs will continue to have the incentive and ability to compete for prepaid customers, including cost-conscious customers, which will likely continue to constrain opportunities for coordination on prepaid plans by the three nationwide MNOs. Further, at the wholesale level, contracts between MNOs and MVNOs are complex and specific to the needs of the MVNO that is party to the negotiation, generally last for a period of years, and generally are subject to strict non-disclosure agreements. These features of the wholesale contracts make it difficult for MNOs to coordinate on the terms of wholesale contracts to harm rival stand-alone MVNOs, and the transaction does not affect these features of wholesale contracts except between Verizon and TracFone. Moreover, Verizon’s commitment, which we accept as a condition to our approval, to extend its existing agreements with certain MVNOs for at least three years limits its ability to coordinate to raise wholesale prices.

Here’s what Verizon is ultimately committed to:

Verizon has committed to provide those MVNOs who have current contracts with Verizon an option to extend their existing MVNO wholesale agreements, on the same terms and conditions, continuing on a month-to-month basis until three years after the transaction closes. This option does not apply to MVNOs whose agreements expire beyond three years after the transaction closes.

Reflections

My gut feeling is still that a world where this acquisition goes through will be a world with less competition and higher prices than we’d see in a world without the acquisition. However, I feel less strongly about that than I did a year ago.

Winter scene

Mint Mobile Launches Buy 3 Get 3 Promo

Mint Mobile kicked off its holiday promo today. New customers who purchase a three-month plan get three extra months of service for free. The promotion stacks with Mint’s usual introductory offer—new customers can also pay for three months of service at the discounted monthly rate typically reserved for subscribers that pay for twelve months upfront.

Pricing

Mint’s holiday promo is available on all of the carrier’s standard plans. Here are the prices for six months of service (before taxes and fees):

  • 4GB plan – $45
  • 10GB plan – $60
  • 15GB plan – $75
  • Unlimited (35GB) plan – $90

Or in monthly terms:

  • 4GB plan – $7.50 per month
  • 10GB plan – $10 per month
  • 15GB plan – $12.50 per month
  • Unlimited (35GB) plan – $15 per month

Taxes and fees typically add about 10% to the prices listed above. The deal will be available until January 7. You can find additional details about the promo on Mint’s website.

Full Terms

Here are the terms and conditions from Mint:

Free 3-month plan applied as a discount at checkout and customers will receive a 6-month plan in total. Plan activation must occur within 45 days of purchase. Offer limited to four (4) per customer and may not be combined with other offers. Plans renew as a 6-month plan at full price. To qualify for the offer, International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number and phone number cannot have been associated with a Mint Mobile plan within 90 days of activation. Pricing, promotions, and terms & conditions are subject to change and may be modified or terminated at any time without notice. Not redeemable for cash or credit towards any purchase. Taxes, fees, and shipping extra. Other restrictions may apply.

Added 11/16/2021: Stetson Doggett let me know that Mint has also upgraded its refer-a-friend program during its holiday promo. Mint subscribers that refer a new customer who transfers from AT&T or Verizon may be eligible for a $100 credit.

Calendars

T-Mobile Delays CDMA Shutdown & Calls Out Dish

Today, T-Mobile issued a press release announcing that it will delay the phaseout of Sprint’s legacy 3G/CDMA network. The phaseout had been set to occur on January 1, 2022, but it has now been pushed back three months to March 31, 2022.

In the press release, T-Mobile takes shots at Dish but does not mention the company by name (emphasis mine):

To build out our revolutionary network…we need to sunset outdated CDMA technologies as soon as possible…This is why we have aggressively executed on plans to take care of transitioning our impacted Sprint CDMA customers by the end of this year and provided our partners plenty of time and resources to take care of their customers as well.

Recently it’s become increasingly clear that some of those partners haven’t followed through on their responsibility to help their customers through this shift. So, we’re stepping up on their behalf. We have made the decision to extend our deadline for the CDMA sunset by three months to March 31, 2022…Our reason for extending is simple: we want to give those partners who haven’t done the right thing for their customers every opportunity to step up now and do so.

There should be no more room for excuses.

I’ve updated my page on major networks’ 3G phaseouts to reflect the new plan.


Hat tip to Eli Blumenthal who tweeted about T-Mobile’s announcement.

A red flag

Service Outage At Visible

Verizon’s flanker brand Visible has had a rough time the past few weeks. First, a security issue caused trouble for a large number of subscribers earlier this month. Then yesterday, reports of a service outage started to surface.

Several Reddit posts and dozens of comments mentioned the outage. I’m not sure how much of Visible’s subscriber base was affected.1 The issue was widespread enough for Visible to acknowledge the issue on Twitter:


Reports suggest the outage only lasted a few hours. Shortly after sharing its initial tweet, Visible noted that the outage was resolved:

I haven’t heard anything about the underlying cause of the outage.

eSIM visual

Straight Talk Teases eSIM

Reddit user u/tronic862016 recently reported Tracfone’s brand Straight Talk is offering eSIMs for some customers using phones in the iPhone 12 and 13 series. The Reddit user shared this screenshot to a post on Reddit’s NoContract community:

Straight Talk screenshot showing an eSIM option

Straight Talk may merely be testing out eSIM rather than going for a full-blown product launch. As far as I can tell, Straight Talk hasn’t made a big fuss about launching eSIM services. Beyond restricting eSIM offerings to recent iPhones, Straight Talk may be further limiting eSIM to certain geographies, plans, or checkout methods. When I briefly ran through Straight Talk’s checkout process this morning, I wasn’t given an eSIM option.


Update: Joe Paonessa let me know that the eSIM option appears on Straight Talk’s activation page (i.e., not during checkout) and doesn’t appear to be restricted to particular geographies or plans.

Update icon

Visible Security Update

Earlier today, Visible shared a few tweets with updates on the security issue I posted about yesterday. Here’s the important bit:

Our investigation indicates that threat actors were able to access username/passwords from outside sources, and exploit that information to login to Visible accounts.

Taking Visible at face value, it looks like the attacker is exploiting information leaked in an unrelated data breach.1 Consequently, I’m not sure it’s entirely accurate to say Visible was hacked.2

I’m not sure what end game the attacker has planned. It sounds like many people are seeing fraudulent phone orders charged to the billing information on file in compromised accounts. Even if the fraudulent orders are fulfilled, it should be easy for Visible to track down the culprit. After all, the company knows where each phone is sent. Maybe I’m missing something.

Spitballing, I came up with a few possibilities:

  • Fraudulent orders could be a red herring to distract from the attacker’s real goal.
  • Multiple attackers could be working independently with the same compromised data.
  • An attacker could compromise numerous accounts and send phones to a large number of addresses. If only a small portion of the addresses were under the attacker’s control, it would be difficult and expensive for Visible to track down the attacker.

I don’t find any of these possibilities particularly likely. It’ll be interesting to see how this plays out.

Image conveying the idea of security

Security Issues At Visible

Visible, Verizon’s flanker brand, recently underwent some kind of security issue. Over the last day or two, subscribers have been posting in Visible’s Reddit community reporting hacked accounts, fraudulent orders, and loss of account access.

A Visible staff member shared the following update on Reddit:

We’re currently investigating an incident where information on a small number of member accounts was changed without their authorization. We’re working hard to take protective steps to secure these accounts.

We don’t believe that any Visible systems have been breached or compromised, nor that this unauthorized access to your Visible account is ongoing. However, for your protection, we recommend you review your account contact information and change your password and security questions to your Visible account. We also recommend that you review any other accounts that share the same email, login, or password, and make any changes you determine necessary to secure those accounts.

I’m unsure what’s meant by “a small number of member accounts”, but the volume of Reddit posts reporting issues suggests the issue is far from trivial. Adding insult to injury, it looks like Visible’s password reset feature has failed to function properly for many users trying to secure their accounts.

Megaphone cartoon

MobileX Announces Partnership With Verizon

For over a year, Peter Adderton, the founder of Boost Mobile, has been dropping hints about MobileX, a new cellular carrier he’s starting. Adderton has suggested MobileX will take a novel and consumer-friendly approach, but details about MobileX’s plans have been sparse until today.

This morning, Mobile X Global announced that its U.S. brand, MobileX, is partnering with Verizon. The partnership will allow MobileX to take advantage of Verizon’s Network as a Service platform. I don’t know much about the ins and outs of Verizon’s platform, but it will allow MobileX to offer service over Verizon’s network and potentially deliver features that conventional MVNOs cannot.

MobileX’s Ambitions

According to today’s press release, MobileX is aiming to launch in the U.S. in early 2022. The release also noted Mobile X Global’s goal of eventually offering a seamless user experience across countries:

[The Mobile X Global platform] will allow customers to seamlessly switch across global networks, with one number and one service that extends beyond borders.

Adderton was quoted stressing the unique and highly customizable nature of the MobileX platform:

Mobile X Global will deliver an incredibly intuitive, easy-to-use and real-time proprietary platform that truly puts the power in the hands of the consumer. Now they can choose what they want, when they want, and only pay for what they need. The innovations in our cloud-based platform enable unprecedented levels of customization and flexibility.

I’m not sure what MobileX’s offerings will look like. Last year, I shared a bit of speculation, largely based on mockup images. I’m hoping we’ll see MobileX bring unique approaches to pricing, network switching, and user control of service quality. I suspect more details will come to light over the next few months.

Crowd of people

Opensignal & Tutela Join Forces

Earlier this week, Comlinkdata announced that it will acquire Opensignal, a company that collects crowdsourced data about the performance of cellular networks. A few years ago, Comlinkdata acquired Tutela, another company crowdsourcing performance data. It’ll be interesting to see whether Comlinkdata continues to operate Tutela and Opensignal as more-or-less independent brands.

I’ve previously argued that network evaluation involves all sorts of weird dynamics and conflicts of interest. I expect putting Tutela and Opensignal under the same roof will cause a shift in the incentives at play, but I haven’t made up my mind about the implications of that shift.