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Link Roundup – 2/14/2020

  • MWC 2020, the largest wireless industry conference, was canceled due to coronavirus concerns.
  • Dan Warren, one of the people behind the creation of VoLTE, wrote about the ongoing importance of the GSMA (the organization that hosts MWC).
  • A Reddit user suggests Mint Mobile’s policies may leave subscribers vulnerable to SIM-swap attacks. I haven’t dug into it, but it looks like a real issue. Mint Mobile appears to be looking into the problem.
  • Nilay Patel from The Verge shares excellent (perhaps over-the-top) criticism of Judge Marrero’s decision in the recently-concluded T-Mobile/Sprint merger case.
  • Attorney General Barr floated the idea of having the U.S. government purchase a controlling stake in Ericsson or Nokia.
  • AT&T plans to cover most people in the U.S. with low-band 5G later this year.

T-Mobile & Sprint Merger Rumored To Be Headed For Approval

Several state attorneys general have been suing to stop a merger between T-Mobile and Sprint. Rumors came out earlier this evening that the judge presiding over the case is planning to rule in favor of the merger. Here’s a bit from a Wall Street Journal article:

A federal judge is expected to approve T-Mobile US Inc.’s merger with Sprint Corp., according to people familiar with the matter, clearing the way for the two wireless rivals to combine and overcoming a state antitrust challenge.

The rumors are almost certainly correct. Sprint’s stock soared in after-hours trading. The market closed with Sprint trading at close to $4.80. Since then, the stock has been trading for almost 70% more at over $8 per share:[1]

Sprint Stock Price After Merger

T-Mobile’s stock experienced a more modest after-hours rise from about $85 per share to slightly over $90 per share:

T-Mobile stock price graph after merger with Sprint

I’m planning to write something more detailed once the news is made official and the companies involved release statements.

Consumers Need More Information On Congestion & Prioritization Policies

Wireless networks have finite capacities. If enough users try to send data over a network at the same time, the network will become congested and deliver slower speeds.

Not all users will see the same decreases in speeds during congestion. Prioritization policies govern how different people on a network are affected by congestion. In many cases, subscribers with premium service plans will be prioritized ahead of subscribers on low-cost plans. When low-priority subscribers are experiencing sluggish speeds during congestion, they’re often described as being “deprioritized.”

There’s a shocking lack of public information about prioritization policies. Over the last year, I’ve dug into legalese to figure out how major carriers prioritize different plans, looked into the technical mechanisms behind prioritization, and spoken with industry experts. I’ve created what I believe is some of the most detailed content about prioritization policies among carriers in the U.S. Despite all that, I regularly find myself confused about prioritization.

Vague deprioritization disclosures

Carriers typically disclose the possibility of deprioritization in fine-print statements along these lines:

During periods of congestion, subscribers on this plan may experience data speeds slower than those received by other subscribers on the network.
Disclosures tend to be vague. Carriers almost never discuss the frequency of deprioritization, the severity of speed decreases, or the locations where subscribers will be especially prone to deprioritization.

Is deprioritization a big issue for low-cost plans?

Mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) are often prohibited from discussing specific terms of their arrangements with host networks. In many cases, MVNOs can’t even make clear statements about which networks they operate over. In preparation for this post, I talked with a few people who are knowledgeable about the MVNO industry. None of them wanted to be quoted.

The general view among participants on online forums about the wireless industry is that almost all MVNO subscribers are deprioritized. However, there are competing claims. The MVNO Ting published a blog post titled Do MVNOs get second class cell service? The post explicitly states that Ting subscribers on Sprint’s network have priority on-par with typical Sprint subscribers. Ting’s post also seems to carry an implicit suggestion that subscribers using other MVNOs are usually not deprioritized:

The truth of the matter is, Sprint’s MVNO contract states that Sprint must provide its Customer MVNOs with service parity to traditional Sprint wireless voice and data service. It’s all laid out in very clear terms…The problem is, the discussion of whether or not carriers throttle and traffic shape MVNOs on their network takes on a conspiratorial tone online. I know, it’s shocking! Suppositions get accepted as fact. Assumptions leap off from suppositions and next thing you know, it’s all true because someone read it on the Internet. Hopefully this helps to dispel the myth.

Wirecutter has written about prioritization, and it looks like the company reached out to a handful of carriers about their policies (emphasis mine):[1]

[Some carriers] prioritize their own customers over third-party prepaid traffic, as happens with the Metro by T-Mobile subsidiary. A T-Mobile spokesperson confirmed that policy, saying that although postpaid and prepaid T-Mobile service have the same priority, Metro by T-Mobile and other resellers ‘may notice slower speeds in times of network congestion’…However, AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon told us that they don’t impose any such prioritization.

I don’t buy it. Xfinity Mobile, a popular Verizon reseller, explicitly acknowledges deprioritization:

In times of congestion, your data may be temporarily slower than other traffic.

Verizon makes it clear that its own prepaid subscribers will be deprioritized during congestion. Verizon’s flanker brand, Visible, also deprioritizes subscribers’ data.[2]

While these facts don’t rule out the possibility that Verizon gives high-priority access to some resellers, I’d be awfully surprised if subscribers with Verizon resellers typically have higher priority than a large portion of Verizon’s own subscribers.

Does deprioritization matter?

There are a lot of reasons people experience slow speeds, and people may be too quick to assume that deprioritization is the source of lousy speeds. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any publicly available data that sheds light on how often deprioritization causes trouble for consumers. As far as tell, drive tests assessing network performance typically use high-priority services. I’d be interested to see how assessments would come out tests were run with low-priority services.

Sharing better information

I’m aiming to offer the best public-facing content about prioritization policies. If you work in the wireless industry and would like to talk publicly or privately about prioritization policies, please reach out.

Tello Offering 50% Off To Subscribers From Virgin Mobile

Tello, an MVNO running over Sprint’s network, is offering 50% off the first month of service for subscribers that switch from Virgin Mobile. As I’ve previously discussed, Virgin Mobile is in the process of shutting down and will transfer its subscriber base to Boost Mobile.

Tello’s new promotion is available to customers who enter “VIRGIN” as a coupon code during checkout. A bit more information about the promo can be found on Tello’s website.

Tello is an extremely low-cost operator, and it may be a convenient option for subscribers leaving Virgin Mobile. Since both Virgin and Tello run over Sprint’s network, most people won’t encounter device compatibility issues when migrating from Virgin. According to the information I received, the promotion is set to run until February 10.

Mint Mobile’s Super Bowl Promo: A Retrospective

During the Super Bowl, Mint Mobile was offering new customers three months of free service. In my earlier post about the promotion, I said that I thought the deal wouldn’t have any serious catches or gotchas that made it less appealing. Sure enough, that’s how things panned out. I really appreciate that Mint Mobile doesn’t engage in gimmicks to nickel-and-dime its customers.

As expected, new customers were able to get free service, a free SIM card, and free shipping:

Mint Checkout

Before the promotion launched, I wondered whether Mint Mobile would try to push people into plans that renewed automatically. I’m happy with the approach Mint took. On the checkout page for the promotion, Mint conspicuously featured details about its auto recharge program. While the auto recharge box was checked by default, the program was clearly explained, and the box was easy to uncheck:

Mint Mobile Auto Recharge

Promotion duration

In my last post, I wrote:

It sounds like the promotion will last for something like 3-5 hours. Mint is suggesting that the promotion will end when the final whistle blows at the end of the Superbowl (though I won’t be shocked if the promotion stays available for a bit longer).

Sure enough, Mint extended the promotion. Here’s a screenshot from Mint’s website last night:

When I checked Mint’s website shortly after midnight on the West Coast, the promotion looked like it was still running. When I checked Mint’s website this morning, the promotion was over.

Total Wireless Updates Plan Offerings

Total Wireless, one of my favorite mobile virtual network operators running over Verizon’s network, recently updates a few of its plans. Previously, the cheapest single-line plan was $25 per month and came with unlimited minutes, unlimited texts, and no data. Total Wireless has updated the plan so that it now includes 1GB of regular data as well as additional data at substantially reduced speeds for those who exceed 1GB of data use. At $25, the plan is a reasonably competitive option for those who don’t use a lot of data and want to benefit from Verizon’s extensive network.

Total Wireless also updated its single-line plan that costs $35 per month. The plan used to come with unlimited minutes, unlimited texts, and 5GB of data. For new customers, the plan now includes 10GB of data for the first three months. I find this change a bit odd. Subscribers who will benefit from the extra 5GB of data are liable to be disappointed when their data allotment drops to 5GB after the first few months of service.

Proof & Network Evaluations

RootMetrics recently tweeted about how its latest analyses prove which networks are the fastest and most reliable:

RootMetrics' Tweet

I’m a big fan of RootMetrics, but the tweet annoyed me. There’s a ton of flexibility in how network evaluators can approach their work. Will performance data be crowdsourced from consumers or collected via in-house testing? How will data be cleaned and aggregated? What regions will be included? Etc.

Phrases like “fastest network” and “most reliable network” are ambiguous. Do you determine the fastest network based on average download speeds, median download speeds, or something else?

RootMetrics’ tweet is especially odd in light of their latest report. Depending on which speed metric you choose to look at, you could argue that either Verizon or AT&T has the fastest network. AT&T narrowly beats Verizon in terms of median download speed. Verizon narrowly beats AT&T in RootMetrics’ overall speed scores.[1]

RootMetrics’ Results In Dense City Centers

RootMetrics’ most recent report includes information about network speeds in city centers. Here’s how RootMetrics’ describes the tests:[1]

Capacity is critical for a good mobile experience in highly congested areas. To show you how the carriers performed in high-traffic areas of select cities, we measured each carrier’s median download speed outdoors in the dense urban cores of 13 major cities across the country.

The results are presented with the following graphic that lists the median download speed in megabits per second from the fastest and slowest network in each city:[2]

RootMetrics' median download speeds in city centers

Despite Sprint’s lousy performance in RootMetrics’ overall, national-level results, Sprint still managed to offer the fastest speeds in 3 of the 13 city centers RootMetrics considered. The results are consistent with a point I’ve tried to emphasize in the past: if you tend to stay in one area, you shouldn’t worry too much about national-level network performance.

Prioritization

I haven’t seen information about which plans RootMetrics’ test devices use on each network. In fact, I’m not entirely sure RootMetrics uses service plans that are available to regular consumers. My guess is that RootMetrics’ test devices have prioritization and quality of service levels at the high-end of what’s available to regular consumers. If my guess is correct, RootMetrics’ test devices have higher priority than many budget-friendly services that run over the Big Four networks. A few examples of those services:

  • AT&T: Cricket Wireless unlimited plans
  • T-Mobile: Metro by T-Mobile plans
  • Sprint: Mobile hotspot plans and Boost Mobile plans
  • Verizon: Verizon Prepaid plans, the Start Unlimited plan, and Visible plans

Subscribers using low-priority services are especially likely to experience slow speeds in congested areas. I’d be interested in seeing RootMetrics rerun its city-center tests with low-priority services.

Mint Mobile Offering 3 Months Free During The Superbowl – No Serious Catches

Mint Mobile is going to run a huge promotion this Sunday during the Superbowl. Once the game starts (around 3:15PM PST), new customers can go to mintmobile.com/free/ to get 3 months of service for free on Mint’s plan that includes unlimited minutes, unlimited texts, and 3GB of data per month. The promotion doesn’t appear to involve any serious catches. There’s no long-term commitment or device purchase required.

Those who take advantage of the promotion will need to give Mint a credit card number and temporarily pay a $0.01 charge. Here’s how Mint explains it:

This 3-month 3GB plan is 100% on us. There is just a $0.01 temporary payment verification to verify the credit card used is valid. And even that will be refunded within 5-7 business days.

It sounds like the promotion will last for something like 3-5 hours. Mint is suggesting that the promotion will end when the final whistle blows at the end of the Superbowl (though I won’t be shocked if the promotion stays available for a bit longer).

This promotion looks like an awesome deal for people who want to try Mint. I’ll be surprised if there end up being any unexpected catches or gotchas.

Terms

Here are some more details about the terms of the promotion.

  • Only one person per household may take advantage of the promotion.
  • Service must be activated within 45 days.
  • As usual, Mint will allow subscribers to port existing numbers or receive new numbers.
  • As with Mint’s other plans, if you use up your 3GB data allotment, you can continue using additional data at very slow speeds.
  • If you want more than 3GB of high-speed data, you can upgrade by paying the prorated difference between the 3GB plan’s price and the price of a plan with a larger data allowance.
  • After the 3 free months are over, you can purchase further service according to Mint’s standard plans and prices.

Reynolds’ tweet

Actor Ryan Reynolds, an owner of Mint Mobile, tweeted about the promotion earlier today:

Ryan Reynolds tweet about Mint Mobile's 3 months free promotion