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Tutela’s October 2019 MVNO Report

In October, the network evaluator Tutela released its USA State of MVNOs report. Most network evaluators only assess the performance of the Big Four carriers (AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, and Verizon), so it’s interesting to see Tutela assessing a wider range of carriers.

Near the beginning of the report, Tutela shares some reflections on how the MVNO landscape is changing:[1]

MVNOs and MNO flanker brands in the US carved out a niche largely serving the needs of lower-income customers or those with particular data needs…in 2019, the landscape is rapidly shifting. Technological advancements have made the barrier for operating some kind of network much lower; the entrance of cable companies into the market have pushed MVNO service into the more lucrative postpaid segment; and multi-network MVNOs are innovating on the network side of the equation, rather than solely differentiating on price or customer service.

Methodology

The approach Tutela used to evaluate MVNOs was in line with its usual methodology. The company crowdsourced performance data from typical consumers with the help of code embedded in Tutela’s partners’ apps. In the new report, Tutela primarily considers how well MVNOs performed in regions where at least three of the big four networks offer coverage. Tutela calls these core coverage areas.[2]

Within core coverage areas, Tutela calculates the amount of time subscribers have service that exceeds two different quality thresholds. When service exceeds the “excellent” threshold, subscribers should be able to do highly demanding things like streaming high-definition video or downloading large files quickly. When service exceeds the “core” threshold, subscribers should be able to carry out typical activities like browsing or streaming music without trouble, but performance issues may be encountered with demanding activities.

Results

Here’s Tutela’s visualization of the main results:[3]

Tutela results


A chart of median download speeds shows a similar ranking among carriers:

Tutela Download Speeds

The results aren’t too surprising. Verizon MVNOs come out near the top of the hierarchy, while Sprint MVNOs tend to come out near the bottom. Cricket Wireless has a good score for the core threshold but does poorly in terms of the excellent threshold. That outcome makes sense since Cricket throttles maximum speeds.

Possible selection bias

I often write about how assessments of network performance that use crowdsourced data may be vulnerable to selection bias. These results from Tutela are no exception. In particular, I wonder if the results are skewed based on how high-quality phones used with different carriers tend to be. In general, newer or more expensive phones have better network hardware than older or cheaper phones.

Xfinity Mobile takes the top spot in the rankings. Xfinity Mobile is a new-ish carrier and is restrictive about which phones are eligible for use with the service. I would guess the average phone used with Xfinity Mobile is a whole lot newer and more valuable than the average phone used with TracFone. Similar arguments could be made for why Spectrum or Google Fi may have an advantage.

To Tutela’s credit, the company acknowledges the possibility of selection bias in at least one case:[4]

The second factor explaining Google Fi’s performance compared to Metro or Boost is the device breakdown. Although a broad range of Android and iOS devices work with Google Fi’s service, the network is targeted most heavily at owners of Google’s own Pixel devices…The Pixel devices use top-of-the-line cellular modems, which intrinsically provide a better cellular experience than older or mid-range devices.

Wi-Fi results

Several MVNOs offer access to Wi-Fi hotspots in addition to cellular networks. I’ve been curious how much data carriers send over Wi-Fi, and Tutela’s results give an estimate. While Xfinity Mobile appears to have sent the largest share of its data via hotspots, it’s a smaller share than I expected:[5]

Tutela data suggests that Xfinity Mobile has already succeeded in offloading over 6% of smartphone data traffic onto its Wi-Fi network – far more than any other network.

Tutela also shares a graph comparing hotspot usage among different carriers:[6]

Graph of wi-fi usage share among multiple carriers

Other stuff

There were a few other bits of the report that I found especially interesting. In one section, the report’s authors reflect on the fast growth of MVNOs run by cable companies:[7]

Xfinity Mobile and Spectrum Mobile captured nearly 50% of the postpaid subscriber growth in Q2 2019, and combined added nearly as many postpaid subscribers as host network Verizon.

In another part of the report, Tutela shares a map displaying the most common host network that Google Fi subscribers access. It looks like there are a decent number of areas where Sprint or U.S. Cellular provide the primary host network:[8]

AT&T Paying $60,000,000 For “Unlimited Data” Claims

AT&T has settled with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and agreed to pay out $60 million to current and past customers that may have been affected by misleading claims about unlimited data. The settlement is in response to the FTC’s 2014 accustation that AT&T failed to adequately disclose that customers on unlimited data plans could have their speeds throttled substantially. Here are a few bits from the 2014 FTC complaint:

The FTC’s complaint alleges that the company failed to adequately disclose to its customers on unlimited data plans that, if they reach a certain amount of data use in a given billing cycle, AT&T reduces – or “throttles” – their data speeds to the point that many common mobile phone applications – like web browsing, GPS navigation and watching streaming video – become difficult or nearly impossible to use…AT&T’s marketing materials emphasized the ‘unlimited’ amount of data that would be available to consumers who signed up for its unlimited plans…AT&T, despite its unequivocal promises of unlimited data, began throttling data speeds in 2011 for its unlimited data plan customers after they used as little as 2 gigabytes of data in a billing period. According to the complaint, the throttling program has been severe, often resulting in speed reductions of 80 to 90 percent for affected users. Thus far, according to the FTC, AT&T has throttled at least 3.5 million unique customers a total of more than 25 million times…consumers in AT&T focus groups strongly objected to the idea of a throttling program and felt ‘unlimited should mean unlimited.’

Here’s an excerpt from the FTC’s press release from today (emphasis mine):

As part of the settlement, AT&T is prohibited from making any representation about the speed or amount of its mobile data, including that it is “unlimited,” without disclosing any material restrictions on the speed or amount of data. The disclosures need to be prominent, not buried in fine print or hidden behind hyperlinks. For example, if an AT&T website advertises a data plan as unlimited, but AT&T may slow speeds after consumers reach a certain data cap, AT&T must prominently and clearly disclose those restrictions.

I’m glad to see the FTC cracking down on misleading practices. Bogus “unlimited” plans seem to be much more common today than they were in 2014.

Visible Launches Party Pay

The Verizon flanker brand, Visible, just launched what it calls Party Pay. With Party Pay, groups of up to four people can get discounts on their service while still maintaining their own, separate billing.

Previously, Visible offered only one plan. For $40 per month, subscribers could get unlimited minutes, texts, and data over Verizon’s network. Visible has a few limitations: hotspot speeds are throttled, a limited set of devices are compatible, and subscribers have low priority during periods of network congestion. Still, at $40 per month, Visible was offering a good price for an unlimited plan that ran over Verizon’s network. Today, Visible’s pricing got a lot better. With Party Pay, subscribers now pay a per-line rate determined by how many people are in their party:

  • 1 person: $40 per month
  • 2 people: $35 per month
  • 3 people: $30 per month
  • 4 people: $25 per month

Party pay is not a traditional family plan. Visible doesn’t require that users be family members or even know each other in real life:[1]

If you’re already active on Visible, get a party link from a loved/liked/iffy-about one, or an internet stranger. Click the link, and ask to join the party.

If you want to, it’s possible to treat Party Pay like a family plan—though it might take a bit of work. Here’s what a Visible employee on Reddit suggests:

How can I pay for everyone in my party (like a family plan)?

Easiest way to do this is just adding the same payment info to all the accounts you want to pay for and turn on Autopay.

Parties don’t have a manager. Anyone in a party that is not full can invite others, approve requests from people wanting to join, or choose to leave a party. It is not possible to kick another member out of a party.

If a subscriber leaves a party, Visible’s rates for those still in the party will adjust accordingly. Here are excerpts from Visible’s FAQ explaining the process:

If one of my party members miss a payment or leaves the party, what happens?
When someone misses a payment or lapses service, pauses service without billing, cancels their account, ports out and leaves Visible, they are removed from the party. When that happens the party membership changes and Visible monthly service amount changes based on the number of members in the party.

If one of my party members leaves the party, what happens?
They are removed from the party. When that happens Visible monthly service amount changes for the remaining members based on the number of members still in the party at the time the next bill is created [or something to this effect].

At $25 per person for an unlimited plan over Verizon’s network, Visible’s Party Play is hard to beat in price. That said, it may not be for everyone. A fair number of subscribers have reported issues with aspects of Visible’s service (see my full review).

With the introduction of Party Play, Visible made a few other changes. New customers now get their first month of service for $25 regardless of their party size. Additionally, the Visible referral program is being phased out. Existing subscribers will keep their bill credits for past referrals, but Visible won’t continue to give referral codes to new customers.

Feel free to leave invitation links for your party in the comments (but check if another commenter has open spaces in their party first).

Xfinity Mobile’s Pricing vs. The Competition

One of my recent posts about Xfinity Mobile received a comment on Reddit that got me thinking:

While Xfinity does have decent options (especially if you don’t need too much data) – it isn’t necessarily very different from other MVNO’s.

Let’s dive into that. It’s not always possible to make apples-to-apples comparisons among carriers since each carrier has its own way of structuring plans. Still, I’ll try my best to compare Xfinity Mobile’s prices to the best deals available from Verizon and other carriers that use Verizon’s network.

Low data use

Both the commenter and I think Xfinity Mobile may be a good option for people who don’t use a lot of data. For a base price of $12 per line, Xfinity Mobile offers a 5-line plan with unlimited minutes, unlimited texts, and 10GB of shared data. In comparison, a postpaid Verizon plan with 8GB of shared data, unlimited minutes, and unlimited talk would have a base price of $34 per line. It’s harder to make a close comparison with Verizon’s prepaid plans. 5 lines with 1GB of data each, unlimited talk, and unlimited text would have a base price of $30 per line. For 6GB of data on each line, the cost would be $32 per line.

If we look at individual plans rather than family plans, Xfinity Mobile still looks like a winner, but the competition is tighter. 2GB of data, unlimited talk, and unlimited text has a base price of only $24 per month with Xfinity. Verizon prepaid charges a base price of $30 for a plan with only 1GB. Verizon postpaid is a whole lot more expensive for a comparable plan. However, some Verizon MVNOs have similar prices. BOOM! offers 2GB of data, unlimited talk, and unlimited texts for under $30 per month. TotalWireless offers 5GB of data for a base price of about $33. Red Pocket offers 3GB of data for about $30.

Heavy data use

For heavy data use, Xfinity Mobile subscribers will probably want to turn to the carrier’s unlimited plans. These plans have a base price of $45 per line each month. At this point, Xfinity Mobile is no longer a clear winner, especially on family plans. With 5 lines on Verizon’s postpaid Start Unlimited plan, there is a base price of $30 per month. However, a single start unlimited line has a base price of $70, still a much higher rate than Xfinity charges. Visible, a flanker brand run by Verizon, offers unlimited plans for only $40 per month. Verizon MVNO TotalWireless has excellent prices on high-data allotment family plans. For example, 4 lines with 100GB of shared data come with a base price of about $24 per line.

Takeaway

Xfinity Mobile has extremely competitive prices for those who want service over Verizon’s network, don’t use a lot of data, and don’t mind being more tightly tied to other Xfinity services. For those who use moderate or large amounts of data (especially on family plans) Xfinity Mobile faces plenty of competition.

Xfinity Mobile’s BYOD Program

Xfinity Mobile has a bring your own device (BYOD) program, but only a handful of devices are eligible for the program.

BYOD-eligible Apple iPhone devices

The iPhone 6 and more recent Apple devices are likely to be eligible if they’re unlocked. However, iPhone models sold by certain carriers or in some regions of the world may still be ineligible. Xfinity’s online tool can be used to verify a specific device’s compatibility.

BYOD-eligible Android devices

Only a small number of Android phones are officially compatible with Xfinity Mobile. At the moment, all of the compatible Android phones are Samsung Galaxy devices:

  • Samsung Galaxy S8
  • Samsung Galaxy S8+
  • Samsung Galaxy S9
  • Samsung Galaxy S9+
  • Samsung Galaxy S10
  • Samsung Galaxy S10+
  • Samsung Galaxy S10e
  • Samsung Galaxy Note8
  • Samsung Galaxy Note9

Most models of these devices will be compatible with Xfinity Mobile if they’re unlocked and were sold in the U.S. I still suggest confirming compatibility on Xfinity’s website.

Official details about devices Xfinity Mobile permits are shared in the carrier’s FAQ. Xfinity Mobile has expressed an intention to expand the number of devices on its Android BYOD list in the future:[1]

Right now, not all Android devices are compatible with Xfinity Mobile, but we’re working behind the scenes on making this possible in the near future.

I hope Xfinity Mobile aggressively opens up its Android BYOD program soon, but I’m not sure it will happen. Here’s an excerpt from a complaint posted by a Reddit user in early 2019:

[Xfinity Mobile] promised that it [Android BYOD] was coming over and over and here we are over a year later and still nothing… We did finally get iPhone byop but not a peep about android. I feel a little lied to.

Xfinity finally started to offer limited Android BYOD support in July of this year. Since the beginning of the BYOD program, Xfinity has expanded its initial list of supported devices to include the Samsung Galaxy S10, S10+, and S10e.[2]

Accountant calculating

Xfinity Mobile’s Pricing Strategy

Comcast’s cellular brand, Xfinity Mobile, appears awfully well priced. Somehow, Xfinity Mobile offers service over Verizon’s extensive network without the usual price tag. Unlimited minutes and texts are included for free in all of Xfinity Mobile’s plans. Subscribers just pay for data, and rates for data are reasonable. For $45 per month, a subscriber can get unlimited data. Alternatively, subscribers can purchase a set amount of data and share it among up to five lines:

  • 1GB data – $12 per month
  • 3GB data – $30 per month
  • 10GB data – $60 per month

A family could get five lines of service with 10GB of shared data, unlimited minutes, and unlimited texts for a base price of only $12 per line.[1] Purchasing a comparable family plan from Verizon would be far more expensive. Even other mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) that run over Verizon’s network charge far more for similar plans. Why is Xfinity Mobile so cheap?

Lock-in with other Xfinity services

Only customers with active Xfinity internet service are eligible to sign up for Xfinity Mobile. Some people who would have used internet service providers other than Xfinity may now choose Xfinity internet so that they can sign up for Xfinity Mobile. Similarly, potential fees incentivize Xfinity Mobile customers not to cancel other Xfinity services:[2]

$20 per line monthly charge applies if at least one of the following post-pay subscriptions are not maintained on the account: Xfinity TV, Internet or Voice service.

Competitors threaten Comcast. Like Comcast, Verizon’s Fios offers bundled TV, internet, and home phone service. Emerging technologies like 5G fixed wireless may create viable alternatives to conventional cable companies. By bundling several services together, Xfinity may make it more difficult for consumers to switch to competitors’ services.

Favorable MVNO terms

Xfinity Mobile is relatively new, but it already has a huge number of subscribers.[3] While the agreements between MVNOs like Xfinity Mobile and host operators like Verizon are generally private, my impression is that MVNOs with large subscriber bases often receive substantially better rates than MVNOs with small subscriber bases. Xfinity Mobile may, in part, be able to offer low prices because it gets unusually good rates on access to Verizon’s network.

Future prices

While Xfinity Mobile’s service is well-priced today, it’s not guaranteed to stay that way forever. We’ve already seen one revamp in Xfinity Mobile’s price structure.

Other explanations

I haven’t seen Comcast executives explicitly explain their rationale for launching a mobile service, so all I can do is speculate. If you have other thoughts about Xfinity Mobile’s pricing strategy, please leave a comment!

Consumer Cellular Increases Data Limits

Yesterday, Consumer Cellular announced an increase in the data allotments it offers at different price points. The table below outlines the changes:

Monthly data costPrevious allotmentNew allotmentPercent increase
$50.25GB0.5GB100%
$102GB3GB50%
$205GB10GB100%
$3010GB16GB60%
$4020GB25GB25%

I spoke with a Consumer Cellular support agent who confirmed that these changes would automatically affect existing customers. For example, a customer who was paying $10 per month for 2GB of data will now be allotted 3GB of data per month at no extra charge.

It’s great to see a carrier improving customers’ plans without charging more or requiring customers to proactively opt-in to the changes. In some ways, it’s a bold business move. Customers who were paying $30 per month for 10GB could now downgrade to the $20 per month price tier and still receive 10GB of data. That said, I don’t expect a lot of customers will actually downgrade in response to the new pricing structure.

Sliding Data Limits

If you’re looking to reduce your data use, I highly recommend using what I call sliding data limits. Start each month by setting a data limit that’s well below the amount of data you’re allotted. Each time you hit your limit, reset it to something higher. Each time you change your limit, increase it by a smaller amount.

For example, let’s say you have 7GB of data allotted each month:

  • Start the month with a limit of 3GB
  • If you hit the 3GB limit, increase the limit to 5GB
  • If you hit the 5GB limit, increase the limit to 6GB
  • If you hit the 6GB limit, increase the limit to 6.5GB
  • Etc…

With this approach, you’ll be able to keep tabs on your data use and prevent overages with minimal effort.

Setting data limits

Most phones have built-in features for setting data limits. Many wireless carriers also allow subscribers to set up data limits or usage alerts from their online accounts.

In Android 10, you can set limits by going to:
Settings > Network & internet > Mobile network > Data warning and limit

Note that your phone may account for data use a bit differently than your carrier. If you’re allocated 7GB of data each month, you may want to conservatively set limits as if you’re allotted 6.9GB of data each month.

Hitting data limits

If you hit a limit you’ve set, data access will be cut off, and you’ll probably be prompted with an alert like this one:


Mobile data is paused notification


Data warnings

If instead of setting a data limit, you set a warning or alert, you’ll still receive a notification. However, data access will continue. You might want to use both limits and warnings at the same time. For example, if you start a month with a 3GB limit, you might also want to set a 1.5GB warning to give you a better sense of the rate at which you’re using data.

Why Are Major Carriers’ Websites So Bad?

In my experience, major wireless carriers have terrible websites. It’s hard to figure out all of the plans major carriers offer and the prices of those plans. Finding details about plans’ policies and limitations is often tricky. In contrast, a lot of small, MVNO carriers have easy-to-use websites.

Among the major carriers, I’ve spent the most time using Verizon’s website. While doing things that Verizon suggested I should be able to do online, I’d regularly be served error messages indicating that I should call Verizon’s telephone support.

A recent Reddit thread titled Why is the official Verizon website so bad? touched on the same topic. Commenters indicated that bad websites are par for the course with the major carriers. Here’s the top-voted comment in the thread:[1]

AT&Ts website and app are far worse. I promise you.

So why are major carriers’ websites so bad? I think part of the explanation is that mobile phone service in the U.S. is a confusopoly. Incompetence doesn’t explain why it’s difficult to find clear descriptions of carriers’ policies and limitations. Carriers make some information hard to find because keeping that information in hard-to-reach areas is in their interests. Carriers often default to showing website visitors a subset of their plans. Visitors often need to search to find prepaid and budget plans. Carriers know that price-sensitive consumers will be more likely to put effort into searching while price-insensitive consumers may spend more than they need to for premium service.

I don’t think my argument that mobile phone service is a confusopoly is sufficient to explain all of the ways in which major carriers websites are bad. It’s hard to see how some of the issues I’ve experienced could serve carriers’ interests. For example, Verizon’s website went down last week. I don’t think the outage was good for Verizon.

Maybe all of the complexity large carriers deal with contributes to their websites being so bad. Subscribers with major carriers are on all sorts of different plans with different policies, features, etc. On the other hand, lots of companies deal with complexity and still have good websites. Financial institutions offer complicated services; their websites seem to work a lot better than major carriers’ websites.

I’m not sure what to think. If other explanations make a lot of sense to you, let me know in the comments.

Why Are Family Plans Cheaper?

Wireless carriers often offer service with a lower price per line for customers on multi-line plans. For example, here’s how Verizon prices its Start Unlimited Plan:[1]

  • 1 line – $70 per line
  • 2 lines – $60 per line
  • 3 lines – $45 per line
  • 4 lines – $35 per line
  • 5 lines – $30 per line

The cost per line with five users is less than half of the cost per line with only one user. I can think of a few reasonable-seeming explanations for why carriers price their plans this way.

Reduced logistical costs

There may be higher overhead costs per subscriber on single-line plans than on multi-line plans. For example, carriers incur costs when sending bills and processing payments. Even if a multi-line plan has five lines, there is only one bill that needs to be paid each month. Similarly, support costs per line may be lower for multi-line plans. Offering support to an account with five lines probably does not take 5x the effort it takes to offer support to an account with only one line.

Different price sensitivity

Multi-line plans tend to be purchased by families. People may be more price-sensitive when shopping for family plans. Maybe people are often willing to pay top-dollar for an individual (single-line) plan but unwilling to pay top-dollar for service for a whole family.

Looking at it another way, shopping around for deals makes more sense as the price of a service increases. The total cost of a family plan tends to be higher than the total cost of a single-line plan.

Inconsistent use

Not everyone uses their phones in the same way. When my family shared a plan, my sister and I used a fair amount of data. My brother used a little bit of data. My parents barely used any data. On the flip side, I barely used minutes; many of my family members talked on their phones regularly.

When buying a single-line plan, it’s often easy for people to find a plan that’s well-matched to how they use their phone. When family plans require all subscribers to be on the same plan, some people will be forced into plans that are mismatched with their levels of use. I expect it’s common for families to put everyone on an unlimited plan because one or two family members use a lot of data. As a result, lots of light data users end up on multi-line, unlimited plans. In contrast, light data users purchasing single-line plans rarely end up on unlimited plans.

I expect the average person on a single-line, unlimited plan from Verizon uses more data than the average person on a multi-line, unlimited plan from Verizon. Subscribers that use Verizon’s network more heavily contribute more to Verizon’s expenses. As a result, Verizon charges single-line users a higher rate per line.

If everyone in your family uses their phones in about the same way, consider yourself lucky. Your family may be able to get an unusually good deal on wireless service.