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Old cell phones

T-Mobile Offering Free 5G Phones

Today, T-Mobile announced that it’ll offer customers the Samsung Galaxy A32 5G more-or-less for free.

The A32 has a regular price of $282 and is substantially less fancy than most of the 5G phones on the market. Still, from the bit I’ve heard about it, the A32 seems like a solid entry-level device.

Both new and existing customers can take advantage of the promotion by trading in a phone. Any working phone is sufficient as a trade-in:

This offer applies to new and existing customers, and ANY old phone in working condition — flip phone, Sidekick, whatever that suitcase phone was called. T-Mobile will take it.

Detailed Terms

The deal will be available starting April 18. Customers that take advantage of the promotion will get monthly bill credits for 24 months that effectively cancel out the usual $11.75 per month customers would have to pay for the A32 on an installment plan. Tax on the usual $282 price is due at the time of purchase.

Customers that cancel service before receiving all the monthly credits will be responsible for the unpaid portion of the A32’s cost.

5G Marketing

While T-Mobile’s network is worse than AT&T and Verizon’s networks in many respects, T-Mobile is the clear leader in 5G. T-Mobile has the most 5G coverage and arguably leads in 5G speeds. The company’s decision to offer free 5G phones looks like part of a larger goal of building hype around T-Mobile’s 5G dominance.

Earth and space

Upcoming Starlink Update

Yesterday, Starlink shared an update email with subscribers in the company’s beta program. The email mentioned several recent improvements to Starlink’s product. An upcoming, major update was also mentioned:

Today, your Starlink speaks to a single satellite assigned to your terminal for a particular period of time. In the future, if communication with your assigned satellite is interrupted for any reason, your Starlink will seamlessly switch to a different satellite, resulting in far fewer network disruptions.

It sounds like the new feature may be rolled out gradually with most users getting the update sometime this month:

This feature will be available to most beta users in April and is expected to deliver one of our most notable reliability improvements to date.
Representation of a bait-and-switch

Post Redacted

4/1/2021 Update: I’m backpedaling from this post. While I’m still unsure what’s going on, T-Mobile likely is grandfathering subscribers into its hotspot plan, contrary to what a customer reported a T-Mobile rep said. From the start, I shouldn’t have taken what the rep said (or allegedly said) as gospel.

Clock and hourglass

Verizon Sets New Deadline For 3G Retirement

Major networks are gradually phasing out 3G technology. Today, Verizon announced a new deadline for 3G retirement: December 31, 2022.1

Verizon has set and pushed back deadlines a few times:

Since 2016, we have stated publicly that we are actively decommissioning our 3G CDMA network. Initially, we announced we would close down our 3G network in 2019. However, we extended our shut off date – first to the end of 2020 and now to the end of 2022 – in order to care for our customers and give them every effort to minimize disruptions to their service as they move to newer and more advanced technologies.

I wonder if Verizon always knew it would push back the early deadlines. Even if the early deadlines were artificial, they may have helped transition subscribers off of 3G-only devices:

We worked for the past several years to help those who still have 3G devices transfer to devices capable of accessing the 4G LTE or 5G networks and continue to actively work with remaining 3G customers to migrate them to new devices and technology. As a result of those efforts, we can now report that more than 99% of our customers are using the enhanced features of 4G LTE or 5G, with less than 1% still accessing the 3G network.

In today’s announcement, Verizon stated that it would not push back the retirement deadline again. I’m unsure whether Verizon will keep a tiny portion of its 3G network active after 2022 to support business customers using legacy technology.

Data abstract

T-Mobile Connect Increases Data Allotments

T-Mobile recently increased the data allotments on its Connect plans by 500MB. The $15 per month plan now includes 2.5GB of data each month. The data allotment on the $25 plan has been bumped up to 5.5GB.

The data increases are consistent with the commitments T-Mobile made to regulators when pushing for approval of the Sprint/T-Mobile merger. We should see additional 500MB increases each of the next several years. T-Mobile has said the Connect plans will be available without any price increases until at least 2025.

I continue to think the Connect plans offer some of the best value on the market.


H/T to Stettson Doggett who spotted the change to the Connect plans.

5G representation

Tello’s 5G Isn’t Working With iPhones

Tello is trying to draw attention to its 5G service. Here are a few bits of content fresh from the carrier’s website:


Screenshot of a headline about 5G



5G content screenshot


5G was the main topic of one of Tello’s blog posts earlier this month. Here’s what Tello had to say about phone compatibility:

To benefit from this new smarter and faster technology, you’ll have to have a phone that’s capable of doing all that. If you’d like to bring your 5G-capable device to Tello Mobile, just make sure it’s unlocked and GSM compatible.

In all of Tello’s materials about 5G, I haven’t seen a mention of a key fact: Tello does not support 5G on iPhones.

This isn’t a small oversight. I’d guess that half of the 5G-compatible phones in the U.S. right now are devices in the iPhone 12 line.

Internal Confusion

It seems not everyone working for Tello is even aware that the carrier doesn’t support 5G on iPhones. This blog comment comes from a Tello representative:



I reached out to Tello’s support asking if the company supports 5G on both iOS and Android devices. Here’s the response I got:

Yes, as long as you have a 5G capable device and 5G coverage in your area, you can use 5G with Tello.

It’s not true. It seems Tello doesn’t have a carrier bundle with Apple. Until that’s figured out, 5G and some other features may remain unavailable for Tello subscribers.

If Tello’s going to make a big deal about its 5G service, the company should make it clear that it does not support the most popular 5G phone.


Thanks to Stetson Doggett who let me know about the issues with 5G on Tello.

Gavel

NAD Rules Against Boost’s “Unlimited” Plans

Boost Mobile has been offering unlimited plans that include 35GB of regular, full-speed data each month. Subscribers that exceed 35GB of use are throttled to 2G speeds.

I’ve argued that plans where customers can be throttled to snails-pace speeds shouldn’t be labeled “unlimited.” It seems the National Advertising Division (NAD), a self-regulatory body, agrees. The organization just ruled against Boost in a dispute initiated by AT&T. I strongly agree with this excerpt:

Based on the case record, NAD concluded that at 2G speeds, consumers will be unable to stream video, surf the web, or do any other activity that requires substantial data usage at speeds that meet consumers’ expectations for an unlimited plan. As noted in the decision, ‘At 2G speeds, many of today’s most commonly used applications such as social-media, e-mail with attachments, web browsing on pages with embedded pictures, videos and ads and music may not work at all or will have such significant delays as to be functionally unavailable because the delays will likely cause the applications to time out.’ The only activities that would still function acceptably are those that use minimal amounts of data, such as email without attachments, or those that use no data, such as talk and text.

Boost’s Marketing

Here’s a screenshot of how the plans appeared on Boost’s website:

Screenshot from Boost's website

The Good

Boost gets a few points of transparency right:

  • It’s clear only 35GB of LTE data is included.
  • The disclaimer text about throttling to 2G speeds is prominent.

The Bad

  • Boost doesn’t say what 2G speeds means.
  • The bits about unlimited streaming are utter bullshit.

You can’t stream normal video at 2G speeds (128kbps). You absolutely can’t stream in HD at 128kbps.

Other “Unlimited” Plans

Boost kind of tried to make reasonable discloses about limitations on its unlimited plans. The company’s marketing of it’s “unlimited” plans is far from the most egregious example in the industry. Several other carriers also offer “unlimited” plans with similar throttling policies, including some decent-sized carriers like Mint and Total Wireless. It’ll be interesting to see if the NAD decision leads any companies besides Boost to change their marketing.1

Confused person

“Premium Data” Is Losing Meaning At T-Mobile

For a while now, Verizon and AT&T have used the phrase “Premium Data” to refer to allotments of especially high-priority data. Subscribers with Premium Data may experience better speeds than other network users during periods of congestion.

In the last month, T-Mobile has started using the phrase “Premium Data” as well. If you go to T-Mobile’s primary page listing the carrier’s plans, you’ll find a table that lists the allotments of premium data on different plans:

Common sense might lead you to think “Premium Data” means the same thing regardless of what plan the Premium Data is attached to. That’s not the case.

Before T-Mobile started using the phrase Premium Data, the company made it clear that the Essentials plan had lower priority data than Magenta plans. The image below comes from T-Mobile’s old plans page:

Screenshot showing Essentials customers may experience slower speeds during congestion

While T-Mobile updated how plans appear on its website, it doesn’t look like the underlying characteristics of the Essentials plan changed. The plans page still has a disclosure explaining that Essentials customers have lower priority than Magenta customers:

Essentials customers may notice speeds lower than other customers and further reduction if using >50GB/mo., due to data prioritization.

QCI values indicate how traffic is prioritized on LTE networks. In 2020, I found the Essentials plan had a QCI of 7 while the Magenta plan had a QCI of 6 (indicating that the Magenta subscribers have higher-priority data than Essentials subscribers). Once T-Mobile started saying Essentials customers have Premium Data, I ran another QCI test on the plan. I still found a QCI of 7.

Test result showing a QCI of 7

Until recently, T-Mobile did a better job disclosing prioritization policies than the other major networks.1 T-Mobile is taking a step back by suggesting the Essentials plan has Premium Data.

As far as I know, Verizon and AT&T only use the phrase “Premium Data” to mean something like: “data prioritized ahead of the data used by a substantial portion of our other customers.” If my understanding of data prioritization on T-Mobile’s network is accurate, Essentials customers receive priority on-par with or worse than most T-Mobile Prepaid, Metro, and Mint Mobile subscribers.

While Essentials subscribers aren’t truly last in line, only a tiny fraction of T-Mobile subscribers have lower priority (e.g., some ultra-heavy data users and people on hotspot connections). It’s silly to call data “premium” when indicating something like: “data that’s not absolutely the lowest priority in the queue.”

As I’ve argued before, consumers ought to have access to better information about prioritization and congestion. The way T-Mobile is using the phrase “Premium Data” is going leave consumers confused. For what it’s worth, I don’t mean to suggest T-Mobile is intentionally hoping to mislead consumers about data priority on the Essentials plan. T-Mobile may have made an honest mistake when coming up with the latest iteration of its plans page.


Hat tip to Stetson Doggett for drawing my attention to this topic.

Stary Sky

Starlink First Impressions

I joined Starlink’s beta and recently got the service up and running. While I’ll write a detailed review eventually, I thought I’d share my first impressions now.

Like others in the beta, I paid about $500 for my satellite dish (Dishy as Starlink calls it) and router. Taxes and shipping added about $100 more.

The Dishy, a basic mount, a router, and cords all showed up in one giant box:

Starlink starter kit box

Setup was incredibly easy. Here’s how simple Starlink’s instructions were:

Starlink setup instructions

Most of the cords were already plugged-in where they belonged. Within about 15 minutes of opening the box, I connected a computer over Wi-Fi and ran a test finding a download speed of about 35Mbps. I ran about a dozen tests in total, and I think that first test found the lowest speed of them all. Here are the results from the first test I ran over a wired connection:

Test result showing 30ms ping and 78.5 Mbps download speed

Starlink suggested I should expect download speeds between 50Mbps and 150Mbps during the beta. Nearly all of my tests showed speeds in that range, but typically in the lower end of the range (50-100Mbps).

While people often focus on speeds, I think speed is an overrated performance metric. Once a connection exceeds something like 20Mbps, further speed increases have vastly diminishing returns.1

Latency is where Starlink shines. My tests consistently showed latency below 50ms. That’s roughly on-par with the typical latency for cable or DSL connections. It’s also about an order of magnitude lower than the usual latency for satellite internet.

I continue to be excited to see where things go with Starlink. I’ll share more as I continue to trial the service.

Miscellaneous notes

  • After setting up my service, I decided to grab the Starlink app in case I missed anything important. The app worked fine, but I didn’t learn anything new from it.
  • Starlink’s communication style is refreshingly informal. It’s the opposite of the corporate-bullshit speak that’s typical from ISPs. E.g., the Starlink beta was named “The Better Than Nothing Beta.” I’d love to see Starlink keep up the current vibe as the service matures.
  • The router has one available Ethernet port (separate from the port used to connect to Dishy).
  • The router’s design is unique (Cybertruck-esque).
Crystal ball

Prediction: Verizon Will Offer C-Band Service To Everyone

Verizon won a bunch of spectrum in the recent C-Band Auction. That spectrum will be deployed over the next few years and will soon form a core part of Verizon’s network.

Eli Blumenthal, a reporter for CNET, recently shared this tweet:

I’m betting Verizon won’t stick to this policy over the long term. The new C-band spectrum is going to be extremely useful for Verizon when managing performance on its capacity-constrained network. If Verizon artificially limits C-band access to a minority of its customers, the company won’t be able to use the spectrum as efficiently as possible.

While I expect limiting C-band access will eventually become costly for Verizon, it’s not too costly yet. There are two main reasons:

  1. C-band spectrum will take a while to deploy (much of the spectrum won’t even be available to Verizon until 2023).
  2. At the moment, C-band is only supported by a handful of top-of-the-line phones. People with new, fancy phones almost certainly subscribe to Verizon’s premium plans at a disproportionate rate.

The situation will change as more C-band spectrum is deployed and C-band compatibility becomes a standard feature on nearly all phones. As that happens, I expect Verizon will open up C-band access to almost all of its direct subscribers as well as subscribers with Verizon’s flanker brands and Verizon-powered MVNOs.