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T-Mobile’s Price Increase Saga

Earlier this month, a now-deleted post on Reddit and an article from The Mobile Report broke a story about an impending price increase for T-Mobile customers. Leaked documents suggested that T-Mobile would switch some customers on older plans to different plans with monthly prices $5 to $10 higher. Customers would be alerted of the upcoming changes and given an option to opt out of the automatic migration.

The documents included suggested lines for T-Mobile representatives fielding calls from customers. The lines include a gem that’s emblematic of the sort of bullshit consumers have to deal with in the cell phone industry:

We are not raising the price of any of our plans; we are moving you to a newer plan with more benefits at a different cost.

Raising prices of certain plans would violate a promise T-Mobile made not to raise prices for existing customers. T-Mobile appears to be weaseling out of its commitment by switching customers’ plans.

Most Customers Are Unaffected

Initially, it sounded like the automatic migrations would affect customers on the following plans:

  • Magenta
  • One
  • Magenta 55+
  • Simple Choice / Select Choice
  • Simple Choice Business

I’d guess tens of millions of customers are on those plans. However, documents released later suggested only 1% of T-Mobile’s customer base, about a million people, would be affected.

The leaks generated pushback and confusion. T-Mobile’s CEO, Mike Sievert, sent a company-wide email clarifying the situation. Sievert explained that reporting around the leaks missed context. Allegedly, price increases and plan switches were part of a small test. The email made me more sympathetic to T-Mobile, but it still reeked of bullshit. It didn’t acknowledge that the changes are, in practice, a price increase.

We hope our customers will be thrilled with the new benefits and service they will eventually receive…We continue to remain committed to being the Un-carrier.

Did T-Mobile Walk Back?

I’m unsure what to make of the whole saga. Maybe a price increase for a tiny segment of T-Mobile’s customers got blown out of proportion. Or perhaps T-Mobile planned to rollout the price increase more broadly but backed off after bad press. It’s hard to say. T-Mobile may scale up the plan migrations to a much larger portion of its customer base.

Image of a traffic jam on one side of a highway

Don’t Hide Throttling!

Cell phone carriers regularly impose limits to reign in heavy data users. A carrier may throttle a user’s data, deprioritize a user’s data, or both.

Throttling limits a user to a specific maximum speed (e.g., 256kbps). Deprioritizing lowers the priority of a user’s data transfer relative to other users on a network. If a network is not congested, lower priority has no effect. When a network is overburdened, deprioritized users experience slower speeds than other users on the network.

Carriers sometimes disclose their policies with statements along the lines of:

After [X]GB of data use in a single month, users may experience lower speeds.”
The disclosure is vague, but it’s an accurate description of deprioritization. It’s not a good description of throttling. If users are throttled, they will almost certainly experience lower speeds.

Boost Infinite’s Throttle

Boost Infinite throttles heavy users on its unlimited plans to 512kbps. Here’s the disclosure on the homepage:
Screenshot reading: "Members using >30GB/mo. may experience lower speeds."Boost Infinite is not the only carrier that has used language that describes deprioritization when it ought to be disclosing throttling. I’m partly picking on Boost Infinite because it’s the most recent example I’ve encountered. But Boost Infinite further frustrated me while communicating about its policy on Twitter X.

The most bothersome message from the Boost Infinite account has since been deleted. Here’s roughly how I remember it:

Boost Infinite subscribers can use unlimited data.

I like to think of it like traffic. You can travel however far you want on the highway, but if there are lots of other people, it will take a bit longer to get to your destination.

Maybe there’s an analogy to be made between prioritization on cell networks and traffic during a long journey. If you have bad traffic on the road, parts of your journey will be at roughly half the usual speed, some moments you’ll be able to drive at normal speeds, and at times you’ll be caught bumper-to-bumper in traffic jams.

Throttling is different. If your car is forced to stay under 1 mile per hour, there’s an explicit upper bound on how far you can travel in a month. You’re probably not going to bother with a trip from New York City to San Francisco.

An Exception?

While writing this post, Joe Paonessa of BestMVNO.com alerted me to reports of Boost Infinite subscribers not being throttled when accessing Dish’s network.

Boost Infinite’s service almost always piggybacks on AT&T or T-Mobile’s network. However, Boost is owned by Dish. A fraction of customers using certain devices and living in particular markets can sometimes access Dish’s nascent network.

Across Boost Infinite’s customer base, I expect subscribers are connected to Dish’s network less than 1% of the time. However, there’s technically a possibility of avoiding throttling. Perhaps that makes Boost Infinite’s “may reduce speeds” language more defensible.

But we shouldn’t have ended up in this scenario in the first place. Carriers ought to clearly disclose their throttling and congestion-management policies. Consumers should be able to make sense of their cell phone plans’ policies without connecting the dots between random Reddit posts, reports on Twitter, and posts like this one.

Image of an arrow going upwards

Throttling That Doesn’t Suck

Years ago, some cell carriers introduced “soft caps” for data. Subscribers that used their allotted data could continue accessing the internet at a vastly reduced speed of 128kbps.

In some cases, this was a nice perk. A subscriber to Mint Mobile’s old 3GB plan who had run out of data might still be able to load an important email or boarding pass. In other cases, the reduced-speed data was part of a marketing gimmick. A carrier might offer a soft-capped 15GB plan and market it as an unlimited plan.

At 128kbps, things don’t only load slowly. In many cases, things stop working. Video may not stream. Websites may time out.

Softer Caps

Recently, a handful of carriers started offering soft-capped plans with less aggressive throttles. There are at least five carriers throttling download speeds to 1Mbps or higher:1

  • Xfinity – 1.5Mbps
  • Cox – 1.5Mbps
  • AT&T Prepaid – 1.5Mbps
  • Spectrum – 1Mbps
  • US Mobile – 1Mbps

Props to these carriers. At 1Mbps, you can stream music, browse the internet, and use most apps normally. High-quality video streaming might not work, but almost everything else will.

With the less aggressive throttling, labeling plans unlimited is perhaps a generous framing, but it’s no longer outright bullshit.

Throttled But Prioritized

Ahmed Khattak, CEO of US Mobile, shared the following in a Reddit post (emphasis mine):

We’re also setting the throttle speed of all our Unlimited Plans to 1Mbps after the high-speed data allotment is used. Unless you’re streaming 4K Video, I’m unsure if you will notice any difference if you are throttled. You will also remain on priority data even with throttled speeds.

Network congestion is a common source of the sub-1Mbps speeds that cause lousy user experiences. With priority data, throttled users have some protection from congestion troubles.

I hope we see high-priority data post-throttling become a more common feature.2 Subscribers don’t use a ton of data after getting throttled. MVNOs that pay a per-gig premium for priority data may be able to offer the feature without meaningfully changing their cost structures.

Crowdsourcing Coverage Data

Vehicles with DIMO hardware are driving millions of miles per week and contributing anonymized data to Coverage Critic’s interactive crowdsourced map. Here’s how the new map presents T-Mobile’s coverage around New York City.

Coverage map image showing New York City mostly in green (indicating a strong signal)

Green shading indicates strong signals. As the signals weaken, the shading morphs to yellow and eventually red.

While the map is less filled in remote areas, it’s potentially more interesting. In the heart of the mountain town of Leadville, Colorado, the map shows good coverage from AT&T. Following the highway out of town to the north, signal quality quickly deteriorates.

Map of Leadville showing green (indicating a strong signal) in the center of the town and red (indicating a weak signal) north of the town

Today’s map is built on almost 20 million data points. With over a million more observations coming in each day, the map will grow more complete.

Map users can drill down into the underlying data after selecting a specific region:

Screenshot showing details about the data underlying one of the hexes within the coverage map.

More powerful tools for exploring and visualizing the data are coming soon.

Approaches To Network Testing

There are two standard approaches for assessing cell networks:

  • Drive Testing: Evaluators drive around with several phones on different networks while running tests to assess cellular performance.
  • Conventional Crowdsourcing: Code running in the background of various apps on ordinary consumers’ phones collects data about cell networks.

Pros & Cons

Drive testing is well-controlled. Evaluators use the same device on every network and have detailed information on exactly what’s going on. On the other hand, drive tests assess a limited area and may not reflect real-world usage. RootMetrics, the company behind what is arguably the most respected drive test, covers only a few hundred thousand miles each year.

Conventional crowdsourcing allows for the collection of far more data. However, the data is harder to interpret. Crowdsourced data comes from numerous different devices. It’s often unclear whether a given data point comes from a phone that’s indoors or outdoors. Since consumer aren’t randomly assigned their devices or networks, bias infiltrates assessments.1

Coverage Critic’s New Approach

Coverage Critic’s approach is a hybrid of the two standard approaches to network testing. Like drive tests, Coverage Critic collects data in a relatively well-controlled manner, relying on in-vehicle data from a tightly constrained set of devices. Since data is crowdsourced from thousands of vehicles, more miles are covered in a week than some conventional drive testers cover in a year.2

Enabled By DIMO

Mozilla recently published a bombshell report titled It’s Official: Cars Are the Worst Product Category We Have Ever Reviewed for Privacy. The report details (1) how much data modern vehicles collect and (2) car companies’ tendency to reserve the right to sell that data.

DIMO is reimagining how vehicle data is collected and used, allowing consumers to share in the value of their vehicles’ data while offering more transparency and control over its use.

Thousands of cars driving tens of millions of miles annually are equipped with DIMO hardware and contributing anonymized data to the new map. When Coverage Critic pays DIMO for data, a share of the payments goes towards rewards for the DIMO community. To everyone participating in the project, I’d like to offer my thanks! If you’d like to join the DIMO Network, you can head here to pick up a device.

The Road Ahead

For the moment, Coverage Critic will offer a coverage map relying on RF modeling data submitted to the FCC’s BDC program and an alternate map based on on-the-ground, crowdsourced data. Eventually, I plan to merge both data sources into a single map.

With an appropriate statistical model, the two data sources can aid one another. Information collected on the ground can be used to forecast the accuracy of networks’ RF models in other locations. Predictions from RF models can inform how likely crowdsourced data is to reflect the typical experience in a given area. In a few months, I’ll have much more to say on this topic.

Go ahead and explore the map or check out DIMO. If you have any feedback, please let me know.

Animated image showing Coverage Critic's crowdsouced map in Los Angeles

Helium Mobile’s $5 Unlimited Plan

Helium Mobile is coming out of beta and offering an unlimited plan for $5 per month.1 It’s arguably the cheapest unlimited plan on the US market. But the price is kind of contrived.

Helium Mobile’s Networks

First some background details. Helium Mobile is an MVNO running over T-Mobile’s network. However, the carrier has a novel differentiator. It supplements T-Mobile’s coverage with coverage from Helium’s network of CBRS radios.

The Helium network has roughly 10,000 CBRS radios scattered throughout the country. I won’t get into the weeds here, but Helium got normal people to set up these radios by incentivizing them with the project’s cryptocurrency tokens.

The radios making up Helium’s network are weak and usually poorly located. Helium hasn’t (yet) figured out mechanisms to adequately incentivize good placements. While I don’t know how much area Helium’s network covers, I’m confident it’s far less than 1% of the US by land area.

Currently, Helium Mobile is only accepting signups from people in Miami.2 Helium may be able to build a denser network in Miami than it has in the wider US. But for now, Helium’s coverage footprint within Miami is tiny compared to T-Mobile’s footprint in the city. That will remain true for the foreseeable future.3

How Is Helium Mobile So Cheap?

Nova Labs, the company behind Helium Mobile, raised a ton of money from crypto-adjacent venture capital firms. The $5 price is only possible through subsidization.

It’s normal for new MVNOs to start with prices slightly below their costs while betting that the cost per subscriber will fall after hitting economies of scale.

Helium Mobile is making a bolder bet. At $5 per month, Helium Mobile is taking a huge loss on each subscriber. Helium Mobile is betting on the regular economies of scale while also hoping for a second shift in its underlying cost structure.

While I don’t know the actual numbers, Helium Mobile probably pays a few bucks for each gigabyte of data on T-Mobile’s network. On the Helium network, data comes in at $0.50 per gigabyte. If Helium Mobile gets enough data flowing over Helium’s network, it could achieve a better cost structure than other MVNOs.

Could the cost structure become so good that Nova Labs actually turns a profit on a $5 per month unlimited plan? No. I don’t think that’s Nova Labs’ ultimate goal, though.

A Real-World Crypto Use Case?

Nova Labs’ COO shared this post on Twitter yesterday:

In my view, the “real world crypto use case” point is aspirational. Or perhaps it has been realized but in a convoluted way. Crypto allowed Nova Labs to raise a bunch of funding. That funding is subsidizing what is, for the moment, a largely conventional cellular service.

Integration Woes

Conventional roaming allows a phone to switch networks when it enters an area where the usual network lacks coverage. I expect Helium wanted to offer something better: seamless coverage with phones intelligently switching between multiple networks serving the same location.

Dynamic network switching of that sort is a technical challenge. It probably takes a lot of buy-in from the networks involved. As far as I can tell, Helium couldn’t pull off this kind of integration with T-Mobile.

For now, Helium Mobile relies on a less streamlined approach. Subscribers must use multiple SIM cards for their service. According to anecdotal reports, handoffs between T-Mobile’s network and Helium’s radios are clunky. For technical and regulatory reasons, Helium’s radios only support data traffic. T-Mobile handles texts and calls.

Scaling Challenges

A $5 price point may attract a lot of customers. More customers means a larger volume of customer support queries. Initially limiting service to Miami may ease the burden of support queries, but I expect Helium Mobile will have to either prioritize building a massive customer support team or settle for a lousy standard.

The Bright Side

While performance issues and integration difficulties plague Helium’s cellular network, there are tractable paths forward. Helium Mobile’s ridiculously low price point may make subscribers more tolerant of bumps in the road as Helium Mobile fine-tunes its service.

Recently, Nova Labs has been teasing an upcoming WiFi product. It’s too soon to say anything confidently, but the product may allow the Helium community to sidestep many of the regulatory and technical challenges cellular presents.

The People’s Network?

Nova Labs’ CEO shared a nice sentiment in a recent blog post:

For most of history, technology has been held tightly in the grasp of the few — from monarchies and aristocracies to corporations and billionaires. The internet, despite its ability to create instant and open communication with each other, is no exception: it came at a price that many cannot afford.

We believe technology — especially the internet — should be the inheritance of the whole human race. We are all its heirs, and access should be in the hands of the people.

There’s a history of telecom companies talking a big game about connecting the unconnected and other pro-social goals while ruthlessly pursuing profits and screwing consumers. Something similar could be said about much of the cryptocurrency ecosystem. Will Helium buck the trends and lean into its high-minded ambitions?

City

Verizon Now Has Full Access To Its C-Band Spectrum

Verizon shared a press release indicating it’s now able to use of all of the C-Band spectrum it purchased licenses for two years ago:

Today, Verizon announced that it now has access to the total amount of 5G C-band spectrum awarded at auction in March 2021 – four months ahead of schedule. This allows Verizon to more quickly expand and enhance its 5G Ultra Wideband network nationwide, more than doubling and, in some markets, tripling the 5G bandwidth available to serve customers.

Verizon already deployed a lot of hardware that can use the newly available C-Band spectrum. Improved network quality should hit consumers almost immediately. Here’s another bit from the press release (emphasis mine):

Verizon has been deploying equipment that is capable of the full 200MHz of bandwidth, so with a mere software update, customers will start to see the effects of this dramatic increase in bandwidth in the immediate next few days and weeks.

Verizon’s network has increasingly been plagued by congestion issues. I hope the new spectrum will have a material affect on the performance seen by subscribers in some congested areas.

Screenshot from Version 2 of Coverage Critic's coverage map

Coverage Map V2 Beta

A beta of version 2 of Coverage Critic’s map is now available.

I’ll discuss the changes in more detail when the map comes out of beta, but the new version includes:

  • A more recent round of data from the FCC
  • Data for two more networks (Dish & US Cellular)
  • New features accessible from the settings menu

Additional features and bug fixes will be added before the map comes out of beta, but I wanted to share something now.

Abstract map of USA

What Happened To Opensignal’s Reach Metric?

Say a country has two cellular networks. Network A offers coverage nearly everywhere. Network B offers a much smaller coverage footprint. You could crowdsource data from ordinary subscribers on the networks and track what proportion of the time users are connected to their networks.

If you compare the availability metrics for both networks, I’m unsure what insights you glean. Conventional crowdsourcing doesn’t involve random samples of people within a country. Even if Network B is crummy and has a small coverage footprint, people who use it will tend to live within its coverage footprint. People living elsewhere will opt for Network A and its larger coverage footprint. It’s a classic case of selection bias.

Even if the people you’re crowdsourcing data from represent a random sample of people within a country, a 95% availability metric wouldn’t indicate that a network covers 95% of the country’s land. People concentrate in certain areas. Although urban areas comprise a small fraction of the US, 80% of people live within them.

Opensignal’s Conundrums

Opensignal is arguably the leader in crowdsourced assessments of networks. To Opensignal’s credit, it acknowledges the limitations of its crowdsourced availability metrics:

Our availability metrics are not a measure of a network’s geographical extent. They won’t tell you whether you are likely to get a signal if you plan to visit a remote rural or nearly uninhabited region.

At some point, Opensignal started publishing another coverage metric called “Reach.” As far as I can tell, Opensignal only used this metric in the US for its 5G assessments.1

Here’s how Opensignal explains Reach:

5G Reach measures how users experience the geographical extent of an operator’s 5G network. It analyzes the average proportion of locations where users were connected to a 5G network out of all the locations those users have visited.

Reach addresses part of my concern with the crowdsourced availability metric. Interestingly, the metric doesn’t appear in the most recent reports on 5G performance in the US. I wonder why.2

Abstract image

Boost Infinite’s Networks

Dish, the company behind Boost Infinite, is building its own network. The company also has deals that could allow it to put customers on either T-Mobile’s network or AT&T’s network.

Initially, Boost Infinite put most (perhaps almost all) subscribers on AT&T’s network. Recently, the company quietly shifted to placing most new subscribers on T-Mobile’s network.

Rumors suggest that a small handful of subscribers are getting multi-network service that involves Dish’s own network and at least one partner network. For the moment, multiple-network service is probably limited to a few markets and/or retail channels.

Give Consumers Clarity

Boost Infinite’s website tells prospective customers they’ll get coverage from one of America’s top networks.

Screenshot from Boost Infinite's website with a picture of a map and the words "Boost Infinite gives you access to superfast 5G coverage on one of America's top networks."

While it’s true that Boost Infinite service will use “one of America’s top networks”, it’s a nearly meaningless statement. AT&T, T-Mobile, and Verizon are America’s top networks. Basically every carrier relies on one of those networks.1

While carriers are often prohibited from explicitly stating the names of their partner networks, they sometimes come up with some kind of nomenclature that makes it clear to consumers that there are different underlying networks. For example, US Mobile brands its Verizon-based service as Warp 5G and its T-Mobile-based service as GSM. When carriers use this kind of nomenclature, subscribers that have a good experience can recommend a specific network to their friends or neighbors.

I’d like to see Boost Infinite adopt something similar.

Visible Brings Back $25 Unlimited Plan

For much of 2023, Visible offered its standard unlimited plan for $25 per month. The deal was framed as a promotion or limited-time offer, but Visible pushed back the promotion’s end date a number of times.

In July, Visible ceased extending the offer. The cost of the standard plan shifted to its supposed normal price of $30 per month. As of today, the $25 per month rate is back, and it’s no longer being framed as a limited-time offer.

Will Visible+ Come Down To $35/Mo?

For most of the time Visible offered its standard plan for $25 per month, the company also offered the premium Visible+ plan for $35 per month (a $10 discount from the regular price of $45).

As of today, the Visible+ plan still comes with a $45 price tag. Through August 31, there’s a promotion running where customers who bring their own device and use a coupon code can get the plan for $35 per month. I wonder what we’ll see happen when that promotion ends. I’m a big fan of Visible+, and I’d be pleased if it becomes broadly available at $35 per month.