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U.S. Telecom Companies Take The “Keep Americans Connected” Pledge

In response to coronavirus-related threats, the FCC recently asked a large number of U.S. broadband and telephone companies to take the Keep Americans Connected Pledge. Companies that take the pledge commit not to cut off subscribers who fail to pay their bills for reasons related to the coronavirus. Companies further pledge to waive late fees for subscribers that fail to pay.

From a document on the FCC’s website:

The Keep Americans Connected Pledge reads as follows:Given the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on American society, [[Company Name]] pledges for the next 60 days to:(1) not terminate service to any residential or small business customers because of their inability to pay their bills due to the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic;(2) waive any late fees that any residential or small business customers incur because of their economic circumstances related to the coronavirus pandemic; and(3) open its Wi-Fi hotspots to any American who needs them.

In a very short period of time, a ton of American telecom companies took the pledge. Here’s an incomplete list of players in the wireless industry that have already pledged:

  • AlticeUSA
  • AT&T
  • Comcast
  • Sprint
  • T-Mobile
  • TracFone Wireless
  • US Cellular
  • Verizon

It will be interesting to see how these companies’ commitments play out.

Verizon Launches New Flanker Brand: Yahoo Mobile

Today, Verizon launched a new flanker brand, Yahoo Mobile. The new carrier is extremely similar to another Verizon flanker brand, Visible. You could argue that Yahoo Mobile is closer to a reseller of Visible’s plans than a distinct carrier. Both Visible and Yahoo Mobile have extremely similar websites, policies, and plans. Yahoo Mobile explicitly mentions Visible in FAQ entries, and Yahoo Mobile’s terms of service make the relationship clear:[1]

Yahoo Mobile wireless service is provided by Visible Service LLC (“Visible”). Your use of the wireless service is governed by the Yahoo Mobile Terms and Conditions which you are entering into with Visible, as well as the Yahoo Mobile Privacy Policy.

Advantages of Yahoo Mobile

In most respects, Yahoo Mobile looks nearly identical to Visible. So far, I see two little advantages the service has over Visible:

  • The base price of Yahoo Mobile is a penny cheaper each month ($39.99 vs. $40.00).
  • Yahoo Mobile comes with access to Yahoo Mail Pro at no extra charge.

Advantages of Visible

The advantages Yahoo Mobile has over Visible will be almost meaningless for most people. On the other hand, Visible’s offerings are better than Yahoo Mobile’s in a few substantive ways:

  • Visible discounts the first month of service to only $25.
  • Visible’s Party Pay system allows subscribers’ ongoing monthly rates to drop as low as $25.
  • Visible has a swap program that allows new customers to trade in junky, old Android phones for decent, new phones at no charge.

Tracfone’s $40 Per Year Plan

Tracfone is offering a super cheap annual plan through its eBay store. For $39.99, customers can get a plan with:

  • 365 days of service
  • 1200 texts
  • 1200 minutes
  • 3GB of data
  • Service over AT&T, Verizon, or T-Mobile’s network

The allotments of data, texts, and minutes last for an entire year and do not renew each month.

It’s awesome to see that the offer is available on AT&T and Verizon’s extensive networks. As I understand it, Tracfone will ship a SIM card for each of the three networks, and subscribers can then choose which network to use.

This is one of the best deals I’ve seen for an extremely low-use plan. Unlike some of the other companies offering ultra-cheap plans, I have a lot of faith in Tracfone. I’ve gone ahead and ordered a plan, and I expect to post an update once I’ve had a chance to trial the service. I don’t know how long this deal will be around for. Tracfone has suggested it’s a limited time offer.

Retrospective: Black Wireless and Mango Mobile’s Wild Promotion

Earlier this year, two brands owned by the operator Red Pocket, Black Wireless and Mango Mobile, began offering what looked like a great deal. Subscribers that purchased six months of service upfront could get all of the following for only $16.67 per month:

  • Unlimited minutes & texts
  • 50GB of full-speed data
  • 20GB of full-speed, hotspot data
  • Additional data throttled to 128Kbps

Reservations

While the offer looked amazing, I didn’t bother writing about it. I’d previously had bad experiences with the carriers’ parent company, Red Pocket, and this recent offer looked sketchy.

  • The descriptions of the offer were confusing and possibly contradictory.
  • While Black Wireless typically offered service over AT&T’s network, the promotion was for service over T-Mobile’s network. Black Wireless was doing a terrible job of conveying that information to potential customers.
  • I couldn’t understand how Mango Mobile and Black Wireless would be able to profitably sell cheap plans with data allotments so much higher than those offered by other carriers piggybacking on the same networks.

Negative report

A Reddit thread from about two weeks ago lent some legitimacy to my reservations. Here’s an excerpt from the user that started the discussion:

The package was extremely sketch. It was a plain white letter envelope with Black Wireless rubber stamped in the corner. There was nothing in the envelope except a generic T-mobile sim card. No activation instructions, no receipt, nothing else. The envelope wasn’t even sealed well. I’m surprised the card didn’t fall out in transit.

The user went on to explain that Black Wireless’s activation system was offline. A support agent told the user that Black Wireless didn’t know when activation would be possible.

Around the time the Reddit thread started, the 50GB plan went out of stock. Black Wireless’s in-stock plans were much less competitive.

A positive update

I was suspicious the promotion would end up as a fiasco that looked bad for Red Pocket. However, it looks like the company has sorted things out. Two commenters on the original thread said they had no trouble activating service. The original poster eventually commented with this update:

FYI: Eventually activation started working again.

It took about a week before I could activate my SIM.

I would speculate that they buy SIMs in bulk and then prime them for activation in batches.

I called my credit card company and canceled the fraud case.

My service has been working really well.

Wing Is Strictly Limiting Data Use On An Unlimited Plan

I’ve written a number of posts criticizing wireless carriers that label their plans “unlimited” while imposing limits. Usually, these carriers impose weird restrictions or slow data speeds for heavy users of data. If you’re feeling charitable, you could argue that most of these plans are still, in some sense, unlimited. Most of these plans don’t have simple limits on the total amount of data subscribers can use each month.

Wing’s new policy

The mobile virtual network operator Wing, which I’ve reviewed and liked, appears to have just started imposing strict caps on unlimited plan subscribers’ data use. Earlier today, a Reddit user reported that Wing was limiting users on the carrier’s AT&T-based unlimited plan to 30GB of data use each month.[1] The Reddit user shared messages from a discussion with a Wing support agent:

I see you received the email regarding the recent changes by AT&T. You’ll have 15GB of hotspot usage and a total of 30GB of overall usage for each cycle. After 30GB overall usage on the Wing AT&T unlimited plan, your data will be turned off.

The support agent went on to explain that Wing’s newly released unlimited plan running over T-Mobile’s network would not have the same limitations:

We have a solution:
We’ve recently acquired Wing T-Mobile and the unlimited plans we offer there can best suit your unlimited data needs!

The Wing T-Mobile plans are fully unlimited with no throttles and no caps on data for both hotspot usage and cellular usage.

Current plan offerings

Wing continues to offer an unlimited plan for new customers. As far as I can tell, this plan typically runs over AT&T’s network.[2] It doesn’t look like Wing is adequately disclosing the data caps to potential customers.[3]

Added 3/10/20: Wing confirmed the existence of new data caps in emails with me and publicly on the company’s website.

Ting’s New Verizon Service: Initial Impressions

Last week, the mobile virtual network operator Ting launched a new service running over Verizon’s network. The day it launched, I went to Ting’s website to order a SIM card and begin trialing the service.

Ordering process

Initially, I ran into a bug during Ting’s checkout process that prevented me from finishing an order. I think this was a launch-day issue with Ting’s website. A few hours later, the bug seemed to be fixed, and I ordered a SIM card. I paid about $5 for the SIM, shipping, and taxes:

Ting receipt showing about $5 in total charges

Activation process

Two days after placing my order, a SIM card arrived at my door. I popped it into a Moto G7 Play and went to Ting’s website to activate service. Activation wasn’t difficult, but it felt a bit clunky. Some of the information I had to provide when ordering the SIM card needed to be re-entered during the activation stage.

Once I’d finished the process on Ting’s website, I restarted my phone. The service worked immediately.

Service quality

Coverage has been great, as I expected from Verizon’s network. I’ve run speed tests under a variety of signal strengths, and the speeds have mostly been solid:

Several speed test results from Ting's Verizon service showing decent speeds

As expected, I didn’t notice any throttling of regular data speeds. However, it looks like most video traffic is throttled to a maximum of about 4Mbps:[1]

Test results suggestive of video throttling

Possible low prioritization

I’m suspicious that Ting has low priority on Verizon’s network (despite some suggestions to the contrary).

Using the app Network Signal Guru, I found my data traffic to generally be associated with a QCI value of 9. I expect a QCI of 9 on Verizon’s network is indicative of low priority.

Network Signal Guru test result hsowing a QCI of 9 for Ting's Verizon service.

I also found low speeds in the downtown area of Boulder, Colorado despite having a strong signal:

Speed test result from Downtown Boulder, CO showed a speed of 0.1Mbps

The most plausible explanation I can come up with for the lousy speeds is a combination of congestion and low priority.[2]

In most situations, low-priority service won’t cause subscribers much trouble. My best guess is that Ting users have the same priority level as Verizon’s prepaid customers, most Xfinity Mobile customers, and customers on Verizon’s cheapest post-paid unlimited plan.[3] I reached out to Ting to see if the company could provide any additional information about prioritization. At the time of writing, I have not heard back.

Tentative view

So far, I’m a big fan of Ting’s new service: Ting offers way better coverage than it used to, Ting didn’t raise its prices, and the company continues to offer awesome customer support.

Downsides

Despite my generally positive view, I have a few quibbles about Ting’s new service:

  • I don’t think Ting adequately discloses video throttling. I don’t remember any notifications about it during the ordering process. That said, I don’t think the video throttling is a big deal. It may actually help subscribers keep their data charges low.
  • Ting’s coverage page states: “By piggybacking on America’s largest network, Ting makes sure you’re covered from coast-to-coast. Period.” This implies that subscribers will be covered by Verizon’s network. It would be more transparent for Ting to indicate that most, but not all, subscribers can access Verizon’s network. Further, Ting said this on its coverage page for a little while before the service over Verizon’s network even launched.
  • Ting doesn’t allow subscribers to choose a network directly. Instead, potential subscribers provide information about their devices and where they live and are then matched with a network. I understand why Ting uses this approach for most website visitors. Many people would end up confused and choose networks poorly if they had to choose a network on their own. Still, I wish there was an option for knowledgeable users to explicitly sign up for Verizon’s network.[4]
  • Wi-Fi calling doesn’t seem to be supported at this time.

SmartSIM Speculation

According to new research, the best provider of wireless service in the US might soon be TracFone, a US subsidiary of Mexican telecommunications giant America Movil.

Wait what?

That’s the opening of a recent post by Mike Dano of Light Reading. Dano is referencing a service called SmartSIM that TracFone recently teased. TracFone hasn’t shared many details yet, but it looks like SmartSIM will allow subscribers’ phones to automatically switch between multiple networks based on the signal strength of each available network.

Dano references a simulation conducted by the network analysis firm Tutela. The simulation suggested TracFone’s SmartSIM service might outperform each of the major U.S. networks. Not many details are shared about the methodology behind the simulation. To Dano’s credit, he acknowledges the simulation shouldn’t be taken too seriously:

Again, SmartSIM today remains only a possibility rather than a concrete offering, and so drawing any firm conclusions about the service at this point is more of an exercise in mental gymnastics than actual forecasting. But, considering many of the pieces are falling into place for a service like SmartSIM from TracFone or someone else, it’s worth giving the topic some thought.

I’m guessing Tutela made several assumptions in its simulation:

  • SmartSIM can access all four major U.S. networks
  • SmartSIM subscribers are not subject to any severe, adverse throttling or prioritization on any network
  • The technology can reliably determine the quality of each available network
  • Network switching will be determined on the basis of service quality alone (irrespective of TracFone’s financial incentives)

Some of these assumptions are probably inaccurate. In particular, I don’t think TracFone will have an easy time working with all four of the major network operators. While TracFone currently offers service over each network, new legal arrangements and technical capabilities will need to be sorted out with network operators before SmartSIM-style network switching is possible. I don’t think Verizon or AT&T will agree to arrangements that allow TracFone to offer better service than their own networks can provide.

Despite my skepticism, I’m still excited about the potential of dynamic network switching, eSIM technology, and SmartSIM-like services.

Ting Launches Service Over Verizon’s Network

Yesterday, the MVNO Ting released a video and a blog post announcing that the company will now offer service over a third network.

Hidden network partners

In the announcements, Ting acknowledges contractual obligations that prohibit the company from explicitly mentioning all of the networks the company offers service over:

Why not just say directly who our network service providers are? We’re not allowed. Pretty simple, really. We have contracts with each of our carrier partners…Detailed in those contracts is how, exactly, we’re allowed to refer to the specific networks we offer service on.

Due to the restrictions, Ting makes roundabout statements like: “Ting Mobile offers service on every network but AT&T.”

Fortunately, I’m not bound by the same contractual arrangements that restrict Ting. Before yesterday’s announcement, Ting offered service over T-Mobile and Sprint’s networks. As of yesterday, the company now offers service over Verizon’s network as well.

Better coverage with Verizon

Michael Goldstein, Ting’s Chief Revenue Officer, was surprisingly candid in the announcement video. He acknowledged that Ting hasn’t always been able to offer stellar coverage (emphasis mine):

For years, people have saved a ton of money on Ting. People have been thrilled with our customer experience and our customer support. But we have heard at times that people felt they were sacrificing a little something on coverage. With this addition and with this portfolio of networks we have, I think Ting Mobile pretty much gives people everything they need: the savings, the experience, and the coverage. All at once.

An improved value proposition

Despite the fact that Verizon’s network offers the best coverage in the nation, Ting didn’t change its pricing structure. Ting’s now has some of the best options on the market for families that don’t use a lot of data. That said, Ting’s options for heavy data users and single-line plans aren’t as enticing.

Discovering your Ting network

I’m really optimistic about Ting’s new service, and I’ve gone ahead and ordered a SIM card to trial it. I plan to update my review of the carrier as soon as I get a chance.

To keep things simple and stay in accordance with the contractual obligations discussed earlier, Ting doesn’t explicitly tell each subscriber the network he or she is being placed on. Instead, potential customers enter their addresses and their devices’ IMEI numbers, and Ting’s automated system places appropriate SIM cards in customers’ carts. In most cases, I expect new Ting customers will be placed on Verizon’s network, but there will be exceptions. Customers with certain kinds of devices and customers living in certain regions may still be matched with Sprint or T-Mobile’s networks.

To verify that you’re being matched with Verizon’s network, take a look at the type of SIM card that ends up in your cart during the checkout process. Verizon SIM cards will be marked as V1:

Ting V1 Verizon SIM card checkout screenshot

Reviewing Altice Mobile’s “Unlimited” Policies and Pricing

Alice Mobile recently increased its prices by $10 per month. Service now costs $30 each month for Optimum or Suddenlink customers and $40 per month for everyone else.

In September, I argued that Altice Mobile was doing a lousy job of disclosing the limitations that came with the carrier’s supposedly “unlimited” plan. Given the recent price increase, I figured now would be a good time to revisit Altice Mobile’s policies.

Limits continue

Altice is still imposing a lot of limits on its “unlimited” plan:[1]

  • Mobile hotspot speeds are still throttled to 600Kbps.
  • Video is still throttled to about 480p.
  • Roaming data is still throttled to 128Kbps.

Previously, video and hotspot traffic would be throttled more intensely after 50GB of use. It looks like Altice has decreased that threshold to 20GB.

“Unlimited Everything” continues

Altice continues to advertise “unlimited everything.” Here’s a screenshot from Altice’s website today:

Altice Mobile screenshot

As before, it’s misleading for Altice to suggest subscribers can stream an unlimited amount of video or use an unlimited amount of mobile hotspot data. After 20GB of use, subscribers will be throttled to a maximum speed of 128Kbps for video and hotspot traffic. At 128Kbps, continuous streaming of conventional video won’t be possible.[2] Many activities subscribers will want to do over a hotspot connection will be frustratingly sluggish if not impossible.[3]

Improved disclosures

To Altice’s credit, it looks like the carrier is doing a bit better disclosing limitations. With a single click, website visitors can view additional information:

Altice’s Broadband Disclosure Information seems easier to find than it was previously. While the disclosures still fall short of being explicit or easy-to-understand, Altice is moving in the right direction.