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Gavel

NARB Ruling On Mint’s “Unlimited” Plan

It’s almost old news at this point, but last month a self-regulatory body for the advertising industry came out with a ruling against Mint Mobile’s marketing around its “unlimited” plans:

The National Advertising Review Board (NARB), the appellate advertising law body of BBB National Programs, has recommended that Mint Mobile LLC discontinue the use of “UNLIMITED” and “UNLTD” headlines in its advertising or modify them to clearly communicate that its plan does not offer unlimited high-speed data.

Mint’s allegedly “unlimited” plan caps subscribers at 35GB of regular-speed data each month. Subscribers that exceed the 35GB threshold can continue to use data, but they’re throttled to speeds of 128kbps. As I’ve written about before, 128kbps is a sluggish speed that can’t support a lot of common activities.

The recent ruling is unsurprising. The same self-regulatory body ruled against Boost Mobile for a nearly equivalent offense in early 2021. That said, there are two aspects of this story worth highlighting:

  1. AT&T initiated the complaint against Mint. Plenty of carriers offer unlimited plans with similar throttling policies, but it looks like AT&T saw Mint as a particularly threatening competitor.
  2. While Mint has committed to changing its advertisements, I haven’t seen any indication that the carrier will stop calling its 35GB plan an “unlimited” plan. The National Advertising Review Board and the associated National Advertising Division are toothless in some areas of consumer protection.
Abstract image representing the idea of circumventing or finding a loophole

Dish’s Legal Obligations & Ting’s Acquisition

In the leadup to the merger between T-Mobile and Sprint, Dish acquired Sprint’s prepaid subscribers and made a number of commitments to regulators. Among other obligations, Dish agreed to offer nationwide, postpaid service:1

DISH must offer nationwide postpaid retail mobile wireless service to American consumers within one year of the closing of the sale of the Prepaid Assets.

Peter Adderton, the original founder of Boost Mobile, brought Dish’s commitment up on Twitter:

Stephen Stokols, the CEO of Boost (now a Dish-owned company) pointed out that Dish met its commitment after acquiring Ting:


Technically, Stokols is right. Ting offers postpaid service, and it’s available nationwide.

I feel like Dish found a loophole. I’m guessing regulators perceived “nationwide postpaid” to be a proxy for something like “high-end service for the mass market.” Ting is a small-scale carrier that largely caters to budget-conscious consumers.

Winter abstract

Mint Expands Buy 12 Get 12 Promo

Mint Mobile has been running a promotion where customers that buy an eligible device and a year of service can get a second year of service for free. While the promotion has been live for weeks, Mint just adjusted the list of eligible devices. Most notably, devices in the iPhone 13 lineup are now eligible.

Eligible Devices:

  • iPhone 13 (full line)
  • iPhone 12
  • iPhone 12 mini
  • iPhone 11
  • iPhone SE (second generation)
  • Samsung Galaxy A32 5G
  • Samsung Galaxy A12

The deal is only available for new customers. All of the 12-month plans on Mint’s website are eligible. Purchases can be made upfront or with a monthly installment plan. The promotion will run until January 7, 2022.

Abstract image

Are We Moving Beyond “Unlimited” Plans With 2G Speeds?

For a few years, it’s been common for cell carriers to label phone plans as “unlimited” while capping the amount of full-speed data subscribers can use each month. On these “unlimited” plans, subscribers that run out of full-speed data are often throttled to a maximum speed of 128kbps (sometimes called “2G speeds”).

I’ve been critical of carriers calling these plans unlimited. In a pedantic sense, it’s not true. If a service imposes throttling after a certain number of gigabytes of data use, there’s an absolute limit on the amount of data that can be used each month. More importantly, “unlimited” plans that throttle to 2G speeds don’t allow subscribers to use the internet in a roughly normal way once they run out of full-speed data. 128kbps is extremely sluggish for many activities. A lot of web pages won’t just load slowly but will time out and fail to load altogether. Video streaming, even at 240p (a low resolution), won’t work.

Fortunately, the cellular industry seems to be moving towards less aggressive throttling on unlimited plans. Here are a few example of carriers’ throttling policies for heavy users:

  • Boost: 500kbps
  • US Mobile: 1Mbps
  • Google Fi: 256kbps
  • Xfinity Mobile: 1.5Mbps download (750kbps upload)

Google Fi’s 256kbps throttle has been around for a while. It’s still too aggressive to allow for what I’d consider more-or-less normal internet surfing, but it’s still a huge improvement over the 128kbps standard. Xfinity Mobile’s 1.5Mbps cap isn’t bad at all. While downloading huge files or streaming 4K video won’t be pleasant, speeds will be passable for most things people use their phones for.

I’m pretty sure both US Mobile and Boost came out with their current throttling policies in 2021. I wonder if we’ll see more carriers move beyond 128kbps throttles in 2022.

Image representing the idea of a network

Ookla Acquires RootMetrics

Today, Ookla announced that it acquired RootMetrics. I’ve long argued that RootMetrics has the best methodology for assessing the quality of cellular networks at the national level. Further, I’ve argued that Ookla’s traditional methodology is lousy. Since Ookla primarily relies on tests initiated by users, the company’s data is subject to biases that RootMetrics’ drive tests and Opensignal’s automated tests avoid.

Effects of Consolidation

The network-evaluation industry has consolidated substantially over the last year. In September, a similar story surfaced when Comlinkdata announced that Tutela and Opensignal would join forces.

I’m curious how the consolidation will affect the messages consumers receive about the quality of networks. Here are some optimistic possibilities:

  • Now that Ookla owns RootMetrics, Ookla might be more upfront about the limitations of user-initiated tests.
  • With fewer independent companies publishing evaluations, we might see movement away from today’s situation where questionable financial incentives nearly guarantee that even lousy networks will win awards.
  • Ookla’s app is used by a lot of people. The app may end up integrating some of RootMetrics’ data that otherwise wouldn’t be available to consumers.
eSIM concept art

US Mobile Launches eSIM Beta

Yesterday, US Mobile launched a beta version of eSIM plans. Initially, eSIMs are only available with US Mobile’s service over Verizon’s network (the Super LTE network according to US Mobile’s parlance).

Device Compatibility

At the moment, only a handful of devices are will work with US Mobile’s eSIMs:

  • iPhone SE (second generation)
  • iPhone 11, 11 Pro, and 11 Pro Max
  • iPhone XS and XS Max
  • iPhone XR
  • Google Pixel 4a.

US Mobile suggests eSIM options are coming soon for the iPhone 12 & 13 lines along with the Pixel 5, Pixel 5a, and Pixel 6.

US Mobile Is Early With eSIMs

Additional details about the beta program were shared in an announcement on Reddit. One part of the announcement stuck out to me:

We’re also proud to be one of the first major carriers to make the step of bringing eSIMs to our domestic customers. In fact, we’re now one of two (outside of the big three carriers or carriers owned by them…) to offer eSIMs.
Earlier this year, Mint Mobile launched eSIMs, and I believe Mint is the one other carrier referenced by US Mobile. While Straight Talk quietly started offering eSIMs before US Mobile, Straight Talk is technically owned by Verizon thanks to last week’s TracFone acquisition.1

US Mobile has tried to brand itself as a next-generation carrier that leverages technology better than its competitors. While the company has sometimes overpromised, it’s impressive that a company of its size managed to become one of the first MVNOs offering eSIMs.

Document getting an approval stamp

Verizon’s Acquisition Of TracFone Gets FCC Approval

Update: The acquisition is officially complete.


In September of 2020, Verizon announced plans to acquire TracFone and its roughly 20 million subscribers. A while back, the deal was cleared by the FTC and the DOJ declined to hold back the process. The acquisition got its final green lights from the California Public Utilities Commission last Thursday and the FCC yesterday.

I expect the deal to close shortly with Verizon meeting its original goal of closing the deal in the second half of 2021. As expected, the FCC’s approval is conditional on Verizon adhering to some terms. The terms center around consumer protections. Most of the protections relate to the government’s Lifeline program which offers subsidies on phone service for low-income consumers.

Terms of Consumer Protections

Here’s my understanding of the most important and/or interesting terms based on a reading of the FCC’s press release and a skim of the 70-page Memorandum Opinion and Order:

  • For at least seven years, Verizon must continue to offer TracFone’s Lifeline services in the areas they’re currently offered.
  • For at least three years, Verizon must continue to offer existing Lifeline plans that provide service at no cost to consumers.
  • Verizon must maintain some of TracFone’s existing roaming agreements to serve customers in some regions where Verizon does not offer coverage (I think this requirement lasts 3 years).
  • Verizon must offer free devices and/or SIM cards to Lifeline subscribers that are required to transition to Verizon’s network.
  • Verizon must extend its usual (60 day) unlocking policy to acquired customers.
  • For three years, Verizon must extend agreements with MVNOs using its network without altering the terms of the agreements.

As a whole, the terms are less burdensome on Verizon than I’d expected. I previously wondered if Verizon would be required to sell competitors the almost ten million TracFone subscribers who are not currently on Verizon’s network. It looks like no one will force Verizon to do so, and I expect Verizon will transition most of these users to its network.

What Does This Mean For MVNOs?

With Verizon acquiring all of TracFone’s brands and customers, the size of the MVNO market in the U.S. will contract significantly. Further, Verizon may see reduced economic incentives to allow MVNOs to use its network. The FCC acknowledged this concern:1

Verizon, as a result of the transaction, may have an increased incentive to raise the costs of mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) that compete directly against TracFone for Lifeline and other low-cost prepaid customers and for which Verizon is their wholesale provider…

Commenters argue that, because post-transaction, all significant MVNOs would be vertically integrated with the nationwide facilities-based providers, the vertically integrated MVNOs could coordinate to exclude or otherwise harm competing, standalone MVNOs or adopt parallel strategies to discourage postpaid customers from migrating to lower-cost prepaid plans. Second, commenters claim that coordination would be more likely because the transaction would remove an independently-competing maverick MVNO from the market.

However, it seems the FCC doesn’t take the concern too seriously:

We find that this transaction is unlikely to significantly increase the risk of coordinated effects. Post-transaction, there will remain, in addition to the prepaid brands offered by the three nationwide MNOs, prepaid brands offered by regional MNOs and by numerous independent MVNOs, including Boost and the other MVNOs served by Verizon. These MVNOs will continue to have the incentive and ability to compete for prepaid customers, including cost-conscious customers, which will likely continue to constrain opportunities for coordination on prepaid plans by the three nationwide MNOs. Further, at the wholesale level, contracts between MNOs and MVNOs are complex and specific to the needs of the MVNO that is party to the negotiation, generally last for a period of years, and generally are subject to strict non-disclosure agreements. These features of the wholesale contracts make it difficult for MNOs to coordinate on the terms of wholesale contracts to harm rival stand-alone MVNOs, and the transaction does not affect these features of wholesale contracts except between Verizon and TracFone. Moreover, Verizon’s commitment, which we accept as a condition to our approval, to extend its existing agreements with certain MVNOs for at least three years limits its ability to coordinate to raise wholesale prices.

Here’s what Verizon is ultimately committed to:

Verizon has committed to provide those MVNOs who have current contracts with Verizon an option to extend their existing MVNO wholesale agreements, on the same terms and conditions, continuing on a month-to-month basis until three years after the transaction closes. This option does not apply to MVNOs whose agreements expire beyond three years after the transaction closes.

Reflections

My gut feeling is still that a world where this acquisition goes through will be a world with less competition and higher prices than we’d see in a world without the acquisition. However, I feel less strongly about that than I did a year ago.

Winter scene

Mint Mobile Launches Buy 3 Get 3 Promo

Mint Mobile kicked off its holiday promo today. New customers who purchase a three-month plan get three extra months of service for free. The promotion stacks with Mint’s usual introductory offer—new customers can also pay for three months of service at the discounted monthly rate typically reserved for subscribers that pay for twelve months upfront.

Pricing

Mint’s holiday promo is available on all of the carrier’s standard plans. Here are the prices for six months of service (before taxes and fees):

  • 4GB plan – $45
  • 10GB plan – $60
  • 15GB plan – $75
  • Unlimited (35GB) plan – $90

Or in monthly terms:

  • 4GB plan – $7.50 per month
  • 10GB plan – $10 per month
  • 15GB plan – $12.50 per month
  • Unlimited (35GB) plan – $15 per month

Taxes and fees typically add about 10% to the prices listed above. The deal will be available until January 7. You can find additional details about the promo on Mint’s website.

Full Terms

Here are the terms and conditions from Mint:

Free 3-month plan applied as a discount at checkout and customers will receive a 6-month plan in total. Plan activation must occur within 45 days of purchase. Offer limited to four (4) per customer and may not be combined with other offers. Plans renew as a 6-month plan at full price. To qualify for the offer, International Mobile Equipment Identity (IMEI) number and phone number cannot have been associated with a Mint Mobile plan within 90 days of activation. Pricing, promotions, and terms & conditions are subject to change and may be modified or terminated at any time without notice. Not redeemable for cash or credit towards any purchase. Taxes, fees, and shipping extra. Other restrictions may apply.

Added 11/16/2021: Stetson Doggett let me know that Mint has also upgraded its refer-a-friend program during its holiday promo. Mint subscribers that refer a new customer who transfers from AT&T or Verizon may be eligible for a $100 credit.

Calendars

T-Mobile Delays CDMA Shutdown & Calls Out Dish

Today, T-Mobile issued a press release announcing that it will delay the phaseout of Sprint’s legacy 3G/CDMA network. The phaseout had been set to occur on January 1, 2022, but it has now been pushed back three months to March 31, 2022.

In the press release, T-Mobile takes shots at Dish but does not mention the company by name (emphasis mine):

To build out our revolutionary network…we need to sunset outdated CDMA technologies as soon as possible…This is why we have aggressively executed on plans to take care of transitioning our impacted Sprint CDMA customers by the end of this year and provided our partners plenty of time and resources to take care of their customers as well.

Recently it’s become increasingly clear that some of those partners haven’t followed through on their responsibility to help their customers through this shift. So, we’re stepping up on their behalf. We have made the decision to extend our deadline for the CDMA sunset by three months to March 31, 2022…Our reason for extending is simple: we want to give those partners who haven’t done the right thing for their customers every opportunity to step up now and do so.

There should be no more room for excuses.

I’ve updated my page on major networks’ 3G phaseouts to reflect the new plan.


Hat tip to Eli Blumenthal who tweeted about T-Mobile’s announcement.

A red flag

Service Outage At Visible

Verizon’s flanker brand Visible has had a rough time the past few weeks. First, a security issue caused trouble for a large number of subscribers earlier this month. Then yesterday, reports of a service outage started to surface.

Several Reddit posts and dozens of comments mentioned the outage. I’m not sure how much of Visible’s subscriber base was affected.1 The issue was widespread enough for Visible to acknowledge the issue on Twitter:


Reports suggest the outage only lasted a few hours. Shortly after sharing its initial tweet, Visible noted that the outage was resolved:

I haven’t heard anything about the underlying cause of the outage.