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?


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.

Rocket Launching

Astound Mobile Launching On T-Mobile’s Network

Update: Some more complete info about plans and pricing is available on Astound’s website.

Internet service provider Astound Broadband announced it will launch an MVNO running over T-Mobile’s network. Astound Mobile will heavily rely on infrastructure from Reach.

Like the other carriers operated by cable companies, Astound Mobile will limit its offerings to the company’s internet customers. Rollout of the new service across Astound’s customer base will be gradual:

The service will be exclusively available to Astound home internet customers who are eligible residents in Massachusetts and Corpus Christi, Midland-Odessa, Temple, and Waco Texas in June. The company plans to continue to launch Astound Mobile in its remaining markets by the end of the year.

Today’s announcement was fairly vague about Astound Mobile’s offerings:

Astound will offer two ‘pay by the gig’ plans and two unlimited talk and text plans. Customers can choose a plan whereby they only pay for the data they need or they can expand to an unlimited plan with data allotted to each user.

Poking around Astound’s website, especially in legal details and disclaimers, I found a few hints about plans for Astound Mobile. I also found a few contradictions, so all this should be treated with a grain of salt.

Astound Mobile’s Plans

One disclaimer gives clues about the data allotments on the four plans:

After monthly threshold is reached, 1.5GB & 3GB plans data will be capped; Unlimited & Unlimited Plus, speeds reduced to 768 Kbps.

Since it’s possible to reach a threshold on the unlimited plans, I expect Astound will follow the industry norm of labeling some plans “unlimited” in a somewhat bogus fashion. To Astound’s credit, 768Kbps speeds are far more usable than the 128 – 256Kbps throttles often seen on other MVNOs’ “unlimited” plans.

On another page, I found a somewhat different description of Astound’s plans:

The 20 Gigabyte plan offers high-definition (‘HD’) streaming; the 1 Gigabyte and 3 Gigabyte plan offer solely non-HD streaming.
Combining these two disclosures, I presume the threshold after which Astound throttles speeds is 20GB on one or both of the unlimited plans. I’m unsure what to make of the discrepancy around the size of the plan with the smallest data allotment. Will turn out to be 1GB or 1.5GB?


On one page of legal details, Astound emphasizes this text:

Astound Mobile does not provide Mobile Devices – Customers must bring their own Mobile Devices to use Astound Mobile Services.

However, “Device financing (through third party)” is listed as a feature in an FAQ item on Astound Mobile’s web page about coverage.

Other Details

Astound’s website gives a few more details, though I wouldn’t treat any of this information with confidence:

  • International roaming outside of the US, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands appears unavailable.
  • WiFi calling is listed as a feature on the coverage page.
  • A legal document explains that only Astound Broadband Internet customers are eligible to sign up for mobile services, but subscribers are not “required to maintain the Astound Broadband Internet plan to continue Astound Mobile Services”.

The Coverage Critic Coverage Map

Earlier this year, I quietly released an interactive coverage map that shows the strength of cell signals from the three nationwide networks (Verizon, AT&T, and T-Mobile). I’ve now polished the map to a point where I’m ready to make an official announcement.

If you want to cut to the chase, try the coverage map now. The rest of this post details how the map works, its limitations, and improvements I’ll release going forward.

Map Structure

The information surfaced in Coverage Critic’s map is richer than what’s typically found on carriers’ own maps.

Here’s what the map looks like when representing T-Mobile’s coverage in Vail, Colorado:

Screenshot showing Coverage Critic's coverage map in Vail, CO

Each hexagon is the size of a few city blocks. Darkly shaded hexagons indicate where T-Mobile’s network is predicted to have a strong signal. Lighter shades indicate weaker signals. No coverage is expected in areas in white.

Compare Networks

Map users can toggle between different networks and technologies with a single click.

Screenshot showing menus coverage map users can click on to toggle between networks or technologies.

After selecting a specific hexagon, users are presented with details about coverage within the hexagon:
Coverage map screenshot showing details about coverage in a hexagon
With a few more clicks, users can compare coverage within the hexagon across the major networks:
Screenshot from the coverage map showing details about a hex

Zoom Levels

In rural and remote areas, the map can be informative from a zoomed-out perspective. However, in dense cities, the zoomed-out view becomes chaotic due to a plethora of cellular antennas and tall buildings that block signals.

In big cities, I recommend initially entering an address or the name of a neighborhood. The map will automatically zoom to the selected spot at an appropriate zoom level.

Screenshot of the geocoder users of Coverage Critic's coverage map can use to zoom in on specific areas.

Data Sources

The base data underlying the maps comes from the FCC’s Broadband Data Collection program. I adjust the data from the FCC based on the results of in-house testing.

For the moment, the adjustment procedure is relatively simple, but I have more ambitious plans in the works. In the future, I’ll share more about my in-house testing and my intention to incorporate data from third parties.


The map shows predicted signal strengths rather than on-the-ground measurements of signal strength.

While signal strength is a decent proxy for service quality, it’s imperfect. As the map evolves, I’ll account for additional factors that affect performance.

Known Issues

The map has a few major issues:

  • Coverage data is unavailable in Michigan and Alaska
  • Verizon’s LTE coverage is not correctly represented in portions of the Northeastern United States
  • Coverage information is sometimes missing around bodies of water and state borders

Upcoming Improvements

At the moment, the map draws on FCC data that reflects networks’ coverage as of mid-2022. A newer data set, reflecting coverage at the end of 2022, was released yesterday. As I build a new version of the map incorporating the latest data, I’ll also resolve some of the issues.

Additional networks, including US Cellular and Dish, will be included in an upcoming version of the map.


The map relies on the work of an awful lot of other people. I’d particularly like to thank the FCC’s Broadband Data Task Force, the folks that build and maintain the H3 geospatial indexing system, and contributors to OpenStreetMap.

I’d also like to thank my audience for helping me get this far. I’m enjoying the experience as Coverage Critic evolves into a more useful product.

Photo of a mirror

Reflectons on Verizon’s myPlan

Today, Verizon launched revamped plans with a new approach called myPlan. While existing subscribers are, for the moment, able to stick with their old plans, new postpaid subscribers have just two options for unlimited plans:

  • Unlimited Welcome – The Basic Plan
  • Unlimited Plus – The Premium Plan

Previously, Verizon offered six different plans with varying features.


With many of Verizon’s old plans, services like Disney+ or Apple Music were bundled in by default. Verizon’s new plans unbundle these services. Subscribers can instead pick and choose (or entirely opt-out of) various perks priced at $10 per month. Some of the perks are access to third-party streaming services. Other perks involve add-on features Verizon offers to enhance subscribers’ plans.

A few examples:

  • Disney Bundle (Hulu, Disney+, ESPN+)
  • Apple Music Family
  • 100GB Mobile Hotspot Add-On
  • 3 TravelPass Days (for international roaming)

Elsewhere, I dive in the weeds comparing Unlimited Welcome Vs. Unlimited Plus. For now, I only want to comment on the shift in Verizon’s approach.

Are The New Plans Good For Consumers?

The reactions to Verizon’s new plans have been pretty negative on Reddit and Twitter. If you try to make a myPlan subscription that’s more-or-less equivalent to some of Verizon’s old plans, you’ll likely end up with a higher price tag than those attached to Verizon’s old plans. Commentators are largely correct that the new structure of Verizon’s plans conceals a price increase.

Still, there’s something praise-worthy about Verizon’s shift. Things were getting out of hand with six different plans. Normal consumers couldn’t easily make sense of the offerings and compare all the different features. The plans didn’t even have a straightforward hierarchy from the lowest-cost plan to the most premium plan.

There’s something odd about cell phone services automatically bundling in a bunch of vaguely related third-party services or add-on features (many of which won’t be used by the typical subscriber). I prefer this new scenario where people who want something can pay a reasonable price to add it on, and others can opt-out.

Cartoon image illustrating a loss of a wireless connection

MobileX Data Outage

I’ve been trying out the new carrier MobileX. It’s founded by Peter Adderton, who previously founded Boost Mobile.

MobileX looks awfully promising. I’ll have more to say about that in a later post. But despite MobileX’s promise and great pricing, I’ve been holding off on recommending the service until it matures. I’m wary of brand-new carriers. Typical consumers are probably better off with carriers that have had enough time to work out the kinks in their systems.

My hesitations were validated when MobileX experienced a data outage on Thursday. I don’t think the issues lasted all that long, and standard calling and texting continued to function.

I first became aware of the outage with this tweet:

I appreciate MobileX’s communication style. It doesn’t match the vague corporate-speak that’s usually seen in the telecom industry. The company followed up on the initial tweet with this one:

I didn’t notice exactly when my data service ceased working, but service was back about an hour after the first tweet came out.