Colorful visual representation of a world map

Coverage Map Now Supports Sharing & Coordinates

I just released a minor update to the coverage map.

  • Sharable map links are now available
  • Users can now enter locations using coordinates (format as decimal degrees; e.g., 38.897700, -77.036500)

The new share options appear in two places. From the main user interface, you can click the share icon to get a link that captures features of your current view (e.g., the map’s center, the color scheme, the selected network and technology). There’s also a share button visible after selecting a specific hex. Links generated with that button direct to a map centered on the selected hex with a pin marking the location.

I’d like to offer my thanks to Reddit user redi20 for the suggestion to add support for coordinates.

Much larger map updates will be coming shortly!

Image representing Earth from space

RIP Dead Zones?

Today, Verizon and AST SpaceMobile announced a partnership. All three of the largest US networks now have plans to reduce dead zones with the help of cell signals transmitted from constellations of satellites. AT&T has been publicly working alongside SpaceMobile for a while, but the company only locked in a formal deal earlier this month. For now, T-Mobile is the exclusive US-based network planning to provide cellular connectivity with SpaceX’s Starlink satellites.

Early Days

I don’t expect either AST or SpaceX’s service to become widely available in 2024. When satellite connectivity eventually becomes available for normal consumers, it’ll likely be limited to subscribers on premium, high-cost plans.

Texting First

The excerpt below comes from CNET’s article about the recent announcement from Verizon and AST:

T-Mobile’s deal with Starlink is exclusive to the carrier in the US, and while there is no timeline for when it will launch for users, the carrier says it plans to start with text messaging when it does go live, before expanding to support voice and data in the future. AST SpaceMobile says that its satellite broadband service supports video, voice and data.
While I don’t think anything is technically incorrect there, I expect all direct-to-cell satellite services will center around text messages at first. Each satellite will initially provide coverage for a huge area (i.e., many thousands of square miles). Bandwidth constraints will lead companies to focus on activities that aren’t data intensive. Providing texting connectivity for thousands of people is far more valuable than allowing one person in a remote area to stream a video.

100% Coverage?

With today’s announcements, there was talk about eliminating dead zones with “100 Percent Geographical Coverage of the Continental United States”. It’s perhaps over-optimistic. Dead zones will still exist in buildings. Areas with canyons, dense tree cover, or other objects blocking the sky might continue to have coverage issues. And satellites will do almost nothing to solve congestion issues which, when severe, can make areas effectively dead zones. Still, it’s super exciting. I’ll be following closely.

US Cellular coverage map screenshot

T-Mobile Plans To Buy Most Of U.S. Cellular

T-Mobile plans to buy U.S. Cellular’s almost 5 million subscribers, all of U.S. Cellular’s stores, and some of U.S. Cellular’s spectrum. The deal is expected to close in mid-2025 and will likely involve a final price between 4 and 5 billion dollars.

While I’m often not a fan of consolidation in the wireless industry, the writing has been on the wall for U.S. Cellular. The deal still needs to make it past regulators, but I don’t expect major hurdles getting in the way of approval.

While U.S. Cellular and T-Mobile’s networks remain distinct, I’ll continue to offer a map of U.S. Cellular’s coverage that’s accessible from the coverage map’s settings menu.

Screenshot from the coverage map showing an option to add U.S. Cellular as an additional network

Tree trunk and roots

Getting Back To My Roots

Like the occasional forest fire and its positive effects on antifragility of natural ecosystems, chaos is the mother of revitalization and renewal.Vitalik

For the last year, Coverage Critic has been chaotic. Google traffic used to account for 95% of my visitors. Today, Google traffic is down 95% from its peak. Initially, I used the drop in traffic as an excuse to put my head down and build out my coverage map. It’s now better than ever.

However, as months dragged on without a recovery in traffic, my motivation waned. Part of me believes Coverage Critic was collateral damage in Google’s recent updates. Whenever Google tries to reduce the exposure it gives low-quality sites, the algorithms unavoidably penalize some good websites. At the same time, I wonder if I’m full of shit. Maybe Coverage Critic is exactly the type of website Google meant to hit. I can’t deny I’ve bent to the incentives of search engines. I’ve written plenty of content that placed appealing algorithms ahead of more worthy considerations.

When I started Coverage Critic, I wanted to build something that called out the lousy business practices that made the telecom industry hostile to consumers. As Coverage Critic grew in traffic, I drifted from what I set out to build. Today, I’m renewing my commitment to the goal I started with. I’ll also be making a strategic shift.

The Path Forward

Later this summer, I’ll be splitting my business across two websites. A new website will offer great mapping tools to help consumers find internet providers and cell phone plans. It will be useful but boringly professional. I think Google and the big telecom companies will love it.

Coverage Critic will have a less professional vibe. When merited, I’ll share biting criticism of telecom companies. I’ll put more time into my new series, Frontiers (it’s had an awfully slow start so far).

Beyond Recommendations & Reviews

On both Coverage Critic and the new website, I’ll spend much less time on certain types of content:1

  • Product reviews
  • Industry news that’s been covered elsewhere
  • Articles about promotions, product offerings, or prices

I don’t bring much unique perspective to these topics. I don’t enjoy writing these types of content.

I hope to use some of the freed-up time to do deep dives on topics where I can make a more meaningful contribution. I believe my work making sense of prioritization policies on LTE networks shifted consumer understanding in the market broadly. I want to do more stuff like that.

Aspirationally, I’d like my mapping tools and data sets to be so good that there’s no need for my editorial contributions recommending specific products and services. Realistically, I won’t quite get there, but it’ll give me a direction to aim for.

Broadband Facts Labels – Let’s Make Them Even Better

Starting April 10, internet service providers and cell carriers will be required to display Broadband Facts labels modeled after the FDA’s Nutrition Facts labels.1 Here’s a sample label from the FCC’s website:

Broadband label sample from the FCC

Capturing Performance

The labels are great. They surface important information in a manner that’s easy for normal consumers to understand. Pricing-related details are displayed effectively, but the information about the performance of cell service leaves a lot to be desired. I can’t get past the feeling that the FCC created a label structure that made sense for internet service providers and shoehorned cell service into the same format.

While the April 10 deadline hasn’t hit yet, Verizon has already published its labels online. The screenshot below shows labels for two plans, Unlimited Welcome and Unlimited Ultimate.

Broadband Facts labels from Verizon
(Verizon’s website lets me enter an address in Colorado to get location-specific details on taxes and fees.)

What Are Typical Speeds?

Cellular speeds vary massively based on stuff like location, weather, congestion levels, and the device being used. Unsurprisingly, Verizon gives huge ranges for typical speeds. As far as I can tell, typical isn’t defined concretely.

Do the speed estimates mean much? Maybe the industry will settle on norms like, “write 10-50Mbps for LTE download speed regardless of network”. Or perhaps different companies will run with wildly diverging interpretations of the word typical.

Network Management Is Underrated

Network management policies could use more emphasis on the labels. Maybe it would even make sense for each plan to have an entire label about network management. These policies have a huge and underrated impact of performance. As things stand now, the labels will likely only have a link (when online) or a URL (when printed physically) directing to documents about network management policies.

For years, I’ve argued consumers should have better access to information about network management practices. Some of the documents shared by carriers are written in dense legalese that, even once deciphered, is vague about aspects that are impactful for consumers.2 Here’s an excerpt from Verizon’s document:

On certain plans, we may prioritize your 5G and 4G LTE data behind other traffic. If the cell site you are connected to begins experiencing high demand during the duration of your session, your 5G and 4G LTE data speeds may be slower than the other traffic’s.
The document ought to explain which plans are referred to with the phrase certain plans. I may be asking for too much, but I’d sure like consumers to have some information or estimates about (1) where congestion occurs, (2) how often it occurs, and (3) how speeds are affected.

Looking at the labels from Verizon while considering network management policies further reveals the silliness of the typical speed estimates. Verizon’s Unlimited Ultimate plan includes premium data, which leads to better speeds during congestion. The Unlimited Welcome plan does not. Yet, the two plans show the same typical speeds for 4G LTE and 5G.3

Labels Nail Pricing

The labels do a good job of surfacing pricing information for cell service, including one-time fees. For the minority of plans that bake all taxes and fees into advertised prices, the Fees section provides a place for well-deserved bragging. Unfortunately, the Fees section may not be as illuminating for most plans on the market. When labels are printed (for phone plans sold in physical retail stores), I expect they’ll usually have a vague description in that section: “Varies by location”. On the internet, Verizon allowed me to dynamically generate a label with location-specific information on taxes and fees. I hope other carriers follow suit.

If I could have made one change to the pricing information on the labels, I’d split any ongoing taxes and fees into two sections: (1) location-specific taxes & fees and (2) universal taxes and fees. If a fee applies to every subscriber on a plan, the fee should be shown on labels.

I’m open to changing my mind, but my current view is that regulators ought to push companies to eliminate universal taxes and fees (i.e., bake them into the cost of their plans). Surfacing these fees could be a step in the right direction.

Location-specific taxes probably should be borne by the people living in those locations. As much as I like carriers including taxes in their advertised prices, it gets tricky when some areas have way higher taxes than others (Chicago is a great example of a place with weirdly high taxes on cell phone service). If local taxes are baked into the price of a plan offered at a single price nationwide, people in low-tax areas effectively subsidize people in high-tax areas.

Abstract icon representing the idea of a refresh or an update

Visible+ Plan Gets Updates

Visible just made three upgrades to its Visible+ plan:

  • Hotspot speeds doubled (now 10Mbps)
  • Smartwatch support is now included with no extra charge
  • One free Global Pass day per month

The plan’s regular price of $45 per month is unchanged. However, these upgrades may lead Visible to run fewer promotions that bring the plan’s cost down. Several times in the last year, the Visible+ plan was available for only $35.

Reflections

Most people won’t use the no-cost smartwatch service, but it’ll mean $5-$10 per month in savings for people who would have purchased a smartwatch service plan. I wonder if we’ll eventually see other players in the industry offer the same perk. Once carriers have the infrastructure to support cellular smartwatches, the incremental cost of providing connectivity for a watch should be awfully low.

The old hotspot speed of 5Mbps on Visible plans was acceptable, but 10Mbps may offer tangible improvements for people running their laptops’ internet over cellular hotspot connections.

The monthly Global Pass is good for 24 hours of roaming service in over 140 countries and territories. Service includes calls, texts, and up to 2GB of full-speed data. It’s a good perk, but subscribers can’t bank multiple passes over multiple months. Realistically, a one-day pass will be insufficient for most international trips.

Abstract representing the idea of an update or a refresh

Major US Mobile Updates

US Mobile, a carrier running over Verizon and T-Mobile’s networks, just released a huge update. Full details can be found in an announcement on Reddit. Here are the aspects I found most interesting:

  • A new (and very appealing) Unlimited Flex plan
  • Added support for two-factor authentication via authenticator apps
  • Enhanced network transfer options
  • Hints about an upcoming AT&T-based service

Unlimited Flex Plan

The new Unlimited Flex plan includes unlimited calls and texts plus 10GB of full-speed data each month. After 10GB of data use, subscribers can continue to use data while throttled to a max speed of 1Mbps per second. That’s a much higher speed than some other carriers use when throttling heavy data users. Throttles to speeds like 1Mbps don’t necessarily degrade the user experience much.

When a year of service is purchased upfront, the Unlimited Flex plan costs only $180 ($15 per month). A monthly billing option for $20 per month is slotted to come out in a few weeks. With the aggressive pricing, the Unlimited Flex plan is potentially the best-value plan on the market.

One caveat to be aware of—hotspot data is not included. On the annual plan, 5GB per month of hotspot data can be added for $30 per year.

Network Transfer Upgrades

According to the announcement, US Mobile subscribers on most plans can now switch between US Mobile’s Verizon-based service and its T-Mobile-based service with just a few clicks. I haven’t tested how well this works, but the prospect of nearly seamlessly switching between networks is awesome. High-quality video won’t stream at 1Mbps, but music streaming or standard browsing should be fine.

AT&T-Based Service

US Mobile’s CEO shared an update about an upcoming service running over AT&T’s network:

And last but not least, we’re well underway in integrating our newest carrier partner into our platform and offerings. From day one, you will be able to access all plans and all activation methods (eSIM and physical SIM) and all of the above features – including network transfer! We will have prioritized data (QCI8), international roaming, and other add-ons as well. We know there is lots of interest in beta testing and the timeline for that will likely be the end of May. Please note that we will not be able to include everyone but will do our best.

Conversation in the Reddit comments suggest that prioritized data won’t be included by default but will instead involve an upcharge.

Plants growing in pots

T-Mobile Adds Data To Connect Plans

T-Mobile just increased the data allotments on its original Connect plans.

  • $15 Plan – Increased from 3.5GB per month to 5GB
  • $25 Plan – Increased from 6.5GB per month to 8GB

These plans were originally introduced to appease regulators during the merger between T-Mobile and Sprint. While T-Mobile committed to increasing data allotments on the plans by 500MB per year, the latest changes exceed T-Mobile’s obligation by 3x.

Underrated Plans

For years, I’ve considered T-Mobile’s Connect plans among the best budget-friendly, limited-data offerings. While the plans aren’t the absolute cheapest options on the market, many consumers are more comfortable purchasing from a big, well-known brand like T-Mobile.1

T-Mobile doesn’t market the plans heavily because they’re not terribly profitable. Reviewers rarely mention the Connect plans since T-Mobile doesn’t compensate people for referring subscribers.

Looking Forward

I’m not aware of T-Mobile making commitments to regulators about the state of the Connect plans after 2025. I’m unsure if T-Mobile will continue to gradually improve the Connect plans, let the offerings stagnate, or actively force customers to migrate to other plans. The two newer Connect plans (a $10/1GB plan & a $35/12GB plan) were not part of commitments to regulators. Those plans were unchanged in the recent updates.


Hat tip to Stetson Doggett, who alerted me to the plan updates.

Two arrows merging into one

US Mobile Announces Multi-Network Plans

Earlier this week, US Mobile announced a closed beta for a new, multi-network offering. Here’s the core excerpt from the announcement that Ahmed Khattak, US Mobile’s CEO, shared on Reddit:

Over the past couple of months, I’ve been thoroughly testing the cellular switching functionality on my phone and have been genuinely impressed. Conducting granular speed tests in areas where I know network performance varies sparked an exciting idea: how do we bring this capability to our customers? In that spirit, I am thrilled to announce the launch of our Multi-Network Unlimited Plans, starting with a closed beta.

With these plans, you can use your unlimited data across multiple networks on a single device that supports DSDS (eSIM/eSIM or eSIM/pSIM). For an additional cost of $15, you can add a line from another network to your device and share your unlimited data seamlessly between both networks.

OS-Level Switching

As far as I can tell, US Mobile plans to rely on the cellular data switching capacities that are available on multi-SIM devices and built into Android and iOS. The approach differs from what we saw with Google Fi’s (now largely abandoned) switching technology that functioned with a single SIM card.

My impression, shared by many Reddit commenters, is that OS-level automated switching between SIM cards is not seamless or optimal. Network switching occurs reliably when an active network becomes unavailable. Switching may occur at other times as well, but the technology falls short of constantly testing both networks and reliably selecting the better network at every moment.

So far, I sound negative. But I’m thrilled about this announcement. While I don’t understand the underlying technology, I expect both Google and Apple will try to improve this technology as more people run muti-SIM setups. I’m glad US Mobile can piggyback on these behemoth companies instead of trying to do tough technical work themselves.

And US Mobile is still pulling off a possibly first-of-its-kind feat in logistics. While users have SIMs on two different networks, US Mobile’s systems can treat this service similarly to to a single plan that draws on one unified pool of data.

Getting Technical

In response to questions from Reddit users, Khattak edited the announcement to add technical details covering how the network switching works:

To optimize the performance of a device employing Dual SIM Dual Standby (DSDS) technology in network selection, the device employs a methodology based on assessing the viability of switching between primary and secondary networks. This assessment begins with the calculation of an estimated link capacity for both the primary and secondary networks. This estimation leverages the instantaneous link capacity data obtained through the device’s radio transceiver.

Subsequently, the estimated link capacity for each network is paired with the device’s data usage, resulting in a congestion ratio representing the ratio of data usage to link capacity for each network. Higher congestion ratio values signify elevated data usage on the respective network and/or comparatively lower link capacity. This indicates a higher likelihood of encountering slower data transfer speeds and diminished performance when utilizing that particular network.

The process of estimating link capacity and device data usage operates over a defined time window, adjustable to accommodate desired sensitivity levels in the estimates. Additionally, a moving average of the congestion ratio is continuously computed for each network, serving as an ongoing reference maintained by the device. This ensures a dynamic assessment of network performance, facilitating informed decisions regarding network switching to optimize the device’s connectivity experience.

I read over that several times, but I may not fully comprehend it. Three metrics are mentioned: (1) data usage, (2) link capacity, and (3) congestion ratio. Link capacity will differ between two networks. While data usage changes over time, I believe it should be the same for both networks at any given moment. Since the congestion ratio is just the ratio of the other two metrics, I think only link capacity matters at the end of the day.

Perhaps more importantly, the explanation seems to describe how switching technology could work in an idealized scenario. I’m not sure how relevant it is to how switching occurs today in the real world. US Mobile appears cognizant of that. In comments on the announcement, Khattak suggests latency may play a role in switching decisions. If latency is accounted for, that may occur outside of the process described in the excerpt above.

Network Switching Is Complicated

My hunch is that US Mobile doesn’t fully understand how OS-level switching decisions are made. And I don’t mean that as a dig. I consider network switching one of the most interesting technologies emerging in cellular, and I don’t understand how it works. The underlying mechanisms could even be changing as Google and Apple update their operating systems.

Anyhow, it’s great to see a new multi-network option hitting the market—particularly one that comes without an outrageous price point.

US Mobile Launches $15 Per Month 10GB Plan

US Mobile launched a new phone plan that offers unlimited minutes and texts along with 10GB of data per month. The plan is only available with annual billing for $180 per year (equivalent to $15 per month).

Plan Details

Subscribers on the new plan can opt for either Verizon or T-Mobile’s network. In US Mobile’s parlance, the Verizon-based service is called Warp 5G, and the T-Mobile-based service is called GSM. Most subscribers will default to Verizon’s network. Unlike many low-cost plans, US Mobile’s offering has premium data. Subscribers won’t end up in the back of the priority queue when the network is congested.

Data is hard-capped, meaning that subscribers’ data service is cut off entirely after 10GB of use. Data top-ups are available for purchase, but the pricing isn’t as good as the initial $1.50 per GB rate on the first 10GB.

The annual-only nature of US Mobile’s plan may be unappealing to some prospective subscribers. For those who want to test drive the service and plan to port in an existing number, it may be best to start with US Mobile’s 30-day free trial before opting for the new plan.

Competing With Mint

I expect US Mobile is trying to position itself competitively with Mint Mobile. Mint typically reserves its best rates for customers who purchase 12 months of service upfront. Mint’s comparable $180 per year plan includes only 5GB of data.

Things To Come

In a Reddit post about the new plans, US Mobile’s CEO suggested an AT&T-based plan is coming to US Mobile in June. He also indicated that a feature allowing subscribers to set custom max speeds is coming later this year.