Hands shaking

Dish And AT&T Announce Network Services Agreement

Today, AT&T and Dish announced that they are entering into a Network Services Agreement (NSA).1 Here’s the key bit from Dish’s press release:

[DISH announced a] Network Services Agreement (NSA) with AT&T, making AT&T the primary network services partner for DISH MVNO customers. Through this agreement, DISH will provide current and future customers of its retail wireless brands, including Boost Mobile, Ting Mobile and Republic Wireless, access to best-in-class coverage and connectivity on AT&T’s wireless network, in addition to the new DISH 5G network.

SEC Filing Insights

An SEC filing provides more insights than Dish’s press release. The deal between AT&T and Dish involves a minimum payment of five billion dollars over ten years.

DISH has agreed to pay AT&T at least $5 billion over the course of the ten-year term of the NSA, subject to certain terms and conditions.

People are already suggesting that Dish got a bargain by striking this deal for only five billion. They may be misunderstanding the arrangement. I expect the amount Dish pays to AT&T will depend on how heavily Dish relies on AT&T’s network. While five billion dollars is a minimum Dish, I think it’s likely Dish will end up paying more.2

Network Access

Dish has committed to activating a certain portion of its subscribers on AT&T’s network, but the SEC filing suggests Dish is permitted to activate some subscribers on other networks:

Under the NSA, AT&T becomes the primary network services provider for DISH, as DISH has committed to activate on AT&T’s network at least a minimum percentage of certain of its MVNO subscribers in the U.S. who receive services through a third-party network and to cause no less than a specified percentage of certain of its domestic roaming data usage for DISH’s MNO subscribers to be on AT&T.

Roaming

It looks like most of AT&T’s roaming agreements may be extended to Dish (emphasis mine):

AT&T will provide DISH with…services in all U.S. geographic areas…where AT&T or any AT&T affiliate has the right to use another wireless service provider’s network and is authorized to extend such right to DISH.
I’m unsure how often AT&T is prohibited from extending its roaming agreements to other parties. Further, it’s possible Dish won’t take advantage of some of AT&T’s roaming arrangements due to cost considerations.3

Prioritization

The SEC filing briefly touches on prioritization:

Under the NSA, AT&T will provide DISH postpaid and prepaid customers with similar quality of service as compared to certain AT&T postpaid and prepaid customers.
While the phrasing is vague, I expect it indicates Dish subscribers will have a QCI of 8 for regular data use on AT&T’s LTE network. That’s the same QCI for regular data received by the large majority of consumers on AT&T-branded plans.

Spectrum Use

Dish has extensive spectrum holdings that AT&T may take advantage of:

The NSA also provides an avenue for AT&T to deploy portions of DISH’s spectrum to support DISH customers on the AT&T network, by allowing AT&T the right, but not the obligation, to request to use portions of DISH’s spectrum.

Other Brands

The filing makes it clear that access to AT&T’s network is available for both existing and future brands under Dish (emphasis mine):

[The agreement provides] customers of Boost, Ting and Republic Wireless and all future DISH brands coverage on AT&T’s network.

Speculation

My hunch is that this deal is good news for both AT&T and Dish. For a while, I’ve heard people express skepticism about whether Dish actually intends to build its own network. I’m finding the skepticism less plausible as time goes on. With the backing of AT&T, Dish can focus on building out a 5G network in dense areas while offloading to AT&T for more extensive coverage.

The new agreement is probably bad news for T-Mobile. The company’s stock closed today a bit over 3% down from its opening price.4

Up arrows

AT&T Unlimited Elite Plan Gets Upgrades

Today, AT&T published a press release announcing upgrades for the Unlimited Elite plan, the most premium plan AT&T offers normal consumers.

Three major changes are taking effect:

  • Subscribers using over 100GB of data in a month will no longer be deprioritized.
  • The mobile hotspot data allotment will increase from 30GB to 40GB.
  • Video can now stream in resolutions up to 4k.

I’m unsure what’s going on with video resolution. As I noted in my Unlimited Elite Review, AT&T used to throttle video to about 480p by default. However, Unlimited Elite subscribers could opt out of throttling in their account settings. It could be that AT&T will no longer require subscribers on the Elite plan to opt out of video throttling. Alternatively, it might be that there used to be a secondary limit (1080p?) that affected customers who opted out of the standard, 480p throttle.

Don’t Buy The Hype

With these latest upgrades, it looks like AT&T is trying to match what T-Mobile did a few months ago when it dropped the deprioritization threshold on its most premium, consumer-grade plan. Here’s a bit I wrote at the time:

T-Mobile is slightly degrading service quality for tens of millions of users in order to improve service for a tiny fraction of the company’s heaviest data users. In my view, it’s a bad tradeoff.

When T-Mobile made its announcement, industry journalists praised the company. I expect we’re going to see something similar following AT&T’s announcement. Don’t buy the hype. Network capacity is a limited resource. It doesn’t come from nowhere. If you give some subscribers more, other subscribers get less.

Power button

Boom Mobile Drops AT&T (For Now)

As pointed out by Reddit user u/Ethrem, the MVNO Boom Mobile is no longer offering service over AT&T’s network. Another Reddit user, u/cllatgmail, shared part of a conversation with a Boom support agent:

[AT&T] hopefully temporarily, maybe permanently, removed the renewal of data from our plans which does not allow us to activate or renew customers plans. Due to this we are not allowing customers to renew on the yearly plan, so they would have to move to month-to-month. If the data ends up getting cut off before your yearly plan ends, we plan on refunding the remaining months.

The ability to renew on the yearly plan will be rescinded shortly.

At this time, I’m not sure if whatever caused Boom to pull its AT&T plans will also affect other MVNOs offering service over AT&T’s network.

AT&T’s “Free” iPhone 12 Offer

AT&T will be offering the iPhone 12 for pre-order starting on October 16. The phone will be available for regular ordering online and in stores on October 23. AT&T is running a big promotion that can make the phone kinda-sorta free for both existing customers and new customers.

Customers that buy the iPhone 12 on a 30-month installment plan and trade-in a phone AT&T values at $95 or more are eligible for 30 monthly bill credits that effectively cancel out the cost of installments. Customers that cancel service before the 30 installments are complete will be responsible for paying off the remaining cost of the iPhone 12.

Customers wanting to take advantage of the promotion must meet two more conditions:

  • Customers must be “well-qualified” according to AT&T’s criteria.
  • Customers must subscribe to one of AT&T’s postpaid, unlimited plans.

Is it really free?

While the promotion is a great deal, there are two senses in which the iPhone 12 won’t truly be free. Customers that take advantage of the promotion will still need to pay a $30 activation fee. Further, the eligible trade-in devices are limited.

While $95 doesn’t sound like a lot relative to the iPhone 12’s purchase price of $800, only fairly recent phones make the cut. AT&T values the iPhone 7 and Galaxy S8 at less than $95, so those devices won’t work for the promotion. The iPhone 8 and Galaxy S9 are among the oldest phones that are eligible. You can see how AT&T values different trade-in phones here.

AT&T Store

AT&T Introduces Mix-And-Match Program

Earlier this week, AT&T launched Unlimited Your Way. Customers on multi-line plans can now mix and match between AT&T’s primary plans. For example, a family with three lines can put one phone on AT&T’s Unlimited Starter plan, another phone on the Unlimited Extra plan, and a final phone on the Unlimited Elite plan. Before the program launched, AT&T required all lines on a multi-line account to use the same plan.

Pricing

It doesn’t look like AT&T has changed prices for accounts with 4 or fewer lines. AT&T has added a 5-line price to its website.1 The table below shows AT&T’s per-line pricing before taxes and fees and after a discount for enrolling in paperless billing and automatic payments.

LinesUnlimited EliteUnlimited ExtraUnlimited Starter
1$85$75$65
2$75$65$60
3$60$50$45
4$50$40$35
5$45$35$30

Reflections

Verizon has allowed customers to mix and match between its primary plans for years now. I’m glad to see AT&T copying Verizon’s policy. Since prices aren’t changing, I think the new program will be good for consumers.

AT&T Wins in GWS’s New Report – Reservations Remain

Global Wireless Solutions (GWS) released its latest report ranking the performance of cellular networks in the U.S. AT&T again took the top spot in GWS’s rankings.

I previously wrote about my reservations around the methodology GWS used in 2019. My reservations stand nearly unchanged. GWS continues to assess about 500 markets rather than the U.S. at large. I think this makes GWS biased against Verizon, the network that indisputably leads in coverage.

In its latest report, GWS boasts about having the largest and most comprehensive assessment of cellular networks. The claims seem to be based on the large number of data points GWS collects. In my view, the extra data points don’t make up for the fact that GWS’s underlying methodology isn’t as good as RootMetrics’ methodology.

Network operators pay evaluators to license their awards. Is GWS using a funky methodology because the company stands to earn more from declaring AT&T the best network than it would earn from declaring Verizon the best network?

Rethinking “Nationwide”

T-Mobile and AT&T started describing their 5G networks as nationwide once the networks covered over 200 million people. I’ve seen multiple people suggest that this is related to FCC rules. Allegedly, the FCC only allows networks to be described as nationwide when they cover over 200 million people. I’ve searched around, and I can’t find any FCC documents mentioning such a guideline.

As far as I can tell, the 200 million number comes from the National Advertising Division (NAD), a self-regulatory body for the advertising industry.1 Here’s an excerpt from a 2014 NAD publication:

NAD noted in its decision that it has applied a consistent standard for ‘coast to coast’ service for the past 10 years. In general, a wireless network can claim to be nationwide or coast to coast if the provider offers service in diverse regions of the country and the network covers at least 200 million people.

200 million people would make up about 60% of the U.S. population.2 I don’t think a network covering 60% of the U.S. population is nationwide in the common-sense meaning of the word. If networks with such lackluster coverage are advertised as nationwide, consumers will be misled.

The NAD should update its approach. The exact meaning of nationwide isn’t clear cut, but I think even a loose standard should be something like this:

Nationwide network: A network that covers at least 85% of the U.S. population and offers service in some parts of every state.

The NAD should probably frame its standard in terms of a percentage of the U.S. population covered (rather than a raw number of people covered). In 2004, 200 million people would have been almost 70% of the U.S. population.3 The NAD’s standard made more sense then. As the country’s population has grown, the NAD’s standard has become weaker.

AT&T’s 5G Coverage Now “Nationwide”

This morning, AT&T announced that its 5G network is now nationwide. By “nationwide,” I believe AT&T means that the service is estimated to cover over 200 million Americans. There are still plenty of parts of the country that are not covered by AT&T’s 5G service.

AT&T shared a few other noteworthy items in its announcement:

  • AT&T will add 5G support to the Unlimited Starter plan (the carriers’ most basic postpaid unlimited plan) at no extra charge on August 7.
  • Business customers on the Unlimited Web-Only plan will also get 5G support starting on August 7.
  • Cricket Wireless will begin offering 5G service on August 21.

On all of these plans, 5G service will only be available for subscribers with 5G-compatible devices.

5G Coming To Cricket Wireless

Today, AT&T came out with a press release stating that 5G service will be coming to Cricket Wireless. Here’s the relevant bit:

On Aug. 21, Cricket Wireless customers will be able to activate 5G service on the Samsung Galaxy S20+ 5G. More details soon!

As far as I can tell, Cricket has not yet updated its own web pages about 5G.

I expect Cricket subscribers will be able to access both AT&T’s sub-6 5G and AT&T’s ultra-fast millimeter wave 5G. While the S20+ will initially be the only 5G phone offered by Cricket, we should soon see the carrier offering more 5G-compatible devices. It may also be possible for Cricket customers to bring their own unlocked 5G phones to the service.