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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.

Confused person

“Premium Data” Is Losing Meaning At T-Mobile

For a while now, Verizon and AT&T have used the phrase “Premium Data” to refer to allotments of especially high-priority data. Subscribers with Premium Data may experience better speeds than other network users during periods of congestion.

In the last month, T-Mobile has started using the phrase “Premium Data” as well. If you go to T-Mobile’s primary page listing the carrier’s plans, you’ll find a table that lists the allotments of premium data on different plans:

Common sense might lead you to think “Premium Data” means the same thing regardless of what plan the Premium Data is attached to. That’s not the case.

Before T-Mobile started using the phrase Premium Data, the company made it clear that the Essentials plan had lower priority data than Magenta plans. The image below comes from T-Mobile’s old plans page:

Screenshot showing Essentials customers may experience slower speeds during congestion

While T-Mobile updated how plans appear on its website, it doesn’t look like the underlying characteristics of the Essentials plan changed. The plans page still has a disclosure explaining that Essentials customers have lower priority than Magenta customers:

Essentials customers may notice speeds lower than other customers and further reduction if using >50GB/mo., due to data prioritization.

QCI values indicate how traffic is prioritized on LTE networks. In 2020, I found the Essentials plan had a QCI of 7 while the Magenta plan had a QCI of 6 (indicating that the Magenta subscribers have higher-priority data than Essentials subscribers). Once T-Mobile started saying Essentials customers have Premium Data, I ran another QCI test on the plan. I still found a QCI of 7.

Test result showing a QCI of 7

Until recently, T-Mobile did a better job disclosing prioritization policies than the other major networks.1 T-Mobile is taking a step back by suggesting the Essentials plan has Premium Data.

As far as I know, Verizon and AT&T only use the phrase “Premium Data” to mean something like: “data prioritized ahead of the data used by a substantial portion of our other customers.” If my understanding of data prioritization on T-Mobile’s network is accurate, Essentials customers receive priority on-par with or worse than most T-Mobile Prepaid, Metro, and Mint Mobile subscribers.

While Essentials subscribers aren’t truly last in line, only a tiny fraction of T-Mobile subscribers have lower priority (e.g., some ultra-heavy data users and people on hotspot connections). It’s silly to call data “premium” when indicating something like: “data that’s not absolutely the lowest priority in the queue.”

As I’ve argued before, consumers ought to have access to better information about prioritization and congestion. The way T-Mobile is using the phrase “Premium Data” is going leave consumers confused. For what it’s worth, I don’t mean to suggest T-Mobile is intentionally hoping to mislead consumers about data priority on the Essentials plan. T-Mobile may have made an honest mistake when coming up with the latest iteration of its plans page.


Hat tip to Stetson Doggett for drawing my attention to this topic.

T-Mobile’s Misleading Claims About Its Four Unlimited Lines For $100 Deal

Yesterday, T-Mobile shared a press release announcing deals the company is about to launch. Starting July 24, T-Mobile will offer four lines on its Essentials plan for $25 per line each month. The Essentials plan is the most basic of T-Mobile’s postpaid unlimited plans.

Customers making use of T-Mobile’s deal on the Essentials plan will have the option to take advantage of a second promotion on the Samsung Galaxy A71 5G:1

If you need 5G phones too, for just $5 more per line, get four lines for $30 each per month, plus taxes and fees with autopay on T-Mobile Essentials PLUS four Samsung Galaxy A71 5G included with bill credits and eligible trade-in.

Bragging

At the beginning of its press release, T-Mobile brags about how unbelievable the upcoming deal will be:

Four lines for just $25/month each, an unheard of price point for unlimited postpaid.

T-Mobile brags again a bit later:

This price point with unlimited data has not been offered for everyone in postpaid wireless in, well, ever.

And then again:

This price point for unlimited postpaid is unheard of. As in, unlimited high speed data at this price has never been offered before for everyone in postpaid wireless in the history of ever.

Despite T-Mobile’s claims, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen postpaid unlimited plans at this price point. Sprint previously offered its Unlimited Kickstart plan for $25 per line.

Note how the caveat word “postpaid” shows up in each of T-Mobile’s boasts. Prepaid brands Visible and Cricket offer four lines for $100. Other prepaid carriers have offered similar deals in the past. Unlike T-Mobile, both Visible and Cricket include taxes in the $100 list price of their four-line plans.

No high-priority data

Postpaid plans tend to have features that prepaid plans do not. Notably, postpaid service is likely to come with high-priority data during congestion. While T-Mobile’s Essentials plan is postpaid, it does not include high-priority data.

T-Mobile’s statements are a bit disingenuous. It’s strange for the company to brag about how the upcoming deal will involve postpaid service while neglecting to mention that a major feature people associate with postpaid service is missing.

Consumers Need More Information On Congestion & Prioritization Policies

Wireless networks have finite capacities. If enough users try to send data over a network at the same time, the network will become congested and deliver slower speeds.

Not all users will see the same decreases in speeds during congestion. Prioritization policies govern how different people on a network are affected by congestion. In many cases, subscribers with premium service plans will be prioritized ahead of subscribers on low-cost plans. When low-priority subscribers are experiencing sluggish speeds during congestion, they’re often described as being “deprioritized.”

There’s a shocking lack of public information about prioritization policies. Over the last year, I’ve dug into legalese to figure out how major carriers prioritize different plans, looked into the technical mechanisms behind prioritization, and spoken with industry experts. I’ve created what I believe is some of the most detailed content about prioritization policies among carriers in the U.S. Despite all that, I regularly find myself confused about prioritization.

Vague deprioritization disclosures

Carriers typically disclose the possibility of deprioritization in fine-print statements along these lines:

During periods of congestion, subscribers on this plan may experience data speeds slower than those received by other subscribers on the network.
Disclosures tend to be vague. Carriers almost never discuss the frequency of deprioritization, the severity of speed decreases, or the locations where subscribers will be especially prone to deprioritization.

Is deprioritization a big issue for low-cost plans?

Mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) are often prohibited from discussing specific terms of their arrangements with host networks. In many cases, MVNOs can’t even make clear statements about which networks they operate over. In preparation for this post, I talked with a few people who are knowledgeable about the MVNO industry. None of them wanted to be quoted.

The general view among participants on online forums about the wireless industry is that almost all MVNO subscribers are deprioritized. However, there are competing claims. The MVNO Ting published a blog post titled Do MVNOs get second class cell service? The post explicitly states that Ting subscribers on Sprint’s network have priority on-par with typical Sprint subscribers. Ting’s post also seems to carry an implicit suggestion that subscribers using other MVNOs are usually not deprioritized:

The truth of the matter is, Sprint’s MVNO contract states that Sprint must provide its Customer MVNOs with service parity to traditional Sprint wireless voice and data service. It’s all laid out in very clear terms…The problem is, the discussion of whether or not carriers throttle and traffic shape MVNOs on their network takes on a conspiratorial tone online. I know, it’s shocking! Suppositions get accepted as fact. Assumptions leap off from suppositions and next thing you know, it’s all true because someone read it on the Internet. Hopefully this helps to dispel the myth.

Wirecutter has written about prioritization, and it looks like the company reached out to a handful of carriers about their policies (emphasis mine):1

[Some carriers] prioritize their own customers over third-party prepaid traffic, as happens with the Metro by T-Mobile subsidiary. A T-Mobile spokesperson confirmed that policy, saying that although postpaid and prepaid T-Mobile service have the same priority, Metro by T-Mobile and other resellers ‘may notice slower speeds in times of network congestion’…However, AT&T, Sprint, and Verizon told us that they don’t impose any such prioritization.

I don’t buy it. Xfinity Mobile, a popular Verizon reseller, explicitly acknowledges deprioritization:

In times of congestion, your data may be temporarily slower than other traffic.

Verizon makes it clear that its own prepaid subscribers will be deprioritized during congestion. Verizon’s flanker brand, Visible, also deprioritizes subscribers’ data.2

While these facts don’t rule out the possibility that Verizon gives high-priority access to some resellers, I’d be awfully surprised if subscribers with Verizon resellers typically have higher priority than a large portion of Verizon’s own subscribers.

Does deprioritization matter?

There are a lot of reasons people experience slow speeds, and people may be too quick to assume that deprioritization is the source of lousy speeds. Unfortunately, I don’t know of any publicly available data that sheds light on how often deprioritization causes trouble for consumers. As far as tell, drive tests assessing network performance typically use high-priority services. I’d be interested to see how assessments would come out tests were run with low-priority services.

Sharing better information

I’m aiming to offer the best public-facing content about prioritization policies. If you work in the wireless industry and would like to talk publicly or privately about prioritization policies, please reach out.

Image representing high-tech metrics

How To Find QCI Values

QoS Class Identifiers (QCIs) play a large role in the implementation of prioritization procedures on LTE networks. With the right tools, you can figure out the QCI your service is using. The approach I’ve taken requires the app Network Signal Guru (NSG) running on a rooted Android device with a Qualcomm chipset. Rooting devices presents some security threats, so I don’t recommend anyone root their device without doing some research first.

When NSG is running, users can scroll through a number of screens that display metrics related to network performance. If you’re connected to an LTE network, one of the screens will be titled “EUTRA Sessions.” The screenshot below comes from a test I ran using Google Fi’s service over T-Mobile’s network:


My Google Fi service had a QCI of 6 during regular data use. I also ran a test with service from Mint Mobile (an MVNO that uses T-Mobile’s network). During my test, Mint Mobile had a QCI of 7.


Making sense of networks’ prioritization procedures can be complicated. Network operators are usually not transparent about their policies. Disclosures and legal information published by the major networks provide some sense of each network’s policies, but the disclosures generally don’t shed as much light as I’d like. To get a better understanding of networks’ policies, I plan to collect QCI information from more carriers going forward. I’ll be sharing that information here. If you also use Network Signal Guru and would like to contribute your observations, let me know.

Prioritized and Deprioritized Services by Network

Understanding networks’ prioritization policies can be tricky. Recently, I’ve spent some time digging through the major U.S. networks’ policies. I’ve created a web page for each network listing which services I expect to be prioritized and which services I expect not to be prioritized. Making sense of each network’s policies isn’t always easy, so it’s possible I’ve misclassified some services. Please contact me if you think any information is incorrect or missing.