Consumer Cellular Increases Data Limits

Yesterday, Consumer Cellular announced an increase in the data allotments it offers at different price points. The table below outlines the changes:

Monthly data costPrevious allotmentNew allotmentPercent increase
$50.25GB0.5GB100%
$102GB3GB50%
$205GB10GB100%
$3010GB16GB60%
$4020GB25GB25%

I spoke with a Consumer Cellular support agent who confirmed that these changes would automatically affect existing customers. For example, a customer who was paying $10 per month for 2GB of data will now be allotted 3GB of data per month at no extra charge.

It’s great to see a carrier improving customers’ plans without charging more or requiring customers to proactively opt-in to the changes. In some ways, it’s a bold business move. Customers who were paying $30 per month for 10GB could now downgrade to the $20 per month price tier and still receive 10GB of data. That said, I don’t expect a lot of customers will actually downgrade in response to the new pricing structure.

Sliding Data Limits

If you’re looking to reduce your data use, I highly recommend using what I call sliding data limits. Start each month by setting a data limit that’s well below the amount of data you’re allotted. Each time you hit your limit, reset it to something higher. Each time you change your limit, increase it by a smaller amount.

For example, let’s say you have 7GB of data allotted each month:

  • Start the month with a limit of 3GB
  • If you hit the 3GB limit, increase the limit to 5GB
  • If you hit the 5GB limit, increase the limit to 6GB
  • If you hit the 6GB limit, increase the limit to 6.5GB
  • Etc…

With this approach, you’ll be able to keep tabs on your data use and prevent overages with minimal effort.

Setting data limits

Android phones have a built-in feature for setting data limits. Unfortunately, iOS does not offer a comparable feature. iPhone users aren’t totally out of luck though. Many wireless carriers allow subscribers to set up data limits or usage alerts from their online accounts.

In Android 10, you can set limits by going to:
Settings > Network & internet > Mobile network > Data warning and limit

Your phone may account for data use a bit differently than your wireless carrier. If you’re allocated 7GB of data each month, you may want to conservatively set limits as if you’re allotted 6.9GB of data each month.

Hitting data limits

If you hit a limit you’ve set, data access will be cut off. You’ll probably be prompted with an alert like this one:


Mobile data is paused notification


Data warnings

With Android phones, it’s possible to set data warning alerts rather than strict limits. With alerts, you’ll receive a notification when you’ve used a certain amount of data. Further data access will not be automatically cut off.

You might want to use both limits and warnings at the same time. For example, if you start a month with a 3GB limit, you might also want to set a 1.5GB warning to give you a better sense of the rate at which you’re using data.

Visible Continues To Throttle Some Phones

When the wireless carrier Visible first launched, Visible throttled data speeds to a maximum of 5Mbps. In June, Visible announced a removal of the cap for new and existing customers:

Starting today, and for a limited time, we’re removing the 5 Mbps data speed cap for our current and new members at no added cost…everyone who gets to experience uncapped speeds will get to keep them — again, at no additional cost — as long as they are a member.

Last week, I started trialing Visible’s service. Speed tests I ran all found download speeds of about 5 or 6 Mbps. Whether I had a strong LTE connection or a weak one, I experienced about the same download speed.

Summary of several Visible speed test results showing download speeds around 5Mbps

Each of the tests showed a weird pattern. After initiating a test, speeds would briefly shoot up well beyond 5Mbps (red arrow) before stabilizing around 5Mbps (green arrows).

Speed test result showing speeds stabilize around 5Mbps

Shortly after experiencing these weird test results, I found a Reddit thread where other Visible subscribers mentioned similar problems. Here’s the original post by Reddit user n0ki:

I now have 2 phones moved over to Visible. Both phones max out at 5mbps. After spending an hour or so with chat support and going through all their troubleshooting, I finally convince her that even though my account shows its not capped, that is is acting like it is. She finally decides to “reset” the cap and that resolves the issue.

I reach out to support on my 2nd phone and explain I’m having the same problem and what the solution is. They want me to spend another hour going through all the same troubleshooting steps.

Frustrating that it’s currently advertised as unlimited but all these new accounts still seem to be capped at 5!

Most of the people experiencing the issue were using the Visible R2, the same phone I experienced an issue with.

I went ahead and reached out to Visible’s support. After a live chat conversation that took about 20 minutes, I was experiencing much faster download speeds:

Speed test result finding a download speed of 17Mbps

While it’s unimpressive that Visible seems to still be throttling some subscribers, I’m inclined to believe the issue is due to an honest mistake on Visible’s end.

Google Fi’s Unlimited Plan – Is It Worth It?

Yesterday, Google Fi launched an unlimited plan. While Fi labels the new plan as “unlimited,” it has a couple of limitations potential customers should recognize:

  • Video streaming will be limited to 480p quality.
  • After 22GB of regular data use on a line, data speeds will be throttled to 256Kbps.

In my opinion, 480p quality (sometimes described as DVD-quality) is perfectly fine. However, plenty of people disagree with me and like to watch videos in higher resolutions. I see the reduced speeds after 22GB of use as a more serious limitation. 256Kbps is slow enough to make some online activities frustrating or impossible.

Google Fi customers can now choose between Fi’s old, Flexible plan or the new, Unlimited plan:

Fi’s Flexible Plan

The flexible plan uses the following pricing structure before taxes and fees:

  • $20 for unlimited talk and text on the first line. $15 for each additional line.
  • Pay-for-what-you-use data charged at $10 for each gigabyte of use. Data charges are capped after a threshold amount of data use that varies with the number of lines on the plan (6GB for a single-line plan).

The flexible plan has slightly different policies:

  • After 15GB of use on a line in a single month, speeds are capped to 256Kbps.
  • Video can be streamed at 1080p quality.
  • International calls from the U.S. incur reasonable, per-minute charges (subscribers on Fi’s unlimited plan can make calls from the U.S. to over 50 countries at no additional cost).

Fi’s Unlimited Plan

Google Fi’s unlimited plan is priced based on the number of lines used:1

Number of LinesCost Per Unlimited LineBreak-even Point
(Gigs per line)
1$705.00GB
2$604.25GB
3$503.33GB
4$452.88GB
5$452.90GB
6$452.92GB

Fi Flexible Vs. Fi Unlimited

If you expect the average data use across lines on your plan will consistently fall below the appropriate break-even point listed in the table above, you should probably subscribe to Fi’s Flexible plan. If you expect data use to be above the break-even point consistently, you should probably subscribe to Fi’s Unlimited plan.

If you’re unsure about your data use or use very different amounts of data each month, choosing a plan may be harder. Google Fi’s Unlimited plan allows 7GB per line more of regular-speed data use each month (22GB vs. 15GB). If you expect you’ll always use less than 15GB of data per line, you may still want to consider Fi’s Flexible plan. Since the flexible plan has caps on data charges, Fi’s Flexible plan will rarely be much more expensive than Fi’s Unlimited plan:

Number of LinesTotal Cost (Unlimited plan)Max Cost (Flexible plan)Difference
1$70$80$10
2$120$135$15
3$150$170$20
4$180$205$25
5$225$240$15
6$270$275$5
If you expect to use under 15GB per line and occasionally (but not always) have data use that exceeds the break-even point, Fi’s Flexible plan is likely the best option.


You can view the math behind the tables in this post here.

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.

Pinocchio

Unlimited Plans At 2G Speeds Are Bogus

It’s becoming more common for carriers to offer additional data at 2G speeds after subscribers use up all of the regular-speed data that they’ve been allotted. In most cases, this means subscribers who’ve run out of regular data are throttled to a maximum speed of 128Kbps. It’s a great perk. Imagine you’ve run out of regular data, but really need to use the internet for a moment to pull up a boarding pass, look up directions, or view an email. At 2G speeds, it will probably be frustratingly slow to do any of those things, but that’s a much better scenario than being unable to use data at all.

Most consumers have little clue what 2G speeds amount to in practice. Let me be clear: 2G speeds are really slow for most things people want to do. Music streaming probably won’t work well. Video streaming at low, 240p resolution won’t be possible. Most websites will take a long time to load.

Carriers vary in how they present the perk of extra data at 2G speeds. In my opinion, Mint Mobile and Verizon handle the perk in a commendable way. Both carriers generally describe their plans and data allotments based on the amount of regular data allotted. In contrast, Total Wireless and Tello offer “unlimited” plans. These plans have caps on regular data use. After the cap is reached, subscribers continue to have data at 2G speeds. I think it’s misleading, bordering on outright lying, to call these unlimited plans. It’s just not possible to use data in a normal manner once speeds are throttled to 128Kbps.

In fact, imposing a throttle creates a limit on how much data can be used in a month. If a subscriber manages to transmit 128 kilobits of data every second for an entire month, they’ll use about 40GB of data.1 While almost no subscribers will come close to reaching it, there is a theoretical limit on these supposedly unlimited plans. It’s roughly: amount of regular data + 40GB.


Disclosure: I have financial relationships with Verizon, Mint Mobile, Tello, and Total Wireless (more details).

Avoid Mismatched Phone Plans

There are probably millions of people in the U.S. that could save a lot of money by switching to a different plan offered by their existing cell phone carrier. For example, plenty of people pay for expensive plans with unlimited data, even though they only use a few gigabytes of data each month.

Recently, I angered a lot of people when I said Google Fi is generally too expensive for me to recommend the service. Several commenters argued I was wrong. Some of the commenters were polite. Others called me an idiot. Commenters often mentioned how much they used to pay for service from a major carrier and how much they saved by switching to Google Fi.

In many cases, commenters appeared to have purchased the wrong plans when they used major carriers. They were paying for data they didn’t need. Since Google Fi has a pay-for-what-you-use pricing structure, Fi subscribers basically cannot be on a plan that is mismatched with their data use.

Unsurprisingly, a person who barely uses data can probably get a better rate on a Google Fi plan than she can get on a high-data plan from Verizon. But Verizon also offers plans with small data allotments. We should make apples-to-apples comparisons when we can.

Examples

Below, I share excerpts from previous comments and my follow-up thoughts.


My wireless bill with Fi is $100 cheaper than it was with two phones on Verizon’s cheapest plan…a plan that includes more than 1gb per a phone is costly and unnecessary.
$100 cheaper!? I don’t think this commenter could have been on Verizon’s cheapest plan. Today, two lines of Verizon prepaid with 6 GB of data on each line (way more than the commenter desires) would cost only a bit more than $60 per month.


Google Fi unlimited calls and texts only costs $20 a month and when you add that to their pay-for-what-you-use data your monthly cost could be around mine at roughly $28/month, as I barely use any data…Now compare that with Verizon’s bare minimum unlimited plan starting at $70 before taxes and fees…Fi allows us to escape the tyranny of major cellular corporations and their overpriced plan structures.1
No! It’s inappropriate to compare the cost of service with barely any data use to the cost of an unlimited data plan.


Our monthly bill for all 3 lines with Verizon was around $180. It was reduced to less than $70 after switching to FI for the last 5 months.
Under $70 for three lines is a pretty good deal! No need to switch away from Fi, but let’s consider what comparable service would cost today with Verizon. With three Fi lines and a total cost under $70 per month, total data use is probably under 2GB per month.2 A postpaid, Verizon plan with 3 lines and 2GB of shared data is about $100 per month right now. Prepaid options could come out under $100 per month.


My bill with Verizon was always $105 a month for two gigs of Internet.
One of Verizon’s prepaid options right now offers three times that amount of data for about a third of the price!


Carriers create confusion

People who are on mismatched plans aren’t idiots. Many carriers like it went customers pay extra money for unnecessary amounts of data. Instead of alerting subscribers who are paying for too much data, carriers often take steps to encourage customers to over-purchase data. I call the cell phone industry a confusopoly for a reason.

Finding plans that fit

As mentioned earlier, one way to ensure that you’re not paying for data you don’t need is to choose a carrier with a pay-for-what-you-use model (e.g., Ting or Google Fi). That said, I think most people can find better prices with carriers that use conventional pricing structures.

If you know how much data you typically use (or have records of data use you can look back on), you can probably figure out how much data you’d like your cell phone plan to offer. If you’re unsure about your data use, I suggest starting small. Choose a plan with the smallest amount of data that you think might be adequate. Experiment with that plan for a few months. Add more data if the initial data allotment you started with turns out to be insufficient.

Did Google Fi Shoot Itself In The Foot?

Google Fi has a lot going for it: amazing international roaming options, fancy network-switching technology, and a simple pricing structure. Despite all Fi’s great aspects, I don’t usually recommend it. For most users, it’s just too expensive. Google Fi typically charges $10 per gigabyte of data. A lot of other carriers offer plans with far lower rates for data.

All Fi subscribers have roughly the same plan with the same pricing structure.1 There aren’t ten different plans with different names and policies. This is in sharp contrast with Verizon. Looking at just unlimited plans, Verizon has several options:

  1. Start Unlimited
  2. Play More Unlimited
  3. Do More Unlimited
  4. Get More Unlimited

In fact, Verizon actually has a fifth unlimited plan it offers as a prepaid option. Each unlimited plan is a bit different. Some of the plans have more limits than others—inviting critics to joke about how Verizon doesn’t understand the meaning of the word “unlimited.”

While it feels silly, there are a handful of reasons why it makes business sense for Verizon to have several unlimited plans. Today, I’ll only touch on one of those reasons: when a carrier has multiple plans, it’s easier to introduce new prices and policies without immediately affecting existing customers. We just saw Verizon do this. A month ago, Verizon was offering three postpaid, unlimited plans. They were different from today’s plans:

  • GoUnlimited
  • BeyondUnlimited
  • AboveUnlimited

When Verizon introduces new plans, it can cease offering old plans to new customers while offering existing customers the same service on legacy plans. Since there are several plans that all have different policies, it’s difficult for people to make simple, apples-to-apples comparisons between legacy plans and plans available to new customers.

Back to Fi. Google Fi has been charging almost everyone $10 per gigabyte for a long time.2 Years ago, that was a decent price for data. Today it’s not. Data costs have gone down in most of the industry.

I don’t have any inside knowledge about Fi, but I’m suspicious Fi’s simple pricing structure makes it hard for the company to change its prices. If Fi wanted to offer new customers data for $5 per gigabyte, existing Google Fi subscribers would want that deal too. If existing subscribers had to continue paying $10 per gigabyte, they’d get angry. If Fi reduced prices for existing subscribers, Fi’s revenue would plummet.


Added after publication: The idea I share in this post probably doesn’t explain why Fi charges so much for data (or at least, it is probably an incomplete explanation). There are a lot of other plausible explanations. E.g., Fi’s agreements with network operators may not lead to Fi getting good rates on data.

Added even later: When I said I don’t usually recommend Google Fi, I didn’t mean to imply that Fi’s prices are uniquely awful or that no one should use Fi. Rather, I don’t typically recommend Google Fi since most consumers can find comparable service at a lower price (see carriers I recommend).

Reflections on Ting’s 20 for 20 Deal

The mobile virtual network operator Ting is offering new subscribers unlimited talk, unlimited texts, and 20GB of data for only $20 per month. Customers who take advantage of the deal will receive promotional pricing though the end of the year. Once 2020 starts, customers will have to pay Ting’s usual rates.

It’s unusual

Introductory offers are common in the wireless industry, but Ting’s 20 for 20 deal is unusual. Users aren’t locked into any service at regular rates. Customers are permitted to take advantage of the deal for several months and end service before 2020. When other companies offer deals with similar structures, I often assume gimmicks will be involved. Companies may not remind customers that rates will increase, or cancellation processes may be unnecessarily complicated. I think Ting is planning to run its promotion with integrity. Below is an excerpt from a Reddit comment by a Ting employee (emphasis mine):

When they’re onboard, they get to kick the tires of Ting CS and our website at a reduced rate. At some point in the future, the promo will expire (currently through 2019) and they’ll be set to go back to regular Ting rates after more than enough advance email notice.
Given my excellent past experience with Ting’s support, I’m inclined to believe the company will follow through and communicate clearly with customers.

Data rates

20GB is a lot of data. The amount is especially surprising when considering Ting’s regular data rate at the moment is $10 per GB (and sometimes higher). Someone on the 20 for 20 plan who used the full data allotment would have to pay over $200 per month for a single line of service with Ting’s regular rates. I can’t imagine many people who use data that heavily will be interested in sticking with Ting after the promotional pricing ends.

Ting is probably banking on the expectation that many subscribers that join during the promotion won’t use anywhere near 20GB of data. That of course begs the question of why Ting didn’t just run a similar promotion with a smaller allotment of monthly data. I’m not sure what Ting’s rationale is, but I’m betting that Ting believes customers who don’t use a lot of data may still be attracted by the 20GB data allotment. A similar phenomenon occurs in the web hosting industry. Lots of consumers want to purchase hosting from companies that allegedly offer unlimited resources even though most websites have modest hosting requirements.

Networks and price structures

Ting offers service on both T-Mobile and Sprint’s networks, but the 20 for 20 offer is only available on the Sprint network. The network restriction could be related to Ting’s plan to transition away from offering service on T-Mobile’s network and begin offering service on Verizon’s network. However, apart from the planned transition, I think the promotion would likely not be cost-effective if offered over T-Mobile’s network. I’ve previously seen hints suggesting Ting has far better rates negotiated with Sprint than T-Mobile. The structure of the 20 for 20 promotion seems to further support that impression.

If Ting does get far better rates with Sprint, it leaves me wondering why Ting doesn’t offer Sprint-based service at better rates than service over other networks. My best bet is that having only one pricing structure keeps things simple for Ting’s customers, but there are other plausible explanations. Maybe a commitment to a single pricing structure gives Ting leverage in negotiations with network operators. Who knows?

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.


2021 Update: Over the last few years, I’ve run a bunch of QCI tests to assess priority levels of different plans, and I’ve become more confident about my conclusions. Results from QCI tests can be found here.