Verizon’s Double Data Promo on Prepaid Plans

Earlier this month, Verizon improved its prepaid plan offerings by relaunching the double data promotion it has run in the past. As before, all of prepaid phone plans include unlimited talk and text. Plans differ in the amount of high-speed data allotted each month. Here are the current monthly prices for each plan before taxes, fees, or discounts:1

  • $30 – 1GB high-speed data
  • $40 – 6GB high-speed data
  • $50 – 16GB high-speed data
  • $65 – Unlimited high-speed data

Streaming video will likely be limited to 480p quality on Verizon’s prepaid plans. Unlimited data at low (2G) speeds is available if a customer uses up all of his or her allotted high-speed data.

Discounts

A $5 per month per line discount is usually available if subscribers pay automatically each month. The discount cannot be applied to the $30 per month plan or the first month of service.

When an initial line is purchased at full price, the following multiline discounts are available:2

  • $10 off — Additional line with 6GB high-speed data
  • $15 off — Additional line with 16GB high-speed data
  • $20 off — Additional line with unlimited high-speed data

Terms

The current deals appear to be part of a temporary promotion, but I haven’t seen any indication of an end date for the promotion. When the promotion ends, it looks like customers who’ve already taken advantage of the promotion will continue to receive the deal for the lifetime of their plan:

Limited time offer. Available to new activations only. Bonus data added each month as long as your account remains active. Once activated, customers can move between eligible plans anytime and keep the bonus data. Your promotional data allowance will not appear in your shopping cart, but will be seen in your account after activation.

My thoughts

I’m not aware of any mobile virtual network operator (MVNO) operating on Verizon’s network offering better deals to heavy data-users than Verizon is now offering directly. However, consumers that use small amounts of data each month may still be able to find better deals with MVNOs operating over Verizon’s network.

I’ve been trying Verizon’s prepaid service for a few weeks now, and I’m a fan. While Verizon’s prepaid subscribers may be deprioritized in times of congestion, I believe the prepaid service offers nearly the same coverage as Verizon’s postpaid service.

Potential bias

I have a financial relationship with Verizon. As of 5/28/2019, I’m likely to receive a $24 commission when I refer a new prepaid subscriber to Verizon. I share more details about my relationship with Verizon here.

When Will 3G Be Phased Out?

Last updated: September 17, 2021

Major U.S. network operators are phasing out their 3G technologies. Below, I share my impressions about the status of the major networks’ 3G phase-outs. It’s possible some network operators won’t stick to their deadlines (plenty of early deadlines have already been pushed back).

Verizon

Verizon has twice set and then pushed back deadlines for retiring its 3G network. The date is now set at December 31, 2022. Verizon committed to not push the deadline back any further.

Verizon has stopped activating 3G-only phones and phones that don’t support HD Voice. More details about Verizon’s plans and policies can be found in an entry on Verizon’s knowledgebase.

AT&T

AT&T plans to retire its 3G network by February 2022.

T-Mobile

T-Mobile has mostly stopped activating 3G-only phones. The company plans to shut down its 3G network as of July 1, 2022.

T-Mobile plans to shut down the legacy Sprint 3G network it acquired by January 1, 2022.

Your Mileage May Vary

It’s common to see some consumers giving a cell phone carrier glowing reviews while other consumers publish long rants about the same carrier. When it comes to cell phone service, your mileage may vary.

Cell phone users differ from each other in a lot of ways. It should be unsurprising that a T-Mobile customer in New York City might feel differently about the quality of his T-Mobile’s service than another customer in rural Wisconsin feels about her T-Mobile service. Even within a single geographic region, the way people feel about the quality of a given carrier will vary substantially. People use different phones and do different things with their phones. People are also pretty different. Some people don’t mind if they occasionally don’t have service while traveling in sparsely populated areas. I hate it. Some people are frustrated if their video streaming is limited to 480p quality. That doesn’t bother me.

When choosing cell service, realizing that individual experiences with a carrier will be highly variable can prevent a lot of frustration. Taking advantage of the fact that people’s mileage may vary can allow frugal consumers to save a lot on wireless service.

The frugal strategy

I would guess that there are millions of consumers paying $50-$100 per line each month for postpaid Verizon service that could switch to Mint Mobile plans costing about $20 per line each month without experiencing a recognizable decrease in service quality. While Verizon’s postpaid service is going to generally be better than Mint’s service, many consumers have great experiences with Mint.

Even if you expect to have a good experience with a premium carrier, it may be worth trying low-cost carriers beforehand. There’s a chance the low-cost carriers are capable of providing you with good service. Let’s assume a low-cost, prepaid service would cost you $20 per month while a premium service would cost you $70 per month and require a two-year commitment. If you try the prepaid service first and end up liking it enough to choose it over the premium service, the upside is huge. You can save $50 per month on each line and don’t get locked into a long contract. Over a two-year period, the financial savings come out to $1,200 per line. If you try the prepaid service and disklike it, the downside is pretty low. You experience one month of mediocre service before upgrading to something better.

Strategy outline

  • Consider getting an unlocked phone with near-universal compatibility if you don’t already have one1
  • Try a cheap, prepaid carrier for one month
  • If you love the carrier, stick with it
  • If not, try a slightly more expensive carrier
  • Keep trying more expensive carriers until you find one you like

Most people don’t use anything like this strategy. Some of them are leaving a lot of money on the table.

Google Voice Review

I love Google Voice, and I want more people to know how awesome it is. I find Voice to be most useful when paired with a wireless device, but it’s also great as a stand-alone service you can use from a desktop.

Stand-alone Google Voice

The stand-alone, personal version of Voice is free and easy to get started with (much like Google Docs or Gmail). Once you’re signed up for the web platform, you’ll be given a free Google Voice phone number. From Voice’s web interface, you can send and receive calls and texts. Calls and texts in the U.S. are free.

Here are a few examples of situations where Voice’s stand-alone service can be useful:

  • You’re selling something on Craigslist and want to list your phone number. You don’t want to share your normal phone number because you don’t want to be contacted at odd hours or receive spam calls. Listing your Google Voice number in your ad solves the problems.
  • You misplaced your phone in your house. No one else is around to call it to make it ring. After accessing Google Voice from a computer, you can call your phone yourself.
  • You’re seated comfortably at your computer, but you need to make a call. No problem! Make your call from Goole Voice.

I don’t think most people will want to use stand-alone Google Voice regularly, but it’s a super helpful tool in rare situations. I once had a phone die while traveling. Using Voice, I was able to reach out to a friend I was meeting with, confirm our plans, and let them know I wouldn’t be reachable through my usual phone number. That prevented a lot of stress.

Google Voice paired with a phone

Google Voice can be extremely useful when paired with a mobile device and a primary number. Once you’ve downloaded a Google Voice app to a device, you can send and receive calls or texts from either the Voice web platform or your mobile device. It’s a best-of-both-worlds situation. If I’m at my computer, I prefer to take calls over Voice since my computer has a solid internet connection and I often have a nice headset connected. Texting is also more pleasant with a full-sized keyboard. The Voice web interface even lets me view visual voicemails and contacts from my desktop. None of this requires me to sacrifice my mobile experience. Calls and texts will continue to come through to my phone when I’m away from my computer.

If you don’t have a primary phone number you rely on, all of this can be done free of charge. Just take the free number Google Voice gives you, pair it with your device, and treat it as your primary number going forward. Alternatively, if you have a primary number, you can port it to Google Voice for a one-time fee of $20.1 Having your number live with Google rather than a traditional carrier has amazing perks. Normally, regularly switching phone companies is kind of a pain in the ass because you need to port numbers between carriers. The porting process takes time, and issues can arise while porting. With Google Voice, no porting is necessary. I’ve used the same Google Voice number with a handful of different carriers. When I switch between carriers’ SIM cards, my primary number stays associated with the Voice app on my phone.

Voice may even allow you to lower your typical phone bill. If you make calls from your computer, you can avoid using minutes from your mobile plan. While calls made from the Google Voice app on your phone will use your plan’s minutes, you can choose to download the Hangouts app which allows you to make calls from your phone using data (Wi-Fi or cellular) instead of minutes.

Configuring Google Voice

It may take a bit of tinkering to get Google Voice working optimally. Here are a few settings I’ve selected to get the experience I want:

  • I have the option to screen calls turned off.
  • I have the option to always use my phone to place calls turned off.
  • I only pair Google Voice with one phone.2

Downsides

  • I’ve found Google Voice’s web application to have some issues when accessed via Firefox.
  • Normal video messages cannot be sent from Google Voice.
  • Occasionally, I’ve found text messages to fail to send through the web application (fortunately, the application alerts me when this happens).3

5G: Awesome But Overhyped

5G network technologies have the potential to deliver far faster wireless speeds than 4G technologies. 5G will also enable data transfer with much lower latency (delay) than 4G. The technology is awesome. However, I’ve had a nagging suspicion that aspects of 5G are being overhyped to consumers.

Earlier this month, I attended the Big 5G Event in Denver. Many executives in the telecommunications industry spoke at the conference, including speakers from each of the major U.S. networks. While I felt like some network operators had been misleading consumers about 5G, I hoped statements network operators made at the conference would be more reliable. After all, most attendees of the conference were telecommunications professionals capable of seeing through bogus claims. Unfortunately, excessive hype and silly claims showed up in many of the presentations.

That said, a couple of folks deserve applause for calling out bullshit related to 5G. From the beginning of his presentation, Ibrahim Gedeon, CTO of the Canadian operator Telus, indicated that he was going to be unusually straightforward:

How the hell am I going to spend 20 minutes looking very smart and say nothing…I should abandon that…I think 5G is letting us down.

Gedeon didn’t pull any punches when discussing AT&T’s recent shenanigans:

I feel like we have to 5G something…Maybe we can find out from some of our peers how we can fake the 5G icon on the phone…That is the cheapest way to deliver 5G…I have nothing but the ultimate respect for good marketing.

5G use cases

Prior to the conference, I was skeptical about many of the proposed use cases for 5G. After the event, I’m even more skeptical.

Nicki Palmer, a senior vice president at Verizon, explained how 5G combined with machine learning could allow people with food allergies to scan items they pass in the grocery store to detect whether items contain allergens. It’s a neat idea. It might be technically impressive. However, 5G speeds aren’t required.

Some speakers mentioned that 5G could allow augmented reality technology to be used during surgical operations. Technology of this sort might be developed eventually, but I’m awfully skeptical that we’ll see next-generation wireless revolutionizing surgery in the next decade. There are hurdles in the way of that technology being used on a large scale well beyond limitations in wireless speeds and latency.

I also heard a lot about the potential 5G has to improve education. None of it made sense to me. Schools are buildings with wired internet. Wired internet can be awfully fast. Limitations in mobile speeds are not holding back education.

When I mentioned my skepticism about 5G use cases to Chris Pearson, president of 5G Americas, he emphasized that it might not be possible to predict many of the best use cases ahead of time. It’s a good point. Over the last few weeks, I’ve been trying to think through new use cases that emerged after the 3G to 4G transition. A lot of existing applications improved in a predictable manner. E.g., video streaming became a lot better with 4G speeds. Were there a lot of new, unanticipated use cases enabled by 4G? I’m not sure.

While I have a lot of skepticism about proposed 5G use cases, I’m still awfully excited about 5G. One specific use case that the conference made me more optimistic about is fixed wireless (delivering internet to buildings via wireless transmission instead of wired transmission). In a future post, I’ll explain why I find fixed wireless so exciting.

5G & prices

Could 5G lead to drastic declines in the cost consumers pay for each gigabyte of data? Unfortunately, I heard almost nothing on the topic.

In a panel that included executives from Verizon and AT&T, the moderator asked about 5G monetization and pricing. Nicki Palmer of Verizon and Igor Glubochansky of AT&T both dodged the question with politician-like non-answers.

5G timelines

In several different presentations, representatives of U.S. network operators suggested that they would have large-scale 5G networks deployed within a year or two. If these claims are taken seriously, I think they should be interpreted as indicating that some 5G technologies will be deployed on a large scale (e.g., the 5G air interface) alongside 4G technology. I think we are still several years away from large-scale, fully 5G networks.

Network Evaluation Should Be Transparent

Several third-party firms collect data on the performance of U.S. wireless networks. Over the last few months, I’ve tried to dig deeply into several of these firms’ methodologies. In every case, I’ve found the public-facing information to be inadequate. I’ve also been unsuccessful when reaching out to some of the firms for additional information.

It’s my impression that evaluation firms generally make most of their money by selling data access to network operators, analysts, and other entities that are not end consumers. If this was all these companies did with their data, I would understand the lack of transparency. However, most of these companies publish consumer-facing content. Often this takes the form of awards granted to network operators that do well in evaluations. It looks like network operators regularly pay third-party evaluators for permission to advertise the receipt of awards. I wish financial arrangements between evaluators and award winners were a matter of public record, but that’s a topic for another day. Today, I’m focusing on the lack of transparency around evaluation methodologies.

RootMetrics collects data on several different aspects of network performance and aggregates that data to form overall scores for each major network. How exactly does RootMetrics do that aggregation?

The results are converted into scores using a proprietary algorithm.1

I’ve previously written about how difficult it is to combine data on many aspects of a product or service to arrive at a single, overall score. Beyond that, there’s good evidence that different analysts working in good faith with the same raw data often make different analytical choices that lead to substantive differences in the results of their analyses. I’m not going take it on faith that RootMetrics’ proprietary algorithm aggregates data in a highly-defensible manner. No one else should either.

Opensignal had a long history of giving most of its performance awards to T-Mobile.2 Earlier this year, the trend was broken when Verizon took Opensignal’s awards in most categories.3 It’s not clear why Verizon suddenly became a big winner. The abrupt change strikes me as more likely to have been driven by a change in methodology than a genuine change in the performance of networks relative to one another. Since little is published about Opensignal’s methodology, I can’t confirm or disconfirm my speculation. In Opensignal’s case, questions about methodology are not trivial. There’s good reason to be concerned about possible selection bias in Opensignal’s analyses. Opensignal’s Analytics Charter states:4

Our analytics are designed to ensure that each user has an equal impact on the results, and that only real users are counted: ‘one user, one vote’.

Carriers will differ in the proportion of their subscribers that live in rural areas versus densely-populated areas. If the excerpt from the analytics charter is taken literally, it may suggest that Opensignal does not control for differences in subscribers’ geography or demographics. That could explain why T-Mobile has managed to win so many Opensignal awards when T-Mobile obviously does not have the best-performing network at the national level.

Carriers advertise awards from evaluators because third-parties are perceived to be credible. The public deserves to have enough information to assess whether third-party evaluators merit that credibility.

Magical Growth in Subscriber Numbers

Yesterday, one of my favorite journalists covering wireless, Mike Dano, published an article with the title “Why Wireless Carriers Magically Keep Growing Every Quarter.”

Dano notes that there’s been a roughly 2.5% growth in wireless subscribers for each of the past several quarters. This growth rate is tricky to make sense of:

[MoffettNathanson analysts] noted that the industry’s growth rate appears to be outstripping population growth rates and the growing number of teenagers getting phones, and isn’t attributable to other factors like the growing number of secondary phone-type devices like the Apple Watch. ‘The most likely answer appears to be the simplest,’ wrote the MoffettNathanson analysts. ‘Carriers are offering free or partially subsidized phones in return for adding additional lines.’

They continued: ‘It is all but certain that some customers have taken advantage of these offers even if it means adding a line they don’t need, and won’t use. The customer would simply reassign the new BOGO handset to an existing (used) line, moving an old unwanted handset to the new (unused) line.’

I’m not convinced this is the simplest explanation. A lot of consumers would find the process of adding a line to take advantage of a buy-one-get-one (BOGO) offer then switching service between devices complicated or sketchy. Around 2012, massive phone subsidies on post-paid plans were extremely common. At the time, I was involved in the cell phone resale business. I noticed that a surprising number of people were eligible for subsidized upgrades but not using them. In these scenarios, a subscriber could upgrade to a new ~$400 device for free, switch back to an old device, and quickly resell the new device. Even though the opportunity was relatively simple, I got the impression that people rarely took advantage of it.

The other problem I have with the explanation is that if consumers are taking advantage of BOGO offers in large numbers, carriers ought to notice what’s going on. Perhaps some carriers want to pad their subscriber numbers, but I find it unlikely that there’s an industry-wide willingness to pad subscriber numbers today since that will lead to higher churn in a year or two. I would guess that some carriers seeing consumers regularly add new lines to get free devices would be inclined to promote device-financing options. I expect financing options would often be simpler for consumers and more profitable for carriers.

That said, it’s pretty clear that at least some new lines come from those taking advantage of BOGO offers. A recent FCC filing stated the following (emphasis mine):

Sprint’s postpaid net additions recently have been driven by ‘free lines’ offered to Sprint customers and the inclusion of less valuable tablet and other non-phone devices, as well as pre to post migrations that do not represent ‘new’ Sprint customers.1
What I wonder is whether BOGO offers are the primary driver of unexpected growth. Dano mentions a claim found in a recent Wall Street Journal article (paywalled) that’s based on work from New Street Research:
Telecom consultant New Street Research estimated that customers signing unneeded wireless contracts to pocket more valuable smartphones added 1.7 million ‘fake’ lines to cellphone carriers’ tallies in 2018.
If we take that number at face value, that’s roughly 400,000 lines per quarter.2 However, BOGO offers are not new. They reached their peak several years ago. For “fake” BOGO lines to be driving growth, there must be more “fake” lines getting activated now than there are “fake” lines falling off.3 From my vantage point, it looks like BOGO offers might be less appealing than they were in the past. It used to be the case that devices that had been out for a few years were substantially worse than recently-released devices. That seems less true today. Recent declines in iPhone sales may indicate the other people feel the way I do.

What else might explain the large growth in subscriber numbers? On Twitter, industry-analyst Roger Entner mentioned that the growth could be due to subscribers transferring off of the Lifeline subsidization program.

It’s an interesting puzzle, and I might just be missing something. Despite my skepticism, I still don’t think it’s implausible that BOGO promotions really are driving lots of growth in subscriber numbers.

Average Download Speed Is Overrated

I’ve started looking into the methodologies used by entities that collect cell phone network performance data. I keep seeing an emphasis on average (or median) download and upload speeds when data-service quality is discussed.

  • Opensignal bases it’s data-experience rankings exclusively on download and upload speeds.1
  • Tom’s Guide appears to account for data-quality using average download and possibly upload speeds.2
  • RootMetrics doesn’t explicitly disclose how it arrives at final data-performance scores, but emphasis is placed on median upload and download speeds.3

It’s easy to understand what average and median speeds represent. Unfortunately, these metrics fail to capture something essential—variance in speeds.

For example, OpenSignal’s latest report for U.S. networks shows that Verizon has the fastest average download speed of 31 Mbps in the Chicago area. AT&T’s average download speed is only 22 Mbps in the same area. Both those speeds are easily fast enough for typical activities on a phone. At 22 Mbps per second, I could stream video, listen to music, or browse the internet seamlessly. For the rare occasion where I download a 100MB file, Verizon’s network at the average speed would beat AT&T’s by about 10.6 seconds.4 Not a big deal for something I do maybe once a month.

On the other hand, variance in download speeds can matter quite a lot. If I have 31 Mbps speeds on average, but I occasionally have sub-1 Mbps speeds, it may sometimes be annoying or impossible to use my phone for browsing and streaming. Periodically having 100+ Mbps speeds would not make up for the inconvenience of sometimes having low speeds. I’d happily accept a modest decrease in average speeds in exchange for a modest decrease in variance.5

Issues with Consumer Reports’ 2017 Cell Phone Plan Rankings


Consumer Reports offers ratings of cellular service providers based on survey data collected from Consumer Reports subscribers. Through subscriber surveying in 2017, Consumer Reports collected data on seven metrics:1

  1. Value
  2. Data service quality
  3. Voice service quality
  4. Text service quality
  5. Web service quality
  6. Telemarketing call frequency
  7. Support service quality

The surveys collected data from over 100,000 subscribers.2 I believe Consumer Reports would frown upon a granular discussion of the exact survey results, so I’ll remain vague about exact ratings in this post. If you would like to see the full results of their survey, Consumer Reports subscribers can do so here.

Survey results

Results are reported for 20 service providers. Most of these providers are mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs). MVNOs don’t operate their own network hardware but make use of other companies’ networks. For the most part, MVNOs use networks provided by the Big Four (Verizon, Sprint, AT&T, and T-Mobile).

Interestingly, the Big Four do poorly in Consumer Reports’ evaluation. Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint receive the lowest overall ratings and take the last three spots. T-Mobile doesn’t do much better.

This is surprising. The Big Four do terribly, even though MVNOs are using the Big Four’s networks. Generally, I would expect the Big Four to offer network access to their direct subscribers that is as good or better than the access that MVNO subscribers receive.

It’s possible that the good ratings can be explained by MVNOs offering prices and customer service far better than the Big Four—making them deserving of the high ratings for reasons separate from network quality.

Testing the survey’s validity

To test the reliability of Consumer Reports methodology, we can compare MVNOs to the Big Four using only the metrics about network quality (ignoring measures of value, telemarketing call frequency, and support quality). In many cases, MVNOs use more than one of the Big Four’s networks. However, several MVNOs use only one network, allowing for easy apples-to-apples comparisons.3

  • Boost Mobile is owned by Sprint.
  • Virgin Mobile is owned by Sprint.
  • Circket Wireless is owned by AT&T.
  • MetroPCS is owned by T-Mobile.
  • GreatCall runs exclusively on Verizon’s network.
  • Page Plus Cellular runs exclusively on Verizon’s network.

When comparing network quality ratings between these MVNOs and the companies that run their networks:

  • Boost Mobile’s ratings beat Sprint’s ratings in every category.
  • Virgin Mobile’s ratings beat Sprint’s ratings in every category.
  • Cricket Wireless’s ratings beat or tie AT&T’s ratings in every category.
  • MetroPCS’s ratings beat or tie T-Mobile’s ratings in every category.
  • GreatCall doesn’t have a rating for web quality due to insufficient data. GreatCall’s ratings match or beat Verizon in the other categories.
  • Page Plus Cellular doesn’t have a rating for web quality due to insufficient data. Page Plus’ ratings match or beat Verizon in the other categories.
World’s best stock photo.
Taken at face value, these are odd results. There are complicated stories you could tell to salvage the results, but I think it’s much more plausible that Consumer Reports’ surveys just don’t work well for evaluating the relative quality of cell phone service providers.

Why aren’t the results reliable?

I’m not sure why the surveys don’t work, but I see three promising explanations:

  • Metrics may not be evaluated independently. For example, consumers might take a service’s price into account when providing a rating of its voice quality.
  • Lack of objective evaluations. Consumers may not provide objective evaluations. Perhaps consumers are aware of some sort of general stigma about Sprint that unfairly affects how they evaluate Sprint’s quality (but that same stigma may not be applied to MVNOs that use Sprint’s network).
  • Selection bias. Individuals who subscribe to one carrier are probably, on average, different from individuals who subscribe to another carrier. Perhaps individuals who have used Carrier A tend to use small amounts of data and are lenient when rating data service quality. Individuals who have used Carrier B may get more upset about data quality issues. Consumer Cellular took the top spot in the 2017 rankings. I don’t think it’s coincidental that Consumer Cellular has pursued branding and marketing strategies to target senior citizens.4

Consumer Reports’ website gives the impression that their cell phone plan rankings will be reliable for comparison purposes.5 They won’t be.

The ratings do capture whether survey respondents are happy with their services. However, the ratings have serious limitations for shoppers trying to assess whether they’ll be satisfied with a given service.

I suspect Consumer Reports’ ratings for other product categories that rely on similar surveys will also be unreliable. However, the concerns I’m raising only apply to a subset of Consumer Reports’ evaluations. A lot of Consumer Reports’ work is based on product testing rather than consumer surveys.