TracFone Botching eBay Orders

Earlier this month, I posted about a plan TracFone was offering through its eBay store. For a single payment of $40, customers could get one year of service with 3GB of data, 1200 minutes, and 1200 texts. TracFone was offering coverage over a customer’s choice of either AT&T, Verizon, or T-Mobile’s network. I thought this was an incredible deal for a low-use phone plan, so I decided to place an order.

Multiple listings

TracFone had a few different listings with the $40 per month plan. In one version of the listing, customers could select the network of their choice from a drop-down menu:

In another version of the listing, TracFone was offering customers a product that included three SIM cards (one for each of the available networks). Customers who purchased from this listing could use the SIM card for their preferred network and discard the two unused SIMs.[1]

Receiving the wrong item

I wasn’t confident which network I wanted to use during my trial, so I ordered from the three-SIM version of the listing. A few days later, I received my order in the mail, but it only included an AT&T-compatible SIM card.

When I looked back at the eBay listing, it suggested the product only included an AT&T-compatible SIM. This left me confused. I wondered whether the listing had changed or if I’d just made a mistake. TracFone’s customer support on eBay assured me the listing hadn’t changed (emphasis mine):

We have read your e-mail today, March 20, 2020 at 3:25 PM EST. This is in regard to your TracFone Prepaid Wireless Smartphone Plan+SIM-1200 Min, 1200 Txt, 3GB Data.

Please be informed that nothing has changed, but we have added several listings of the same item with different options.

However, the listing had changed. Here’s a screenshot from the listing’s revision history:

Looking back at an archived version of the listing, it’s clear TracFone quietly changed what it was offering. Here’s a product image from the time I placed my order:

Here’s an image from the listing today:

Other reports of issues

Around the time I received my SIM card, I learned other customers who purchased the $40 plan were experiencing issues. A Reddit thread and a discussion on HowardForums detailed the problems. Some people experienced the same issue I had. Other people received SIM cards that didn’t have any airtime or data attached to them.

Those who tried to work out issues with TracFone’s customer support often had a hard time. TracFone’s regular support agents aren’t used to dealing with purchases made through eBay. As I experienced, TracFone’s support on eBay isn’t necessarily all that helpful.

That said, people who tried to get a refund right away (rather than sort out issues with TracFone’s support) probably had an alright experience. eBay is generally buyer-friendly. I doubt many refund requests were denied.

eBay feedback

TracFone’s feedback on eBay shows that issues were widespread. While the $40 plan makes up a minority of TracFone’s sales on eBay, almost all of TracFone’s recent, negative feedback is related to the plan.

TracFone's recent, negative feedback scores

I can’t recommend the plan

I gave my AT&T-compatible SIM a try. Fortunately, it had airtime and data attached as it was supposed to. Service was fine in my brief testing. Still, I can’t strongly recommend the plan. And I wanted to. A year of service for about $3 per month is an amazing deal. The combination of mistakes in fulfilling errors and a lack of customer support agents that can solve issues is a deal-breaker.

Twigby Launches Smart Value Plans

The MVNO Twigby just launched a handful of what it calls “Smart Value Plans.” These plans are an alternative to plans using Twigby’s build-your-own-plan structure.

Each of the new plans comes with unlimited minutes and texts. The plans differ in their data allotments. Twigby has a 3GB, 5GB, and 10GB Smart Value Plan. The new plans cost a bit less than an equivalent plan would cost under Twigby’s old build-your-own-plan structure.

Monthly DataNew PriceOld PriceSavings
3GB$20$2829%
5GB$25$3324%
10GB$35$4319%

For the first six months of service, Twigby offers customers 25% off the prices above.

Mint Mobile Giving Unlimited Data To All Subscribers

The MVNO Mint Mobile is temporarily offering all subscribers unlimited data at no charge. Here’s an excerpt from an email I just received:

Starting on 3-15-20 through 4-14-20, Mint Mobile will be providing all current and new customers with FREE unlimited high-speed data add-ons.

Further details

Like many other carriers, Mint Mobile is making changes in its policies in response to the coronavirus. Mint’s subscribers can take advantage of Mint’s new policy by adding data to their plans in 3GB chunks. Subscribers will need to use up most of their add-on data before they’re eligible for additional add-ons:[1]

95% of data add-on must be used prior to adding an additional data add-on
Data add-ons can be processed from the Mint Mobile app or through Mint Mobile’s online account system. Subscribers’ credit cards will temporarily be charged for add-on data, but Mint will quickly refund the charges.

It looks like even new customers will be eligible for unlimited data.[2]

Reflections

I’m not sure if Mint Mobile is taking a huge financial hit to offer this policy or if Mint’s host operator, T-Mobile, is doing something unusual that makes the new policy possible.

Mint is one of my favorite budget-friendly carriers, and I’m happy to see the carrier’s latest move. If you’re thinking about switching to Mint, consider checking out my detailed review of the carrier.

Verizon Launches New Flanker Brand: Yahoo Mobile

Today, Verizon launched a new flanker brand, Yahoo Mobile. The new carrier is extremely similar to another Verizon flanker brand, Visible. You could argue that Yahoo Mobile is closer to a reseller of Visible’s plans than a distinct carrier. Both Visible and Yahoo Mobile have extremely similar websites, policies, and plans. Yahoo Mobile explicitly mentions Visible in FAQ entries, and Yahoo Mobile’s terms of service make the relationship clear:[1]

Yahoo Mobile wireless service is provided by Visible Service LLC (“Visible”). Your use of the wireless service is governed by the Yahoo Mobile Terms and Conditions which you are entering into with Visible, as well as the Yahoo Mobile Privacy Policy.

Advantages of Yahoo Mobile

In most respects, Yahoo Mobile looks nearly identical to Visible. So far, I see two little advantages the service has over Visible:

  • The base price of Yahoo Mobile is a penny cheaper each month ($39.99 vs. $40.00).
  • Yahoo Mobile comes with access to Yahoo Mail Pro at no extra charge.

Advantages of Visible

The advantages Yahoo Mobile has over Visible will be almost meaningless for most people. On the other hand, Visible’s offerings are better than Yahoo Mobile’s in a few substantive ways:

  • Visible discounts the first month of service to only $25.
  • Visible’s Party Pay system allows subscribers’ ongoing monthly rates to drop as low as $25.
  • Visible has a swap program that allows new customers to trade in junky, old Android phones for decent, new phones at no charge.

Wing Is Strictly Limiting Data Use On An Unlimited Plan

I’ve written a number of posts criticizing wireless carriers that label their plans “unlimited” while imposing limits. Usually, these carriers impose weird restrictions or slow data speeds for heavy users of data. If you’re feeling charitable, you could argue that most of these plans are still, in some sense, unlimited. Most of these plans don’t have simple limits on the total amount of data subscribers can use each month.

Wing’s new policy

The mobile virtual network operator Wing, which I’ve reviewed and liked, appears to have just started imposing strict caps on unlimited plan subscribers’ data use. Earlier today, a Reddit user reported that Wing was limiting users on the carrier’s AT&T-based unlimited plan to 30GB of data use each month.[1] The Reddit user shared messages from a discussion with a Wing support agent:

I see you received the email regarding the recent changes by AT&T. You’ll have 15GB of hotspot usage and a total of 30GB of overall usage for each cycle. After 30GB overall usage on the Wing AT&T unlimited plan, your data will be turned off.

The support agent went on to explain that Wing’s newly released unlimited plan running over T-Mobile’s network would not have the same limitations:

We have a solution:
We’ve recently acquired Wing T-Mobile and the unlimited plans we offer there can best suit your unlimited data needs!

The Wing T-Mobile plans are fully unlimited with no throttles and no caps on data for both hotspot usage and cellular usage.

Current plan offerings

Wing continues to offer an unlimited plan for new customers. As far as I can tell, this plan typically runs over AT&T’s network.[2] It doesn’t look like Wing is adequately disclosing the data caps to potential customers.[3]

Added 3/10/20: Wing confirmed the existence of new data caps in emails with me and publicly on the company’s website.

Ting’s New Verizon Service: Initial Impressions

Last week, the mobile virtual network operator Ting launched a new service running over Verizon’s network. The day it launched, I went to Ting’s website to order a SIM card and begin trialing the service.

Ordering process

Initially, I ran into a bug during Ting’s checkout process that prevented me from finishing an order. I think this was a launch-day issue with Ting’s website. A few hours later, the bug seemed to be fixed, and I ordered a SIM card. I paid about $5 for the SIM, shipping, and taxes:

Ting receipt showing about $5 in total charges

Activation process

Two days after placing my order, a SIM card arrived at my door. I popped it into a Moto G7 Play and went to Ting’s website to activate service. Activation wasn’t difficult, but it felt a bit clunky. Some of the information I had to provide when ordering the SIM card needed to be re-entered during the activation stage.

Once I’d finished the process on Ting’s website, I restarted my phone. The service worked immediately.

Service quality

Coverage has been great, as I expected from Verizon’s network. I’ve run speed tests under a variety of signal strengths, and the speeds have mostly been solid:

Several speed test results from Ting's Verizon service showing decent speeds

As expected, I didn’t notice any throttling of regular data speeds. However, it looks like most video traffic is throttled to a maximum of about 4Mbps:[1]

Test results suggestive of video throttling

Possible low prioritization

I’m suspicious that Ting has low priority on Verizon’s network (despite some suggestions to the contrary).

Using the app Network Signal Guru, I found my data traffic to generally be associated with a QCI value of 9. I expect a QCI of 9 on Verizon’s network is indicative of low priority.

Network Signal Guru test result hsowing a QCI of 9 for Ting's Verizon service.

I also found low speeds in the downtown area of Boulder, Colorado despite having a strong signal:

Speed test result from Downtown Boulder, CO showed a speed of 0.1Mbps

The most plausible explanation I can come up with for the lousy speeds is a combination of congestion and low priority.[2]

In most situations, low-priority service won’t cause subscribers much trouble. My best guess is that Ting users have the same priority level as Verizon’s prepaid customers, most Xfinity Mobile customers, and customers on Verizon’s cheapest post-paid unlimited plan.[3] I reached out to Ting to see if the company could provide any additional information about prioritization. At the time of writing, I have not heard back.

Tentative view

So far, I’m a big fan of Ting’s new service: Ting offers way better coverage than it used to, Ting didn’t raise its prices, and the company continues to offer awesome customer support.

Downsides

Despite my generally positive view, I have a few quibbles about Ting’s new service:

  • I don’t think Ting adequately discloses video throttling. I don’t remember any notifications about it during the ordering process. That said, I don’t think the video throttling is a big deal. It may actually help subscribers keep their data charges low.
  • Ting’s coverage page states: “By piggybacking on America’s largest network, Ting makes sure you’re covered from coast-to-coast. Period.” This implies that subscribers will be covered by Verizon’s network. It would be more transparent for Ting to indicate that most, but not all, subscribers can access Verizon’s network. Further, Ting said this on its coverage page for a little while before the service over Verizon’s network even launched.
  • Ting doesn’t allow subscribers to choose a network directly. Instead, potential subscribers provide information about their devices and where they live and are then matched with a network. I understand why Ting uses this approach for most website visitors. Many people would end up confused and choose networks poorly if they had to choose a network on their own. Still, I wish there was an option for knowledgeable users to explicitly sign up for Verizon’s network.[4]
  • Wi-Fi calling doesn’t seem to be supported at this time.

Ting Launches Service Over Verizon’s Network

Yesterday, the MVNO Ting released a video and a blog post announcing that the company will now offer service over a third network.

Hidden network partners

In the announcements, Ting acknowledges contractual obligations that prohibit the company from explicitly mentioning all of the networks the company offers service over:

Why not just say directly who our network service providers are? We’re not allowed. Pretty simple, really. We have contracts with each of our carrier partners…Detailed in those contracts is how, exactly, we’re allowed to refer to the specific networks we offer service on.

Due to the restrictions, Ting makes roundabout statements like: “Ting Mobile offers service on every network but AT&T.”

Fortunately, I’m not bound by the same contractual arrangements that restrict Ting. Before yesterday’s announcement, Ting offered service over T-Mobile and Sprint’s networks. As of yesterday, the company now offers service over Verizon’s network as well.

Better coverage with Verizon

Michael Goldstein, Ting’s Chief Revenue Officer, was surprisingly candid in the announcement video. He acknowledged that Ting hasn’t always been able to offer stellar coverage (emphasis mine):

For years, people have saved a ton of money on Ting. People have been thrilled with our customer experience and our customer support. But we have heard at times that people felt they were sacrificing a little something on coverage. With this addition and with this portfolio of networks we have, I think Ting Mobile pretty much gives people everything they need: the savings, the experience, and the coverage. All at once.

An improved value proposition

Despite the fact that Verizon’s network offers the best coverage in the nation, Ting didn’t change its pricing structure. Ting’s now has some of the best options on the market for families that don’t use a lot of data. That said, Ting’s options for heavy data users and single-line plans aren’t as enticing.

Discovering your Ting network

I’m really optimistic about Ting’s new service, and I’ve gone ahead and ordered a SIM card to trial it. I plan to update my review of the carrier as soon as I get a chance.

To keep things simple and stay in accordance with the contractual obligations discussed earlier, Ting doesn’t explicitly tell each subscriber the network he or she is being placed on. Instead, potential customers enter their addresses and their devices’ IMEI numbers, and Ting’s automated system places appropriate SIM cards in customers’ carts. In most cases, I expect new Ting customers will be placed on Verizon’s network, but there will be exceptions. Customers with certain kinds of devices and customers living in certain regions may still be matched with Sprint or T-Mobile’s networks.

To verify that you’re being matched with Verizon’s network, take a look at the type of SIM card that ends up in your cart during the checkout process. Verizon SIM cards will be marked as V1:

Ting V1 Verizon SIM card checkout screenshot

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.

MVNOs Hiding Their Host Operators

Mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) often appear to be prohibited (or at least discouraged) from explicitly acknowledging which networks they run over. Still, it seems that most MVNOs don’t have to keep their host networks entirely secret. The effects of these policies can be kind of funny.

Red Pocket

The MVNO Red Pocket operates over all of the major U.S. networks, but it only mentions Sprint by name. The following screenshot comes from a part of Red Pocket’s website that lists the networks the company offers service over:



The unnamed networks are color-coded to match the colors used in the host networks’ branding: AT&T in blue, T-Mobile in pink, and Verizon in red.

Ting

The MVNO Ting currently operates over Sprint and T-Mobile’s networks. Verizon will be added to the list soon. Today, Ting published a blog post about the upcoming addition. Ting still isn’t naming the networks it works with, but the company is making easy-to-interpret statements like: “In 2020, Ting will be on every major coast-to-coast network except AT&T.” The blog post included a video where the names of each network the company works with were censored out: