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:

SIM Cards

TracFone Teases SmartSIM

TracFone, the company behind several large MVNOs, appears to be working on a new product called SmartSIM. Apparently, some TracFone customers recently received a marketing email that mentioned SmartSIM.[1] I was briefly able to access NoDeadZone.com, a website that shared some basic information about SmartSIM. Oddly, the website now automatically redirects to locations.totalwireless.com (Total Wireless is a brand owned by TracFone).

While NoDeadZone.com was accessible, it offered a short video explaining SmartSIM. Apparently, the technology will allow subscribers to switch rapidly between multiple networks based on which network offers the best signal. There’s been some speculation about how up-and-coming eSim technology may enable more people to take advantage of dynamic network switching of this sort. However, the video I gave me the impression that SmartSIM would involve a conventional, removable SIM card rather than an eSIM. At the moment, I’m unsure if TracFone is licensing switching technology Google Fi built, introducing new technology, or something else.

NoDeadZones.com allowed visitors to enter their zip codes to see if SmartSIM was available where they lived. I tried several zip codes, and all were ineligible. It seems that other people had the same experience. I’m not sure whether any zip codes were really eligible for the service.

So far, I haven’t heard of TracFone responding to any requests for more information about SmartSIM. I’m curious about the lack of communication along with the decision to redirect NoDeadZone.com to the main Total Wireless site. It’s enough to make me wonder whether a mistake was made that led SmartSIM to become public knowledge before TracFone intended.

I’ll be keeping close tabs on how the story develops. Dynamic network switching has the potential to improve wireless service and change how it’s priced. With switching technology, it may be possible to charge different rates to different subscribers based on factors like a subscriber’s location, the extent of network congestion, or the quality of service a subscriber receives. Dynamic pricing could potentially lead to far more efficient network usage than conventional pricing—which might ultimately lead to a decrease in how much consumers pay for wireless service.

Infinity symbol

Tello Launches “Unlimited Everything” Plan

Today, Tello launched its “unlimited everything” plan for $39 per month. I’m frustrated by how Tello named its new plan. I say that as a fan of the company; Tello has some of the best options on the market for budget-sensitive consumers who don’t use a lot of data.

If subscribers on Tello’s unlimited everything plan use 25GB of data in a billing period, they will be throttled to sluggish, 2G speeds. As I’ve previously argued, unlimited plans at 2G speeds are bogus. Once the throttle kicks in, subscribers will find that data is unusable or barely usable for many purposes. While I’ve argued that many so-called “unlimited” plans are misnamed, Tello seems to have doubled down on its misnomer. Both “unlimited” and “everything” do a poor job of describing Tello’s new plan.

When carriers throttle data to 2G speeds, that usually means speeds are capped at 128Kbps. Imposing a maximum speed of 128Kbps puts a theoretical limit on total data use of about 65GB per month.[1] In practice, few subscribers will use more than 26GB per month because the internet will be sluggish and frustrating use after the 25GB threshold is reached.

To Tello’s credit, the company does an unusually good job of disclosing the throttle. Here’s an example from the banner on Tello’s homepage this morning:

Tello Homepage Banner

BOOM! Mobile Launches T-Mobile Plans

The mobile virtual network operator BOOM! Mobile recently launched wireless plans that run over T-Mobile’s network. With this addition, BOOM! now offers three types of plans:

  • Boom! Red – service over Verizon’s network
  • Boom! Blue – service over AT&T’s network
  • Boom! Pink – service over T-Mobile’s network

Many of the Boom! Pink plans have the same allotments of minutes, texts, and data as well as the same price points as previously existing Boom! Red plans. Boom! Blue plans with allotments equivalent to those in Pink and Red plans are sometimes available, but they tend to have higher price points.

BOOM! Mobile is also offering several Boom! Pink plans that are unlike the company’s previous offerings. These plans each offer a certain number of Flex Points. Each point can be redeemed for either 1 minute of calling, 1 text message, or 1MB of data.

  • 450 Flex Points (7 Day Plan) – $5
  • 900 Flex Points (14 Day Plan) – $10
  • 3,000 Flex Points (Yearly Plan) – $60

My thoughts

It’s great to see BOOM! Mobile expanding its offerings. For most consumers, I think the Red plans will continue to be the best option since (a) they aren’t more expensive than the Pink plans and (b) they run over Verizon’s extensive network. I expect most consumers looking for coverage over T-Mobile’s could find better deals with an alternative MVNO (e.g., Mint Mobile). Still, I’m glad to see BOOM! Mobile offering access to more networks. The new flex plans are particularly interesting. I’d love to see more carriers come out with plans that use similar structures.

Tutela’s October 2019 MVNO Report

In October, the network evaluator Tutela released its USA State of MVNOs report. Most network evaluators only assess the performance of the Big Four carriers (AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, and Verizon), so it’s interesting to see Tutela assessing a wider range of carriers.

Near the beginning of the report, Tutela shares some reflections on how the MVNO landscape is changing:[1]

MVNOs and MNO flanker brands in the US carved out a niche largely serving the needs of lower-income customers or those with particular data needs…in 2019, the landscape is rapidly shifting. Technological advancements have made the barrier for operating some kind of network much lower; the entrance of cable companies into the market have pushed MVNO service into the more lucrative postpaid segment; and multi-network MVNOs are innovating on the network side of the equation, rather than solely differentiating on price or customer service.

Methodology

The approach Tutela used to evaluate MVNOs was in line with its usual methodology. The company crowdsourced performance data from typical consumers with the help of code embedded in Tutela’s partners’ apps. In the new report, Tutela primarily considers how well MVNOs performed in regions where at least three of the big four networks offer coverage. Tutela calls these core coverage areas.[2]

Within core coverage areas, Tutela calculates the amount of time subscribers have service that exceeds two different quality thresholds. When service exceeds the “excellent” threshold, subscribers should be able to do highly demanding things like streaming high-definition video or downloading large files quickly. When service exceeds the “core” threshold, subscribers should be able to carry out typical activities like browsing or streaming music without trouble, but performance issues may be encountered with demanding activities.

Results

Here’s Tutela’s visualization of the main results:[3]

Tutela results


A chart of median download speeds shows a similar ranking among carriers:

Tutela Download Speeds

The results aren’t too surprising. Verizon MVNOs come out near the top of the hierarchy, while Sprint MVNOs tend to come out near the bottom. Cricket Wireless has a good score for the core threshold but does poorly in terms of the excellent threshold. That outcome makes sense since Cricket throttles maximum speeds.

Possible selection bias

I often write about how assessments of network performance that use crowdsourced data may be vulnerable to selection bias. These results from Tutela are no exception. In particular, I wonder if the results are skewed based on how high-quality phones used with different carriers tend to be. In general, newer or more expensive phones have better network hardware than older or cheaper phones.

Xfinity Mobile takes the top spot in the rankings. Xfinity Mobile is a new-ish carrier and is restrictive about which phones are eligible for use with the service. I would guess the average phone used with Xfinity Mobile is a whole lot newer and more valuable than the average phone used with TracFone. Similar arguments could be made for why Spectrum or Google Fi may have an advantage.

To Tutela’s credit, the company acknowledges the possibility of selection bias in at least one case:[4]

The second factor explaining Google Fi’s performance compared to Metro or Boost is the device breakdown. Although a broad range of Android and iOS devices work with Google Fi’s service, the network is targeted most heavily at owners of Google’s own Pixel devices…The Pixel devices use top-of-the-line cellular modems, which intrinsically provide a better cellular experience than older or mid-range devices.

Wi-Fi results

Several MVNOs offer access to Wi-Fi hotspots in addition to cellular networks. I’ve been curious how much data carriers send over Wi-Fi, and Tutela’s results give an estimate. While Xfinity Mobile appears to have sent the largest share of its data via hotspots, it’s a smaller share than I expected:[5]

Tutela data suggests that Xfinity Mobile has already succeeded in offloading over 6% of smartphone data traffic onto its Wi-Fi network – far more than any other network.

Tutela also shares a graph comparing hotspot usage among different carriers:[6]

Graph of wi-fi usage share among multiple carriers

Other stuff

There were a few other bits of the report that I found especially interesting. In one section, the report’s authors reflect on the fast growth of MVNOs run by cable companies:[7]

Xfinity Mobile and Spectrum Mobile captured nearly 50% of the postpaid subscriber growth in Q2 2019, and combined added nearly as many postpaid subscribers as host network Verizon.

In another part of the report, Tutela shares a map displaying the most common host network that Google Fi subscribers access. It looks like there are a decent number of areas where Sprint or U.S. Cellular provide the primary host network:[8]

Xfinity Mobile’s BYOD Program

Xfinity Mobile has a bring your own device (BYOD) program, but only a handful of devices are eligible for the program.

BYOD-eligible Apple iPhone devices

The iPhone 6 and more recent Apple devices are likely to be eligible if they’re unlocked. However, iPhone models sold by certain carriers or in some regions of the world may still be ineligible. Xfinity’s online tool can be used to verify a specific device’s compatibility.

BYOD-eligible Android devices

Only a small number of Android phones are officially compatible with Xfinity Mobile. At the moment, all of the compatible Android phones are Samsung Galaxy devices:

  • Samsung Galaxy S8
  • Samsung Galaxy S8+
  • Samsung Galaxy S9
  • Samsung Galaxy S9+
  • Samsung Galaxy S10
  • Samsung Galaxy S10+
  • Samsung Galaxy S10e
  • Samsung Galaxy Note8
  • Samsung Galaxy Note9

Most models of these devices will be compatible with Xfinity Mobile if they’re unlocked and were sold in the U.S. I still suggest confirming compatibility on Xfinity’s website.

Official details about devices Xfinity Mobile permits are shared in the carrier’s FAQ. Xfinity Mobile has expressed an intention to expand the number of devices on its Android BYOD list in the future:[1]

Right now, not all Android devices are compatible with Xfinity Mobile, but we’re working behind the scenes on making this possible in the near future.

I hope Xfinity Mobile aggressively opens up its Android BYOD program soon, but I’m not sure it will happen. Here’s an excerpt from a complaint posted by a Reddit user in early 2019:

[Xfinity Mobile] promised that it [Android BYOD] was coming over and over and here we are over a year later and still nothing… We did finally get iPhone byop but not a peep about android. I feel a little lied to.

Xfinity finally started to offer limited Android BYOD support in July of this year. Since the beginning of the BYOD program, Xfinity has expanded its initial list of supported devices to include the Samsung Galaxy S10, S10+, and S10e.[2]

Accountant calculating

Xfinity Mobile’s Pricing Strategy

Comcast’s cellular brand, Xfinity Mobile, appears awfully well priced. Somehow, Xfinity Mobile offers service over Verizon’s extensive network without the usual price tag. Unlimited minutes and texts are included for free in all of Xfinity Mobile’s plans. Subscribers just pay for data, and rates for data are reasonable. For $45 per month, a subscriber can get unlimited data. Alternatively, subscribers can purchase a set amount of data and share it among up to five lines:

  • 1GB data – $12 per month
  • 3GB data – $30 per month
  • 10GB data – $60 per month

A family could get five lines of service with 10GB of shared data, unlimited minutes, and unlimited texts for a base price of only $12 per line.[1] Purchasing a comparable family plan from Verizon would be far more expensive. Even other mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs) that run over Verizon’s network charge far more for similar plans. Why is Xfinity Mobile so cheap?

Lock-in with other Xfinity services

Only customers with active Xfinity internet service are eligible to sign up for Xfinity Mobile. Some people who would have used internet service providers other than Xfinity may now choose Xfinity internet so that they can sign up for Xfinity Mobile. Similarly, potential fees incentivize Xfinity Mobile customers not to cancel other Xfinity services:[2]

$20 per line monthly charge applies if at least one of the following post-pay subscriptions are not maintained on the account: Xfinity TV, Internet or Voice service.

Competitors threaten Comcast. Like Comcast, Verizon’s Fios offers bundled TV, internet, and home phone service. Emerging technologies like 5G fixed wireless may create viable alternatives to conventional cable companies. By bundling several services together, Xfinity may make it more difficult for consumers to switch to competitors’ services.

Favorable MVNO terms

Xfinity Mobile is relatively new, but it already has a huge number of subscribers.[3] While the agreements between MVNOs like Xfinity Mobile and host operators like Verizon are generally private, my impression is that MVNOs with large subscriber bases often receive substantially better rates than MVNOs with small subscriber bases. Xfinity Mobile may, in part, be able to offer low prices because it gets unusually good rates on access to Verizon’s network.

Future prices

While Xfinity Mobile’s service is well-priced today, it’s not guaranteed to stay that way forever. We’ve already seen one revamp in Xfinity Mobile’s price structure.

Other explanations

I haven’t seen Comcast executives explicitly explain their rationale for launching a mobile service, so all I can do is speculate. If you have other thoughts about Xfinity Mobile’s pricing strategy, please leave a comment!

Image depicting the idea of "change."

Ting Plans to Drop T-Mobile and Add Verizon

Added 2/18/2020: Ting has found a way to continue offering service over T-Mobile’s network going forward. The parts of this post about Ting’s plans to migrate subscribers away from T-Mobile’s network are no longer accurate.

Yesterday, it was made public that the mobile virtual network operator Ting will soon cease offering service over T-Mobile’s network and begin offering service over Verizon’s network. It was also announced that Ting had extended its existing agreement with Sprint through September 2020.[1]

Dropping T-Mobile

Based on my understanding of yesterday’s SEC filing, I expect Ting will continue to offer service over T-Mobile’s network to existing subscriber until at least late 2019 and possibly late 2020.[2] I’m less sure whether new customers will be able to sign up for service over T-Mobile’s network for much longer.

Adding Verizon

The new arrangement with Verizon is based on a five-year agreement that Elliot Noss, CEO and president of Ting’s parent company spoke positively about:[3]

“With Verizon, we will be adding the network that in our opinion has the best coverage and performance ratings in the U.S. Our contract with Verizon is better than that with T-Mobile in terms of rates, guarantees and other financial terms, which had negatively impacted Ting Mobile’s past performance. Finally, our dealings with Verizon to this point have been productive and professional. ​​So long-term, we see this as very positive news.”

Going Forward

I’ve previously raved about Ting’s customer support, but I’ve been reluctant to strongly recommend Ting since its rates have been fairly high for access to mediocre networks (Sprint and T-Mobile). If Ting’s rates don’t increase as a result of moving to Verizon’s higher-quality network, I think the case for recommending Ting becomes a lot stronger.

Ting anticipates some friction migrating its T-Mobile subscribers to new networks:[4]

“We estimate the costs of migration, primarily in the form of SIMs, shipping and device marketing, to be in the range of $3 million this year, and as much as $12 million over the following years. These variable costs are mostly in the nature of the marketing costs needed to move customers from one network to the other, and will mostly be in the form of inducements, device subsidies and/or a form of service credit. There’s not a lot of precedent to provide guidance on which marketing programs will be most effective, and we are also unsure of how many, if any, of our customers will refuse or fail to move. This makes the total migration cost difficult to estimate. Taking on as much as $12 to $15 million in unplanned, one-time costs, over a few years, is a lot for us. That being said, this move is key to putting the mobile business back on a stronger long-term footing.

When Ting drops T-Mobile, it will no longer offer service over a GSM network. I expect the move from T-Mobile (and GSM) to Verizon makes more financial sense today that it would have a few years ago. As operators gradually replace their 3G networks with LTE networks, support for older GSM and CDMA technologies is becoming less important.