Old cell phones

T-Mobile Offering Free 5G Phones

Today, T-Mobile announced that it’ll offer customers the Samsung Galaxy A32 5G more-or-less for free.

The A32 has a regular price of $282 and is substantially less fancy than most of the 5G phones on the market. Still, from the bit I’ve heard about it, the A32 seems like a solid entry-level device.

Both new and existing customers can take advantage of the promotion by trading in a phone. Any working phone is sufficient as a trade-in:

This offer applies to new and existing customers, and ANY old phone in working condition — flip phone, Sidekick, whatever that suitcase phone was called. T-Mobile will take it.

Detailed Terms

The deal will be available starting April 18. Customers that take advantage of the promotion will get monthly bill credits for 24 months that effectively cancel out the usual $11.75 per month customers would have to pay for the A32 on an installment plan. Tax on the usual $282 price is due at the time of purchase.

Customers that cancel service before receiving all the monthly credits will be responsible for the unpaid portion of the A32’s cost.

5G Marketing

While T-Mobile’s network is worse than AT&T and Verizon’s networks in many respects, T-Mobile is the clear leader in 5G. T-Mobile has the most 5G coverage and arguably leads in 5G speeds. The company’s decision to offer free 5G phones looks like part of a larger goal of building hype around T-Mobile’s 5G dominance.

Representation of a bait-and-switch

Post Redacted

4/1/2021 Update: I’m backpedaling from this post. While I’m still unsure what’s going on, T-Mobile likely is grandfathering subscribers into its hotspot plan, contrary to what a customer reported a T-Mobile rep said. From the start, I shouldn’t have taken what the rep said (or allegedly said) as gospel.

Data abstract

T-Mobile Connect Increases Data Allotments

T-Mobile recently increased the data allotments on its Connect plans by 500MB. The $15 per month plan now includes 2.5GB of data each month. The data allotment on the $25 plan has been bumped up to 5.5GB.

The data increases are consistent with the commitments T-Mobile made to regulators when pushing for approval of the Sprint/T-Mobile merger. We should see additional 500MB increases each of the next several years. T-Mobile has said the Connect plans will be available without any price increases until at least 2025.

I continue to think the Connect plans offer some of the best value on the market.


H/T to Stettson Doggett who spotted the change to the Connect plans.

Confused person

“Premium Data” Is Losing Meaning At T-Mobile

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

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

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

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

Screenshot showing Essentials customers may experience slower speeds during congestion

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

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

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

Test result showing a QCI of 7

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

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

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

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


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

pinocchio shadow

“Un-Carrier” T-Mobile Doubles Down On Bullshit

Last week, a Verizon Twitter account suggested that some users may want to turn off 5G to preserve battery life. T-Mobile jumped on the opportunity to make fun of its competitor’s advice in a series of tweets.

On Thursday, I shared a blog post pointing out that T-Mobile’s website made the same suggestion. Here’s a snap from an archived version of a T-Mobile support page for the S20 Ultra 5G:1

Screenshot showing T-Mobile suggesting to turn off 5G to save battery life

After my post came out, PCMag and The Verge picked up on the story. T-Mobile then edited a whole bunch of pages to remove advice about switching down to 2G. Here’s what the page for the S20 Ultra 5G looks like now:

Support page screenshot that no longer includes a suggestion to turn off 5G

The suggestion to turn off 5G has been replaced with “Turn on Airplane Mode if traveling to an area without mobile signal or Wi-Fi.”

Un-Carrier?

T-Mobile has tried to brand itself as the un-carrier. T-Mobile wants people to believe it’s a company that offers a more honest and consumer-friendly phone service than competitors offer.

T-Mobile’s handling of this situation doesn’t match the un-carrier ethos. A high-integrity company that cares about making a marketplace better for consumers would have owned up to its mistake. T-Mobile could have issued a mea culpa. Short of that, T-Mobile could have silently walked away from the situation. Instead, T-Mobile took a low-integrity path and tried to bury the evidence of its hypocrisy.

battery life representation

Transparency & Hypocrisy

On Sunday, the following tweet was shared by the Twitter account for Verizon’s customer support:

Verizon 5G battery life tweet

Customers that follow this advice will effectively be turning off 5G service. People on Twitter were quick to dunk on Verizon for running a marketing campaign about the benefits of 5G while simultaneously suggesting that some subscribers might want to turn off 5G service.

Hypocrisy

By Monday, a bunch of tech journalists had picked up the story. While Verizon deleted its tweet, many competing carriers posted screenshots or linked to news stories about Verizon’s gaffe:

Gizmodo ended its coverage of Verizon’s tweet with this line:

See Verizon, transparency isn’t that hard.

What’s going on? Verizon was being transparent. Verizon’s tweet had accurate and potentially useful information.

No one paying close attention to the cellular industry would be surprised that turning off 5G could preserve battery life. While a lot of hype about 5G has highlighted potential power savings, we’ve known that today’s 5G phones aren’t delivering on that potential. Here’s an excerpt from Samsung’s website:

At this time, the 5G networks are only used for data connections, and are not yet capable of carrying phone calls and messages. Your phone will need to maintain a connection to the 3G or LTE network in addition to the 5G network so that phone calls, text messages, and data will be delivered consistently.

Because your phone is connected to multiple networks simultaneously, the battery will drain faster than one would typically expect, and the phone may get warmer than when solely on 3G or LTE.

As the 5G networks grow in capacity and capability, they will be able to handle more of your phone’s functions with less battery drain.

While T-Mobile’s official Twitter account and multiple T-Mobile executives joined the internet pile on against Verizon, T-Mobile made similar suggestions on its own website:

T-Mobile tips for saving battery life

Reflections

Verizon’s customer support was doing something helpful when it let subscribers know about the potential downsides of 5G. I want to encourage rather than discourage that kind of information sharing.

I’m not exactly sure how journalists should strike a balance between calling out bullshit and disincentivizing information sharing. After watching this story play out, I’m inclined to be more thoughtful about the second-order effects of some of my critical takes.

Traffic jam

T-Mobile Will Increase Premium Data Allowances. It’s Bad News For Most Subscribers.

T-Mobile just announced a handful of upcoming changes to a few of its unlimited plans. Journalists covering the news are praising the carrier’s decision to offer unlimited Premium Data on the Magenta MAX plan. I think these journalists are falling victim to the bullshit T-Mobile filled its press release with:

Legacy smartphone plans are built for lower capacity 4G LTE networks, so Verizon, AT&T and even T-Mobile’s unlimited plans allow providers to lower your network priority if you’ve used a massive amount of data, which means that you might hit speed bumps if the network gets congested. Verizon and AT&T market this as ‘Premium Data’ and give most customers 50GB. But, there’s nothing premium about paying more for fast 5G that’s only in ‘some parts of some cities.’* Now we’re in the 5G era, and T-Mobile has lit up the highest-capacity 5G network available — a network so powerful it can start unleashing the power of 5G to deliver unlimited Premium Data.

Let’s unpack that.

First, T-Mobile is giving way too much credit to 5G. Most of T-Mobile’s customers don’t even have 5G-compatible phones. Premium Data is still available to customers limited to 4G connections.

Second, deprioritizing ultra-heavy data users is a pretty efficient way for network operators to manage resources. Under the usual 50GB-ish per month thresholds, only ~1% of unlimited plan subscribers use enough data to get deprioritized. Users that T-Mobile deprioritizes will experience slower speeds when network resources are under heavy demand. However, deprioritized users can still experience normal speeds when networks aren’t under a heavy load. According to T-Mobile’s own website, deprioritization usually doesn’t have practical consequences (emphasis mine):

Where the network is lightly loaded in relation to available capacity, a customer whose data is prioritized higher than other traffic will notice little, if any, effect from having higher priority. This will be the case in the vast majority of times and locations.

I guess you could say T-Mobile’s Premium Data is only useful in “some parts of some cities.”

The utility of Premium Data hinges on how much Premium Data is being used by other network users. By including unlimited Premium Data with the Magenta MAX plan, T-Mobile is slightly degrading service quality for tens of millions of users in order to improve service for a tiny fraction of the company’s heaviest data users. In my view, it’s a bad tradeoff from a network management perspective. T-Mobile is choosing to make the tradeoff because it gives the company a new perk to advertise on its most premium plan.

Update abstract

T-Mobile To Update Unlimited Plans

On February 24, T-Mobile will update its Magenta and Magenta Plus plans. While the Magenta plan will keep its current name, T-Mobile will rename the Magenta Plus plan “Magenta MAX”.

High-priority data

Currently, customers on the Magenta and Magenta Plus plan get 50GB per month of high-priority data. Soon, the allotment will double to 100GB for Magenta subscribers. Magenta MAX subscribers will have limits dropped entirely and will receive unlimited high-priority data. For a while now, Verizon and AT&T have been referring to high-priority data as “Premium Data”. It looks like T-Mobile is about to follow suit with the same terminology.

Hotspot allowances

The hotspot/tethering allotment on the Magenta plan is moving up from 3GB per month to 5GB per month. On the Magenta Plus/MAX plan, the allotment is doubling from 20GB to 40GB.

Netflix for single-line plans

Until now, T-Mobile has only offered free access to Netflix for subscribers with family plans. Once the plan updates go live, T-Mobile will start offering Netflix to single-line subscribers as well.

Trophy

Does T-Mobile Have The Best 5G?

T-Mobile has started bragging about having the best 5G speeds in Opensignal’s latest report. Here’s an excerpt from today’s press release from T-Mobile:

New independent data from Opensignal, based on real world customer usage from millions of device measurements, shows T-Mobile customers now get the fastest 5G download speeds, fastest 5G upload speeds AND a 5G signal more often than anyone else.

I’ve been critical of selection bias issues inherent in Opensignal’s methodology. I continue to think there are serious selection bias issues with Opensignal’s latest 5G metrics. Still, I don’t think my qualms are significant enough to dismiss T-Mobile’s apparent lead in 5G speeds and 5G coverage. T-Mobile is killing it. Here’s another bit from today’s press release:

With the first and largest nationwide 5G network, T-Mobile’s Extended Range 5G covers more than 280 million people across nearly 1.6 million square miles – offering 2.5x more geographic coverage than AT&T and nearly 4x more than Verizon. With Sprint now part of T-Mobile, the Un-carrier is widening its lead, using dedicated spectrum to bring customers with capable devices download speeds of around 300 Mbps and peak speeds up to 1 Gbps. The Un-carrier’s Ultra Capacity 5G already reaches more than 1,000 cities and towns and covers 106 million people.

Early in its 5G rollout, T-Mobile relied on low-frequency spectrum around 600MHz. While this spectrum was great for coverage, it had lousy speed potential. In 2020, T-Mobile put a lot of effort into bragging about how it led the nation in 5G coverage. While the bragging was technically accurate, the whole thing was bullshit in practical terms. 5G delivered with T-Mobile’s low-frequency spectrum was often slower than a typical 4G connection.

Recently, T-Mobile started rolling out large-scale 5G deployments using mid-band spectrum. T-Mobile’s mid-band 5G now covers about a third of Americans. Mid-band 5G actually delivers speeds that are substantially better than consumers are used to with 4G.

Verizon is still crushing the competition in terms of coverage with ultra-fast, millimeter wave 5G. However, Verizon’s achievements with millimeter wave don’t have much value for consumers yet. Even Verizon’s millimeter wave coverage is lackluster, and practical applications for ultra-fast cellular speeds are rare.

While I think T-Mobile legitimately holds the top spot for 5G coverage and average 5G speeds, I also think Verizon will overtake T-Mobile as 5G rollouts reach more mature stages. In my view, the interesting thing to watch will be whether T-Mobile or AT&T ends up with the second-place spot in the 5G competition.1 T-Mobile’s spectrum holdings and financial position may give the network a significant edge over AT&T.

T-Mobile Launches Inseego 5G MiFi M2000 & New Hotspot Plans

Last week, T-Mobile announced new mobile hotspot plans and the release of the Inseego 5G MiFi M2000.

Inseego 5G MiFi M2000

The Inseego 5G MiFi M2000 is T-mobile’s fanciest hotspot, and I believe the company’s first 5G-capable hotspot. The device supports both 4G service and sub-6 5G service. It does not support millimeter wave 5G, but that may be unimportant for now since T-Mobile’s millimeter wave coverage is extremely limited.

The hotspot has a base price of $336 (or 24 monthly installments of $14). With a promotion T-Mobile is running, customers that add a new line and purchase the device on a 24-month installment plan can get the M2000 for 50% off ($168 paid in $7 per month installments).

While I haven’t got my hands on the M2000 yet, I have been testing a very similar model offered by Verizon, the M2100, and I’m impressed.

New mobile hotspot plans

With the release of the M2000, T-Mobile also launched a handful of new plans for mobile hotspot devices. Most notably, a plan with a 100GB monthly allotment costs only $50 per month. Well-priced plans with 10GB and 30GB monthly data allotments are also available. T-Mobile shared this graphic in its press release:

Image detailing T-Mobile's new hotspot plans

While T-Mobile’s new offerings are excellent, the graphic represents T-Mobile’s competition unfairly. AT&T and Verizon don’t always offer plans with the data allotments shown in the graphic. To show prices competitors charge in these cases, T-Mobile slyly includes competitor’s overage charges. Additionally, T-Mobile doesn’t mention Verizon’s add-on hotspot plans. Verizon’s add-on plans are available to a substantial portion of the carrier’s subscribers, and the plans offer good value: 15GB for $20 per month or 30GB for $30 per month.1