Cutting Through Bullshit Around 5G Latency

There’s a lot of unrealistic hype going around about 5G. Most of the hype focuses on the blazing-fast speeds 5G can offer.

Today, T-Mobile’s CEO, Mike Sievert, made a big deal about 5G latency rather than 5G speed:1

Latency measures the time delay involved in data transfer. It’s common for 4G connections to have a latency of about one-twentieth of a second (50 milliseconds). Some 5G technologies may be able to push latency far lower.

The video Sievert shared is allegedly a demonstration of latency under different technologies. It’s not remotely fair. The phone supposedly demonstrating a 4G LTE connection is about five seconds behind the real world. Latency isn’t anywhere near that bad with 4G. If it was that bad, normal voice conversations and video chats using 4G wouldn’t be possible.

Rethinking “Nationwide”

T-Mobile and AT&T started describing their 5G networks as nationwide once the networks covered over 200 million people. I’ve seen multiple people suggest that this is related to FCC rules. Allegedly, the FCC only allows networks to be described as nationwide when they cover over 200 million people. I’ve searched around, and I can’t find any FCC documents mentioning such a guideline.

As far as I can tell, the 200 million number comes from the National Advertising Division (NAD), a self-regulatory body for the advertising industry.1 Here’s an excerpt from a 2014 NAD publication:

NAD noted in its decision that it has applied a consistent standard for ‘coast to coast’ service for the past 10 years. In general, a wireless network can claim to be nationwide or coast to coast if the provider offers service in diverse regions of the country and the network covers at least 200 million people.

200 million people would make up about 60% of the U.S. population.2 I don’t think a network covering 60% of the U.S. population is nationwide in the common-sense meaning of the word. If networks with such lackluster coverage are advertised as nationwide, consumers will be misled.

The NAD should update its approach. The exact meaning of nationwide isn’t clear cut, but I think even a loose standard should be something like this:

Nationwide network: A network that covers at least 85% of the U.S. population and offers service in some parts of every state.

The NAD should probably frame its standard in terms of a percentage of the U.S. population covered (rather than a raw number of people covered). In 2004, 200 million people would have been almost 70% of the U.S. population.3 The NAD’s standard made more sense then. As the country’s population has grown, the NAD’s standard has become weaker.

T-Mobile’s Misleading Claims About Its Four Unlimited Lines For $100 Deal

Yesterday, T-Mobile shared a press release announcing deals the company is about to launch. Starting July 24, T-Mobile will offer four lines on its Essentials plan for $25 per line each month. The Essentials plan is the most basic of T-Mobile’s postpaid unlimited plans.

Customers making use of T-Mobile’s deal on the Essentials plan will have the option to take advantage of a second promotion on the Samsung Galaxy A71 5G:1

If you need 5G phones too, for just $5 more per line, get four lines for $30 each per month, plus taxes and fees with autopay on T-Mobile Essentials PLUS four Samsung Galaxy A71 5G included with bill credits and eligible trade-in.

Bragging

At the beginning of its press release, T-Mobile brags about how unbelievable the upcoming deal will be:

Four lines for just $25/month each, an unheard of price point for unlimited postpaid.

T-Mobile brags again a bit later:

This price point with unlimited data has not been offered for everyone in postpaid wireless in, well, ever.

And then again:

This price point for unlimited postpaid is unheard of. As in, unlimited high speed data at this price has never been offered before for everyone in postpaid wireless in the history of ever.

Despite T-Mobile’s claims, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen postpaid unlimited plans at this price point. Sprint previously offered its Unlimited Kickstart plan for $25 per line.

Note how the caveat word “postpaid” shows up in each of T-Mobile’s boasts. Prepaid brands Visible and Cricket offer four lines for $100. Other prepaid carriers have offered similar deals in the past. Unlike T-Mobile, both Visible and Cricket include taxes in the $100 list price of their four-line plans.

No high-priority data

Postpaid plans tend to have features that prepaid plans do not. Notably, postpaid service is likely to come with high-priority data during congestion. While T-Mobile’s Essentials plan is postpaid, it does not include high-priority data.

T-Mobile’s statements are a bit disingenuous. It’s strange for the company to brag about how the upcoming deal will involve postpaid service while neglecting to mention that a major feature people associate with postpaid service is missing.

Google Fi After The T-Mobile & Sprint Merger

Google Fi brought a lot of innovations and customer-friendly features to the wireless market. I’d argue that Fi’s biggest innovations have been in network switching. Subscribers using “Designed for Fi” phones can automatically switch between coverage from T-Mobile, Sprint, and U.S. Cellular’s networks.

Losing Sprint

Fi’s network switching is about to become a lot less interesting. Sprint’s network will disappear. U.S. Cellular doesn’t have a nationwide network.

The darker shade in the map below shows where U.S. Cellular’s network is available:1

Map of licensed U.S. Cellular markets

U.S. Cellular’s network does not cover the majority of the U.S. Once Sprint’s network is gone, Google Fi will be a T-Mobile-based carrier in many places.2

T-Mobile’s network will get better as it integrates Sprint’s assets, so I don’t expect Fi to decrease substantially in quality. However, Fi may become a much less competitive option in comparison to other carriers. There are a lot of carriers that run over T-Mobile’s network. These carriers will also offer better performance as T-Mobile improves its network. Some carriers using T-Mobile’s network are priced much better than Fi. For example, Mint Mobile sells a plan with 8GB of data, unlimited minutes, and unlimited texts for as low as $20 per month. Fi would charge at least $70 per month for the same level of usage.3

I don’t mean to imply Fi will be left in the dust. The carrier offers high priority data, amazing international roaming options, and a user-friendly experience. Many low-cost, T-Mobile-based carriers don’t have those elements. Can Fi convince subscribers that Fi’s premium features justify the service’s price tag?

Will MVNOs get squeezed?

Low-cost carriers may get squeezed by T-Mobile. When Sprint goes offline, MVNOs will have fewer networks they can offer service over. The reduction in options may allow T-Mobile to increase the rates it charges carriers that use T-Mobile’s network.4 While low-cost carriers may have no option but to raise the prices charged to consumers, Fi may be better positioned. Fi is fairly expensive. It’s unlikely T-Mobile would charge Fi so much that Google would struggle to stay in the market.

Opensignal’s Report on U.S. 5G Performance – No Big Surprises

Earlier this week, Opensignal released a report on the performance of 5G networks in the United States. Opensignal’s report puts some numbers and data behind two things that were already clear:

  • T-Mobile is destroying the competition in terms of 5G coverage, but T-Mobile’s 5G isn’t very fast
  • Verizon’s 5G is outrageously fast, but the coverage profile is terrible.

Opensignal primarily collects its performance data by crowdsourcing data from tests that run in the background on regular people’s phones. It looks like the company restricted the data underlying this report to include tests run from 5G-compatible phones.

Speeds

Verizon destroyed the competition with an average 5G download speed of 495Mbps. The other major networks in the U.S. had 5G download speeds averaging around 50Mbps. Verizon’s dominance in download speeds is due to the company’s focus on rolling out millimeter wave 5G.

Coverage

Unlike Verizon, T-Mobile has focused on deploying sub-6 5G. This type of 5G is great for covering large areas, but less impressive for delivering high speeds. Unsurprisingly, T-Mobile dominated in terms of 5G availability. According to Opensignal’s data, T-Mobile subscribers were able to access 5G 22.5% of the time. Verizon did about fifty times worse with an availability score of 0.4%.

While 0.4% is low, it’s still a better availability score than I would have predicted for Verizon. I wonder if Opensignal’s crowdsourcing approach might lend Verizon’s availability scores a leg up. If living near a Verizon 5G deployment makes a Verizon customer more likely to purchase a 5G phone, selection bias can creep in and cause Opensignal to overestimate Verizon’s actual 5G availability.

Silly press releases

Following Opensignal’s release of its report, T-Mobile published a press release. The company bragged about the network’s excellent 5G coverage without mentioning that the network got demolished in the download speed results.

Verizon published its own press release bragging about ludicrous download speeds. Verizon’s awful 5G availability score was not mentioned.

Download Speed Experience – 5G Users

Opensignal’s report included a metric called Download Speed Experience – 5G Users. The results for this metric were calculated by looking at users with 5G-compatible phones and tracking their average download speed even at times where they did not have 5G connections. In some sense, this single metric does some accounting for both 5G speeds and 5G availability.

Verizon and AT&T tied for the top spot:
Results graph showing AT&T and Verizon tied for the top spot

The metric is interesting, but I don’t think it quite captures how users will feel about the quality of their download speed experiences. The marginal value of a 10Mbps boost in download speeds that moves a subscriber from 5Mbps to 15Mbps is much greater than the marginal value of a 10Mbps boost that moves a subscriber from 500Mbps to 510Mbps. Collapsing a distribution of download speeds into a single, average download speed masks this reality.

Neville Ray’s Statement on T-Mobile’s Outage

Yesterday, Neville Ray, President of Technology at T-Mobile, shared more information about the cause of T-Mobile’s outage on Monday:

Many of our customers experienced a voice and text issue yesterday, specifically with VoLTE (Voice over LTE) calling…The trigger event is known to be a leased fiber circuit failure from a third party provider in the Southeast. This is something that happens on every mobile network, so we’ve worked with our vendors to build redundancy and resiliency to make sure that these types of circuit failures don’t affect customers. This redundancy failed us and resulted in an overload situation that was then compounded by other factors. This overload resulted in an IP traffic storm that spread from the Southeast to create significant capacity issues across the IMS (IP multimedia Subsystem) core network that supports VoLTE calls.

We have worked with our IMS (IP Multimedia Subsystem) and IP vendors to add permanent additional safeguards to prevent this from happening again and we’re continuing to work on determining the cause of the initial overload failure.

So, I want to personally apologize for any inconvenience that we created yesterday and thank you for your patience as we worked through the situation toward resolution.

In Hindsight: T-Mobile’s Network Outage

Yesterday, T-Mobile experienced a serious network outage beginning around 10am MT. The outage persisted through most of the day and primarily affected voice and text services.

Around 11pm MT, T-Mobile announced that outage was over:

These issues are now resolved. We again apologize for any inconvenience and thank you for your patience.

What caused the outage?

A lot of speculation was floating around yesterday. Some Twitter users, including a congressman, suggested there was a huge distributed denial-of-service attack causing trouble for U.S. networks. This story never made much sense.

Others speculated that a massive network failure was causing issues for all the major cellular operators. This idea was based on information from the website Downdetector, an entity that aggregates user complaints in real-time. Downdetector suggested that customer complaints about Verizon and AT&T were increasing at the same time that T-Mobile was experiencing issues.

Here’s how Downdectector describes its methodology:

Downdetector collects status reports from a series of sources, including Twitter and reports submitted on our websites and mobile apps. Our system validates and analyzes these reports in real-time, allowing us to automatically detect outages and service disruptions in their very early stages.

I expect the customer complaints about Verizon and AT&T were ultimately caused by T-Mobile’s network issues. Verizon and AT&T customers may have tried to call T-Mobile customers, then thought their own carriers (rather than T-Mobile) were at fault when calls failed.

Both AT&T and Verizon made statements suggesting that their networks were operating normally.

Updates from T-Mobile & the FCC

Yesterday evening, T-Mobile’s CEO, Mike Sievert, gave a vague explanation of what caused the outage:

T-Mobile has been experiencing a voice and text issue that has intermittently impacted customers in markets across the U.S…This is an IP traffic related issue that has created significant capacity issues in the network core throughout the day. Data services have been working throughout the day.

The outage was likely triggered as T-Mobile took steps to merge Sprint’s technology and/or customer base into the New T-Mobile. I haven’t heard any further information about the outage from a plausible-looking source, but details may come out soon. Ajit Pai, the FCC Chairman, shared the following tweet last night:

Major T-Mobile Network Outage

A major T-Mobile network outage is going on right now.

T-Mobile’s outage

T-Mobile subscribers scattered around the U.S. have been reporting that calls and texts have been failing over the last few hours.

The outage appears to be affecting more than T-Mobile’s direct customers. Subscribers with mobile virtual network operators that run over T-Mobile’s network are also reporting problems.

T-Mobile is aware of the issues. Neville Ray, T-Mobile’s President of Technology, shared the following tweet:

Neville Ray's tweet acknowledging the outage

While Ray describes it as a “voice and data issue,” most of the reports I’ve seen so far have been about issues with calls and texts.

Other companies

The website Downdetector is recording an atypical number of issues with a bunch of wireless carriers, Facebook, Instagram, Twitch, and a handful of other internet companies. It’s unclear if Verizon and AT&T are experiencing any issues of their own. Subscribers with these carriers may only be experiencing issues when they try to contact people on T-Mobile’s network.

Prognosis

At this time, I have not seen any word on what is causing the outage. I have also not seen any clear indication about when the issue is expected to be resolved.

I plan to make updates as I learn more. This may end up being one of the largest network outages in the U.S. in years.


Monday Night Update:

At 11:03pm MT, Neville Ray tweeted that the issues have been resolved:

Voice and text services are now restored. Thank you for your patience as we fixed the issues. We sincerely apologize for any and all inconveniences.

T-Mobile’s Data Maximizer Can’t Be Turned Off On Connect Plans

Some of T-Mobile’s plans come with a setting called “Data Maximizer.” While Data Maximizer is turned on, most video traffic will be throttled to about 480p quality. Data Maximizer reduces the load on T-Mobile’s network and can help subscribers with limited data allowances to conserve their data.

T-Mobile’s Connect plans supposedly have Data Maximizer turned on by default. Subscribers can also supposedly turn off the feature. On portions of T-Mobile’s website related to the Connect plans, there are disclosures like this one:1

Video typically streams on your T-Mobile device at DVD quality (480p) with Data Maximizer. You may disable Data Maximizer at any time.

I’ve recently been testing a Connect plan. Sure enough, a test I ran with the app Wehe confirmed that some video traffic was being throttled:

Results from video throttling tests

When I tried to turn off Data Maximizer, I ran into trouble. I first tried to disable the setting from within my T-Mobile online account. While subscribers on some of T-Mobile’s other plans can turn off Data Maximizer through an online process, that didn’t seem possible with the Connect plan.

I went ahead and called T-Mobile to see if a support agent could turn off the setting. At first, the support agent looked into it and told me Data Maximizer didn’t seem to affect Connect plans. I explained that T-Mobile’s website suggested otherwise and that my video traffic appeared to be throttled. The agent seemed to agree something strange was going on. She said she’d put in a ticket to have someone at T-Mobile look into the issue.

I don’t think it would be a big deal if Connect subscribers couldn’t turn off Data Maximizer. 480p video is, in my opinion, very watchable. Conserving data while streaming can be really beneficial on plans that don’t have large data allotments. Still, the fact that I ran into this issue surprised me. The Connect plans will probably be popular. I’m surprised some sort of quality review didn’t catch this issue before the plans were released.

T-Mobile & Sprint Merger Officially Closes

To no one’s surprise, the merger between T-Mobile and Sprint finally closed this morning.1

With the closure of the merger, John Legere is stepping down from his position as T-Mobile’s CEO. Legere will be replaced by Michael Sievert, who was until now the COO of T-Mobile.

I continue to think the merger is going to be bad for consumers over the long term. However, we should see some things that are good for consumers in the short term, like the recently released T-Mobile Connect plans.