Man holding a ruler

Mint Mobile Pushes Back On Charging For Data Subscribers Don’t Use

In September, Mint Mobile launched an unlimited plan. The plan is a good deal with a price as low as $30 per month, but I’ve been critical of Mint using the word “unlimited” to describe a plan that actually includes 35GB of data each month.

Yesterday, one of Mint’s owners, Ryan Reynolds, shared a video about an upcoming feature on Mint’s unlimited plan. Soon, Mint will begin recommending that light and moderate data users on the unlimited plan renew to cheaper plans with smaller data allotments. Here’s how Mint explains it:

What if you don’t really need unlimited? Seriously, if you don’t, we can help you save even more money with Mint…we’re gonna be sending you monthly updates showing you exactly how much data you’re using. You can also check your data usage in the app. Then, when it’s time to renew your plan, we’ll recommend the perfect plan for you so you can save as much money as possible. And if that means you should downgrade into something that isn’t unlimited, then we’re gonna suggest you do so. BTW, the average person only uses about 6GB per month.

But wait, don’t most big wireless companies try to upsell me even if I don’t need it? Yes, they certainly do…but luckily, we’re not them. Our whole thing is to make sure you get premium wireless for less. Because if you’re only using 5, 6 or even 9 GBs a month, you shouldn’t be paying more for an unlimited plan you don’t need.

I’m glad to see Mint pushing against the industry’s trend towards unlimited plans for everyone. You can see Ryan Reynolds full announcement below:

Most Verizon Subscribers Are On Unlimited Plans

On September 15, Hans Vestberg, Chairman & CEO of Verizon, had a public discussion with a Goldman Sachs analyst. A transcript of the conversation is available here.

One bit from the transcript stuck out to me:

Well over 50% of our customers are on unlimited. That means that the rest is on metered plan. That is also a way for us [last year] where we took the unlimited down to a basic unlimited in order to get our metered customers coming into unlimited because, ultimately, unlimited is unlimited. And then we start moving them up in the above and beyond unlimited, which will give you also the experience of 5G.

Two interesting points here:

  • Vestberg confirmed that unlimited plans dominate Verizon’s subscriber base. Since unlimited plans tend to be more expensive than metered plans, I expect the large majority of Verizon’s revenue from mobile subscriptions comes from unlimited plans.
  • Vestberg referenced the no-longer-offered Above Unlimited and Beyond Unlimited plans. I think he meant to reference Verizon’s current, premium plans (Play More Unlimited, Do More Unlimited, and Get More Unlimited).

Verizon Expands Connected Device Plans

Today, Verizon announced changes to its connected device plans. Verizon is now offering two add-on plans for mobile hotspots and tablets. Most subscribers on Verizon’s unlimited plans are eligible for the add-ons.

  • Unlimited – $20 per month
  • Unlimited Plus – $30 per month

Subscribers on the Do More Unlimited and Get More Unlimited plan can get a 50% discount on either plan.

Here’s a graphic from Verizon’s website:

While the graphic suggests there are two plans, I think its easier to make sense of the new offerings as four different plans:

  1. A $20 hotspot plan
  2. A $20 tablet plan
  3. A $30 hotspot plan
  4. A $30 tablet plan

Hotspot plans

The hotspot plans really shouldn’t be called “unlimited.” On the $20 plan, subscribers only have 15GB of regular-speed data. On the $30 plan, subscribers have 30GB of regular-speed data.

Verizon throttles customers that use all of their regular-speed data. I expect Verizon is sticking with its old policy of throttling to 600Kbps. At that speed, mobile hotspots lose most of their usefulness. I would find working on a laptop with a 600Kbps connection extremely frustrating.

Tablet plans

The tablet plans have limited allotments of “premium data” (15GB on the $20 plan and 30GB on the $30 plan). While subscribers have premium data available, they’ll have high-priority connections during periods of network congestion. After premium data allotments run out, subscribers may experience especially slow speeds if Verizon’s network becomes congested. Fortunately, congestion is rare in most areas.

5G

The Unlimited Plus plan includes unlimited 5G Ultra Wideband data on both tablets and hotspots.1 While that sounds great, it’s rarely meaningful in practice since Verizon’s 5G coverage is extremely limited. I’m guessing the unlimited 5G data will be dropped from the plan when Verizon’s 5G coverage expands and the 5G network becomes more congested.

Unlimited Plans: A Race To The Bottom?

In the last few years, many cell phone carriers have released “unlimited” plans that actually have limits. Most of these plans are sufficient for the average person. Problems show up for a minority of cell phone users that are especially heavy data users.

Many people read my posts explaining the limits carriers place on their “unlimited” plans and react with a version of:

Ok, fine Chris. Sure these plans aren’t technically unlimited. But you’re being pedantic as hell. These plans are as-good-as-unlimited for 98% of people.

My pushback on “unlimited” plans isn’t about protecting heavy data users. In the long run, I’m worried that “unlimited” plans are part of a trend that will be harmful to a much larger group of people: light and moderate data users.

Huh?

This has happened before

For more than a decade, I’ve been following the portion of the web hosting industry that caters to personal websites and small-business websites. When I first started watching the industry, almost every web host offered a fixed number of gigabytes of bandwidth each month. Customers that wanted more bandwidth had to pay more. At some point, a few web hosts began offering “unlimited” bandwidth plans.

Of course, no web hosts actually offered unlimited bandwidth. Hosts put restrictions in their terms of service agreements that made it possible to shut down websites that hogged server resources. If Google had tried to host its infrastructure on a $10 per month “unlimited” plan, it would have been shut down instantly.1

Even though most websites are tiny and have modest resource demands, people running tiny websites tend to like the idea of having an unlimited plan. Since the internet has way more tiny websites than medium-sized websites, web hosts could allow some unprofitable, medium-sized clients to stick around. The hosting bills for tiny websites essentially subsidized some more popular websites.

Over a few years, it became clear that offering “unlimited” plans was a winning business strategy. Gradually, unlimited plans became the industry standard. Fixed-bandwidth plans faded away.2

Back to cellular

Fixed-data cell phone plans are fading in the U.S. market. Take a look at the websites of any of the Big 3 networks. Which plans do you see? Unlimited plans get the attention. Fixed-data plans still exist, but they’re buried.

It didn’t used to be this way. The move towards unlimited plans has been rapid and will probably continue until unlimited plans dominate the market. Unless regulatory bodies step in, I see only two ways this can play out in the long run. Both scenarios seem bad:

  • Unlimited plans without many restrictions become standard. Light data users essentially subsidize heavy data users.
  • “Unlimited” plans with significant restrictions become standard. We get a race to the bottom.

Racing to the bottom

When fixed-data plans dominated the market, customers were aware of the limitations they were likely to run into. Hell, plans were their limitations. A 5GB plan might have been named “The 5GB Plan”.

As unlimited plans have risen, limitations have been hidden from customers and tucked away in the fine print of legal documents. Plan names turned meaningless: “T-Mobile Magenta” and “Verizon Above Unlimited.”

Carriers place limits on their “unlimited” plans so they can compete on costs. Have you noticed the policies below on the rise?

  • Video throttling
  • Hotspot data throttled to slower speeds than regular data
  • Monthly hotspot allotments that have no relation to overall data allotments
  • Data transfer that’s restricted to sluggish speeds after subscribers use a certain amount of data

For network operators, it’s not important whether a gigabyte of data is used streaming video, loading web pages, or running a hotspot.3 All these policies have the same purpose: reducing subscribers’ data use.

Low-priority data is another common limitation thrown on plans. Subscribers with low-priority data will experience normal speeds when a network isn’t congested, but their speeds will turn sluggish when things get busy.

Limits aren’t the problem

I’m not broadly against limits. I’m against limits that confuse consumers. I’m against limits that aren’t explained clearly and prominently.

Unfortunately, unlimited plans attract the kinds of limits I oppose. At some level, it makes sense, at least from a business perspective. If a carrier downplays how serious the limits are on one of its plans, the plan will be more appealing to consumers.

Carriers throttling heavy data users to 128Kbps don’t make candid disclosures. Imagine what that would look like:

After 35GB per month of data use, download speeds will decrease to frustratingly slow speeds (around 128Kbps). You probably won’t want to use the internet at these speeds unless you really need to. But if you have to load a boarding pass or an email after you’re out of regular data, you should be able to with a bit of patience!

No. We get vague disclosures like:

Data speeds reduce after 35GB but data is unlimited.4

Plans with low-priority data will have fine print mentioning reduced speeds during congestion, but details will be sparse. Customers trying to figure out how common congestion is, where congestion tends to occur, or how much speeds are slowed aren’t going to find the information they’re looking for.

Hell, it’s not just regular consumers that get confused and misled. My favorite tech review site can’t sort out prioritization policies. Here’s a bit from Wirecutter:

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 and Verizon told us that they don’t impose any such prioritization.

Perhaps the scariest part of the excerpt is not that Wirecutter is wrong, but that people speaking for AT&T and Verizon were wrong about their own companies’ policies.

Where will we end up?

If nothing changes, we’ll continue to see the low-cost side of the market (a) throw more limitations on plans and (b) bury limitations deeper. In my view, the problem isn’t evil carriers. It’s bad incentives. Maybe the FCC or the NAD (National Advertising Division) will jump in and change carriers’ incentives. I’m not too optimistic, though.

Mint Mobile’s Unlimited Plan Has Limits

Today, Mint Mobile launched an “unlimited” plan. Mint has officially joined the ranks of carriers like Google Fi, Altice, Total Wireless, Wing, Tello. What do all these carriers have in common? Each offers an allegedly “unlimited” plan that strictly limits how much data subscribers can use.

The rest of this post is a rant. To be clear, I think Mint’s new plan is great. I just hate seeing the cellular industry move towards a scenario where every carrier has to offer plans that are misleadingly labeled “unlimited” in order to remain competitive. If you’re looking for a level-headed overview of Mint’s new plan, see my previous post. If you’re looking for cynicism and entertainment, keep reading.

Limits

Mint’s unlimited plan has three major restrictions:

  • Subscribers can only use 35GB of full-speed data each month. After 35GB of data use, Mint throttles data to sluggish speeds.
  • Mint limits mobile hotspot use to 5GB per month.
  • Mint throttles video streaming to a maximum of 480p.

How slow are speeds after 35GB?

Mint screwed up its communications about the throttling it imposes after 35GB of data use. Pre-launch information I received said subscribers would be throttled to 128Kbps. The only specific speed I’ve found mentioned on Mint’s updated website is 64Kbps:

Mint Mobile’s ‘Unlimited Data’ plan comes with 35GB of high-speed data, which is slowed to 64 kbps thereafter and reset at the next billing cycle.

I expect Mint will clarify its policies by the end of the day. For the rest of this post, I’ll give Mint the benefit of the doubt and say the throttle is 128Kbps. In some sense, it doesn’t matter if the throttle is 128Kbps or 64Kbps. The internet will be almost unusable at either speed.

(Update: Mint clarified that users exceeding 35GB of data use will be throttled to 128Kbps)

Objections

But Chris! Mint lets you use unlimited data at 128Kbps! Sure, 128Kbps is slow as hell, but the plan is still unlimited!

No. At 128Kbps, a lot of things won’t work. Video won’t stream. Some web pages won’t load at all.

More importantly, a rate limit can’t coexist with unlimited data. If a full 128 kilobits is transferred every second for an entire month, only 41GB of data is used.1 There’s an absolute cap on Mint’s unlimited plan on data use of about 76GB (35GB + 41GB). Realistically, almost no subscribers will get much past 35GB of use in a month, since the internet will be so frustrating to use after the 35GB of full-speed data runs out.

But Chris! 35GB is practically unlimited! Almost everyone uses way less data than that!
Agreed! If you’re excited about the plan, this post probably shouldn’t dissuade you.

I don’t even fault Mint for calling the new plan “unlimited.” I’m impressed Mint managed to hold out so long while its competitors offered unlimited-but-not-really-unlimited plans.

My point is that consumers would be better off in the long run if carriers weren’t incentivized to mislabel plans.

Anyhow, if you’re interested in Mint’s new plan, go for it. It’s an awesome deal for $30 per month. Just realize it’s a 35GB plan.

Mint Mobile Launches An Unlimited Plan

Mint Mobile launched an unlimited plan this morning. It’s available for as little as $30 per month.

Plan terms

Like many unlimited plans offered by mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs), the plan isn’t actually “unlimited” in the mainstream sense of the word:

  • Subscribers can use 35GB of regular, full-speed data each month. After 35GB of data use, Mint throttles speeds to a sluggish 128Kbps.1
  • Mint caps mobile hotspot use at 5GB per month.

I’ll save my complaints about Mint misusing the word “unlimited” for a second post. 35GB of data and 5GB of mobile hotspot access will be sufficient for the vast majority of people.2

Like Mint’s old plans, the new plan includes unlimited minutes and texts. Calling to Canada and Mexico is also included at no charge.

Subscribers with 5G-capable devices will get access to 5G coverage from T-Mobile’s network. While T-Mobile’s 5G network is lackluster in terms of speeds, it leads the nation in 5G availability. You can check coverage at your location with Mint’s interactive map.

Pricing

With the new unlimited plan, Mint is continuing to price service based on how many months of service customers pay for upfront.

  • $30 per month – 12 months of service
  • $35 per month – 6 months of service
  • $40 per month – 3 months of service

The unlimited plan is eligible for the same introductory offer that Mint offers on its other plans. New customers can purchase three months of service at the rate Mint usually reserves for customers that purchase 12 months of service. I.e., three months of service on the unlimited plan costs $90 ($30 per month).

Reflections

Competitiveness

I’m glad to see Mint offering a plan for heavy data users with such a low price point. I expect the plan will be popular, especially among people who only need one or two lines of service. The new Mint plan should be competitive with other low-cost unlimited plans offered by carriers like Visible and Cricket. While I don’t think Mint’s new plan will make T-Mobile’s Essentials plan irrelevant, I’m ready to argue Mint’s plan is almost strictly the better option.

Pricing strategy

Interestingly, Mint has narrowed the distance between pricing tiers with the new plan. Mint’s 8GB plan costs $20 per month for customers that purchase a year of service upfront. The plan is 75% more expensive ($35 per month) for customers that purchase 3 months of service.3 Mint’s unlimited plan is only 33% more expensive for customers that opt for 3 months of service.4

In the past, I’ve wondered whether Mint’s pricing structure made volume discounts too aggressive. The large difference between monthly rates on three-month terms and twelve-month terms may have made the carrier unappealing to budget-sensitive consumers that could have been a good fit for Mint. Is it possible we’ll soon see Mint narrow the gap between pricing tiers on its old plans?

Mint’s new approach to pricing has a funny consequence. In some situations, Mint’s 12GB plan is now $5 per month more expensive than the 35GB (unlimited) plan.5

Verizon Updating Unlimited Plans

Yesterday, Verizon announced a set of updates to its postpaid unlimited plans. The new plans are slotted to release on August 20th. All plans will keep their current names and monthly prices. Existing Verizon customers will have the option to switch to the new plan structures or stick with the old structures.

Changes

All of Verizon’s next generation of postpaid unlimited plans will allow 720p video streaming. While details are vague so far, it looks like customers will have to enable 720p streaming in their plan settings. I expect streaming will default to 480p by default.

Verizon has also changed its approach to Premium Data. Going forward, all plans other than the Start Unlimited plan will offer 50GB per month of Premium Data.

Plan by plan changes

Start Unlimited

Positive:

  • Video streaming up to 720p (must opt in, previously 480p)

Negative:

  • Disney+ now included for 6 months (previously 12 months)

Play More Unlimited

Positive:

  • +25GB Premium Data (now 50GB)
  • Disney+ included indefinitely
  • Hulu and ESPN+ access added

Negative:

  • 720p video streaming now requires opting in
  • Apple Music now only included for 6 months (was indefinite)

Do More Unlimited

Positive:

  • Video streaming up to 720p (must opt in, previously 480p)
  • Smartwatches and HumX now eligible for 50% connected device discount
  • +100 GB Verizon Cloud storage (now 600GB total)

Negative:

  • Disney+ now included for 6 months (previously 12 months)

Get More Unlimited

Positive:

  • Hulu and ESPN+ access added
  • Smartwatches and HumX now eligible for 50% connected device discount
  • +100 GB Verizon Cloud storage (now 600GB total)

Negative:

  • -25GB Premium Data (now 50GB, previously 75GB)
  • 720p video streaming now requires opting in

Mint Mobile Extends Unlimited Data Again

Mint Mobile has extended its COVID-19-related unlimited data offer. Subscribers that joined Mint prior to April 14 can continue to receive data add-ons in 3GB increments at no charge.

Mint first said this offer would be available from mid-March through mid-April, but ended up extending the offer through mid-May. The company has now extended the offer for another month.

Image showing that Mint's unlimited data offer has been extended

I don’t know if we’ll see further extensions of the offer. More information can be found on Mint’s website.

Mint Mobile Makes COVID-19 Data Add-Ons Easier

In response to COVID-19, Mint Mobile began offering unlimited data at no charge to all its customers. Initially, subscribers who ran out of their regularly allotted data had to purchase 3GB data add-ons that would later be refunded.

Mint has now streamlined the process. Here’s an excerpt from a recent Reddit post by Rizwan Kassim, a co-founder of Mint Mobile:

We heard your feedback, and once we made the decision to extend the program – we rebuilt it in a way with an experience that’s more .. well, Minty. On Apr 15, whenever you purchase the data-bolton, if you qualify, the dollar cost will be $0. No credit card charge, no wallet pull. Easy. You’ll need the latest build of the app.

I thought Mint might have intentionally put a bit of friction in the data add-on process to deter abuse and waste. It looks like there’s a better explanation:

The idea was hatched, planned, got financial and brand approval, configured, launched and messaged the unlimited bolt-on offer in 36 hours, over a weekend by an entirely WFH staff. No joke. The fastest method was not to use our billing system, but to tack on a series of jobs that ran post-charge to refund the balances.

Mint has added some sensible eligibility terms for the free data add-ons:

  • Only subscribers who were customers before April 14 are eligible for free data add-ons
  • Subscribers that downgrade their plans lose their eligibility for free data add-ons

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.