Reviewing Altice Mobile’s “Unlimited” Policies and Pricing

Alice Mobile recently increased its prices by $10 per month. Service now costs $30 each month for Optimum or Suddenlink customers and $40 per month for everyone else.

In September, I argued that Altice Mobile was doing a lousy job of disclosing the limitations that came with the carrier’s supposedly “unlimited” plan. Given the recent price increase, I figured now would be a good time to revisit Altice Mobile’s policies.

Limits continue

Altice is still imposing a lot of limits on its “unlimited” plan:[1]

  • Mobile hotspot speeds are still throttled to 600Kbps.
  • Video is still throttled to about 480p.
  • Roaming data is still throttled to 128Kbps.

Previously, video and hotspot traffic would be throttled more intensely after 50GB of use. It looks like Altice has decreased that threshold to 20GB.

“Unlimited Everything” continues

Altice continues to advertise “unlimited everything.” Here’s a screenshot from Altice’s website today:

Altice Mobile screenshot

As before, it’s misleading for Altice to suggest subscribers can stream an unlimited amount of video or use an unlimited amount of mobile hotspot data. After 20GB of use, subscribers will be throttled to a maximum speed of 128Kbps for video and hotspot traffic. At 128Kbps, continuous streaming of conventional video won’t be possible.[2] Many activities subscribers will want to do over a hotspot connection will be frustratingly sluggish if not impossible.[3]

Improved disclosures

To Altice’s credit, it looks like the carrier is doing a bit better disclosing limitations. With a single click, website visitors can view additional information:

Altice’s Broadband Disclosure Information seems easier to find than it was previously. While the disclosures still fall short of being explicit or easy-to-understand, Altice is moving in the right direction.

T-Mobile & Sprint Merger Rumored To Be Headed For Approval

Several state attorneys general have been suing to stop a merger between T-Mobile and Sprint. Rumors came out earlier this evening that the judge presiding over the case is planning to rule in favor of the merger. Here’s a bit from a Wall Street Journal article:

A federal judge is expected to approve T-Mobile US Inc.’s merger with Sprint Corp., according to people familiar with the matter, clearing the way for the two wireless rivals to combine and overcoming a state antitrust challenge.

The rumors are almost certainly correct. Sprint’s stock soared in after-hours trading. The market closed with Sprint trading at close to $4.80. Since then, the stock has been trading for almost 70% more at over $8 per share:[1]

Sprint Stock Price After Merger

T-Mobile’s stock experienced a more modest after-hours rise from about $85 per share to slightly over $90 per share:

T-Mobile stock price graph after merger with Sprint

I’m planning to write something more detailed once the news is made official and the companies involved release statements.

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.

RootMetrics’ Report For Late 2019

Yesterday, RootMetrics released its latest report on the performance of U.S. wireless networks. I’d been looking forward to this report. RootMetrics’ drive testing methodology has some advantages over the approaches used by other companies that evaluate network performance.

Results

RootMetrics’ results were generally unsurprising. As with the last report, Verizon was the big winner, followed by AT&T in second place, T-Mobile in third, and Sprint in fourth.

Here are the overall, national scores out of 100 for each of the major networks:

  • Verizon – 94.6 points
  • AT&T – 93.2 points
  • T-Mobile – 86.5 points
  • Sprint – 83.2 points

RootMetrics also reports which carriers scored the best on each of its metrics within individual metro areas. Here’s how many metro area awards each carrier won (along with the change in the number of rewards received since the last report):

  • Verizon – 660 awards (-12)
  • AT&T – 401 awards (+21)
  • T-Mobile – 217 awards (-20)
  • Sprint – 80 awards (-9)

AT&T’s improvements

RootMetrics’ results align with the results of other recent evaluations suggesting aspects of AT&T’s network are becoming more competitive. AT&T fared particularly well in RootMetrics’ latest speed metrics. While Verizon narrowly beat AT&T in the final speed score out of 100 (90.7/100 for Verizon vs. 90.2/100 for AT&T), AT&T narrowly beat Verizon in aggregate median download speed (33.1 Mbps for AT&T vs. 32.7 Mbps for Verizon).

It appears that RootMetrics’ final speed scores are based on something more than median download speed. That may be a good thing: having consistent speeds is arguably much more important than having high average or median speeds. Still, I’m frustrated that I can’t figure out exactly how the final speed scores are derived. RootMetrics continues to be non-transparent about the math underlying its analyses.

A section of the latest report suggests that Verizon may do a particularly good job of avoiding sluggish speeds:

Verizon’s ‘slowest’ median download speed of 17.9 Mbps, recorded in Fresno, CA, was still quite strong and would allow end users to complete the majority of data tasks with ease. In fact, Fresno was the only market in which Verizon registered a median download speed below 20 Mbps. No other carrier came close to matching Verizon’s consistency of delivering fast speeds in metros across the US.

5G performance

The new report includes details about RootMetrics’ recent tests on 5G networks. I found the 5G results unsurprising, and I’m not going to comment on them further at this time. I think 5G deployments are still in too early a stage for the results to be of much interest.

Xfinity Mobile Growing Quickly

An SEC filing Comcast published today showed that Xfinity Mobile has been adding subscribers quickly. In the last quarter, Xfinity Mobile added 261,000 new lines.[1] Overall, Xfinity Mobile had a net increase of 816,000 lines in 2019, bringing its total subscriber count at the end of the year to slightly over two million lines.[2] It’s now fair to say that Xfinity Mobile is one of the largest MVNOs in the U.S.

By my math, Xfinity Mobile’s subscriber base grew by about 66% in 2019.[3] It will be interesting to see whether Comcast can keep that kind of growth rate going forward.

By one method of accounting, Xfinity Mobile looks unprofitable. However, the brand seems to be moving in the right direction towards profitability:[4]

Cable Communications results include a loss of $116 million from our wireless business, compared to a loss of $191 million in the prior period.
One could argue that way of looking at the financials leaves out something important. Subscribing to Xfinity Mobile makes it harder for a Comcast customer to cancel their internet service. Looking exclusively at the balance sheet of Comcast’s wireless segment leaves out the benefits Comcast receives as Xfinity Mobile reduces churn in the company’s other product segments.

At the moment, Xfinity Mobile presents a pretty good value proposition for current Xfinity Internet customers. Going forward, I’m not sure whether Comcast will keep Xfinity Mobile’s prices competitive to encourage growth or increase prices to make each subscriber more profitable.

Opensignal’s 2020 U.S. Mobile Performance Report

Today, Opensignal released a new report on the performance of U.S. wireless networks. The report details results on seven different metrics.

Here are the networks that took the top spot for each metric at the national level:

  • Video Experience – Verizon
  • Voice App Experience – T-Mobile/AT&T (draw)
  • Download Speed Experience – AT&T
  • Upload Speed Experience – T-Mobile
  • Latency Experience – AT&T
  • 4G Availability – Verizon
  • 4G Coverage Experience – Verizon

It’s important to interpret these results cautiously due to limitations in Opensignal’s crowdsourcing approach. Since performance data is collected from actual subscribers’ devices, factors not directly related to underlying network quality may impact the organization’s results. For example, if subscribers on a network are unusually likely to use low-end devices or live in rural areas, that will affect the outcome of Opensignal’s analyses. Still, Opensignal’s results are interesting; they’re drawn from a huge data set involving primarily automated performance tests.

Download speed findings

The most notable result in the latest report might be AT&T’s first-place finish on the download speed metric. In the previous Opensignal report, T-Mobile won first place for download speeds, and AT&T took third place. I’ve recently been critical of the methodologies used in some other evaluations that suggested AT&T had the nation’s fastest network. While many of those methodological criticisms still stand, the fact that Opensignal’s arguably more reliable methodology also found AT&T to have the fastest network leads me to believe I was too harsh. I’ll be interested to see whether AT&T also takes the top spot for speeds in RootMetrics’ upcoming report.

New metrics

Two new metrics were introduced in this report: Voice App Experience and 4G Coverage Experience. The Voice App Experience metric assesses the quality of voice calls via apps like Skype and Facebook Messenger. I’m not exactly sure how the metric works, but it looks like all four networks received similar scores. Opensignal deemed all these scores as indicative of “acceptable” quality.

The 4G Coverage Experience metric adds a bit of complexity to the previously existing 4G Availability metric. The coverage metric assesses 4G availability across areas all Opensignal’s users find themselves in, regardless of their network.

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

Virgin Mobile USA Is Shutting Down: Subscribers To Be Transferred To Boost Mobile

Virgin Mobile USA, a flanker brand owned by Sprint, is shutting down. Today, reports surfaced from many Virgin Mobile customers who received texts that started like this:

Virgin Mobile USA is discontinuing and your account will auto-transfer to Boost Mobile.

Boost Mobile is another flanker brand owned by Sprint, and it should offer almost all customers service that is quite similar to the service Virgin Mobile USA has been offering.

Interestingly, I can’t find a press release from Virgin Mobile about the shutdown. However, the company has published a web page with an FAQ about the upcoming changes. The page illuminates several details about how the automated transfer of subscribers from Virgin to Boost will be handled:

  • Subscribers will keep their existing phone numbers.
  • Subscribers should be able to keep their current phones.
  • The transfers will begin in February.
  • Boost Mobile will not accept Paypal. Subscribers that paid for Virgin service with PayPal will need to choose a new payment method.
  • Payment dates will usually be unaffected by the transfer from Virgin to Boost.
  • Subscribers automatically paying for Virgin service via credit card or debit card will have their payment methods transferred automatically.
  • Device insurance purchased from Virgin should carry over to Boost.
  • Devices using Virgin’s Mobile Broadband service will not automatically be transferred to Boost. Subscribers using these devices will need to find new carriers.[1]

Virgin Mobile USA suggests that most subscribers will receive pricing with Boost that is the same or better than existing pricing with Virgin:

In most instances, your existing account will be transferred to Boost Mobile with your device, and a comparable or better Boost Mobile service plan at no extra cost to you… In fact, since Boost Mobile accounts have taxes and fees included, customers will end up paying less than you do now on similar plans.

While Virgin Mobile USA is suggesting customers will not face increased prices, I suggest that subscribers pay attention to any changes in their bills and plans over time. While I expect most subscribers will not be affected adversely in the short-term, it doesn’t look like Boost has committed not to raising prices or forcing plan changes in the future. I’d be especially vigilant if you currently have a grandfathered plan that Virgin no longer offers to new customers.

In most cases, I think Virgin subscribers should anticipate a smooth transition to Boost. Still, the transition may present a good moment for subscribers to consider other options on the market. Mint Mobile, a relatively new, low-cost carrier, may offer many people better coverage and lower prices than Virgin or Boost.

Why is Virgin Mobile USA shutting down?

On the FAQ page about Virgin’s shut down, one of the questions listed is: “I have been a Virgin Mobile customer for a long time, why is my account being transferred to Boost Mobile?” Virgin responds to the question with a non-answer:

We appreciate your loyalty. To ensure that we offer the best service to our customers, we regularly examine our plans. At this time a decision to discontinue the Virgin Mobile USA service has been made. As we are committed to providing you with great service, we will transfer your account to our sister brand Boost Mobile.

While I’m unsure exactly what’s going on, I expect there’s an effort underway to consolidate Sprint’s flanker brands in advance of news about whether a merger between Sprint and T-Mobile will go through.

AT&T’s Claim To Being America’s Best Network

AT&T has been running an ad campaign with commercials where the company claims to offer the best network.

These commercials start with a funny skit that leads to the line, “just ok is not ok.” The commercials’ narrator then says something along the lines of: “AT&T is America’s best wireless network according to America’s biggest test.”

Here’s an example:



Alternate versions of the commercial involve ok babysitters, ok sushi, ok surgeons, and more.

AT&T bases its “best network” claim on the results of Global Wireless Solutions’s (GWS) 2018 tests. The claim is at odds with the results of many other companies’ evaluations and my own view.

The meaning of the word “best” is ambiguous, but I’d guess that a survey of professionals in the wireless industry would find that most people consider RootMetrics to be the best evaluation firm in the wireless industry. Verizon fared far better than AT&T in RootMetrics’s most recent evaluation.

It’s unclear to me what AT&T is claiming when it calls GWS’s test, “America’s biggest test.” Is it the biggest test in terms of miles driven, data points collected, area covered, or something else? GWS may have the biggest test according to one metric, but it’s not unambiguously the biggest test in the nation.

GWS’s OneScore Methodology & 2019 Results

Global Wireless Solutions (GWS) evaluates wireless networks according to the company’s OneScore methodology. At the moment, AT&T cites GWS’s results in commercials where AT&T claims to offer the best network.

In an article about performance tests of wireless networks, GWS’s founder, Dr. Paul Carter, writes:[1]

With so many conflicting research reports and with every network touting itself as number one, it’s critical that wireless carriers are transparent about how and what they actually test. If what was tested doesn’t match up with the average consumer experience, then was that test truly worthwhile?

Unfortunately, GWS itself is not especially transparent about its methodology. The public-facing information about the company’s methodology is sparse, and I did not receive a response to my email requesting additional information.

As I understand it, GWS’s methodology has two components:

  • Technical performance testing in about 500 markets
  • Consumer surveying that helps determine how much weight to give different metrics

Technical testing

In 2019, GWS conducted extensive drive testing; GWS employees drove close to 1,000,000 miles as phones in their vehicles performed automated tests of networks’ performance.[2]

The drive testing took place in about 500 of the markets, including all of the largest metropolitan areas. GWS says the testing represents about 94% of the U.S. population.[3] I expect that GWS’s focus on these markets limits the weight placed on rural and remote areas. Accordingly, GWS’s results may be biased against Verizon (Verizon tends to have better coverage than other networks in sparsely populated areas).

Consumer surveying

In 2019, GWS surveyed about 5,000 consumers to figure out how much they value different aspects of wireless performance.[4] GWS finds that consumers place a lot of importance on phone call voice quality, despite the fact the people are using their phones for more and more activities unrelated to phone calls.[5] GWS also finds that, as I’ve suggested, consumers care a lot more about the reliability of their wireless service than its raw speed.[6]

Combining components

As I understand it, GWS draws on the results of its surveying to decide how much weight to place of different aspects parts of the technical performance tests:

The consumer survey includes questions asking respondents to rank the importance of different tasks they perform on their mobile device, as well as the importance of different aspects of network performance. Our network test results are then weighted according to how consumers prioritize what’s important to them, and evaluated in eleven different network performance areas related to voice, data, network reliability and network coverage.

The methodology’s name, OneScore, and the graphic below suggest that the company combines all of its data to arrive at final, numerical scores for each network:[7]

GWS OneScore Visual

Oddly enough, I can’t find GWS publishing anything that looks like final scores. That may be a good thing. I’ve previously gone into great detail about why scoring systems that use weighted rubrics to give companies or products a single, overall score tend to work poorly.

2019 Results

In GWS’s 2019 report, the company lists which networks had the best performance in several different areas:

AT&T:

  • Download speed
  • Data reliability
  • Network capacity
  • Video streaming experience
  • Voice accessibility
  • Voice retainability

T-Mobile:

  • Voice quality

Verizon:

  • Upload speed

Open questions

I have a bunch of open questions about GWS’s methodology. If you represent GWS and can shed light on any of these topics, please reach out.

  • Does the focus on 501 markets (94% of the U.S.) tend to leave out rural areas where Verizon has a strong network relative to other operators?
  • Do operators pay GWS? Does AT&T pay to advertise GWS’s results?
  • What does the consumer survey entail?
  • How directly are the results of the consumer survey used to determine weights used later in GWS’s analysis?
  • What does GWS make of the discrepancies between its results and those of RootMetrics?
  • How close were different networks’ scores in each category?
  • GWS shares the best-performing network in several categories. Is information available about the second, third, and fourth-place networks in each category?
  • Does GWS coerce its raw data into a single overall score for each network?
    • Are those results publicly available?
    • How are the raw performance data coerced into scores that can be aggregated?