Don’t Take Ookla Too Seriously

Ookla recently published its Q2 report on the performance of U.S. wireless networks. As I’ve discussed before, I’m not a fan of Ookla’s methodology.[1] Because of my qualms, I’m not going to bother summarizing Ookla’s latest results. However, I do want to draw attention to a part of the recent report.

Ookla’s competitive geographies filter

In the last year or two, Ookla has restricted its main analyses to only account for data from “competitive geographies.” Here’s how Ookla explains competitive geographies:

To meet the definition of ‘competitive’ in the U.S., a zip code must contain samples from at least three top national competitors…but no competitor can have more than 2/3 of the samples in that zip code.

The competitive geographies filter mitigates some of the problems with Ookla’s methodology but also introduces a bunch of new issues.

Availability

Ookla’s latest results for 4G availability illustrate the issues:

Ookla 4G availability scores

Sprint unambiguously has the smallest coverage profile of the four nationwide networks.[2] The competitive geographies filter makes Ookla’s availability metric so meaningless that Sprint can nevertheless tie for the best availability.

Lots of regions only have coverage from Verizon. All those data points get thrown away because they come from non-competitive geographies. Other areas have coverage from only Verizon and AT&T. Again, those data points get thrown out because they’re not from competitive geographies. What’s the point of measuring availability while ignoring the areas where differences in network availability are most substantial?

Giving Ookla credit

Despite my criticisms, I want to give Ookla some credit. Many evaluators develop complicated, poorly thought-out metrics and only share those metrics when the results seem reasonable. I appreciate that Ookla didn’t hide its latest availability information because the results looked silly.

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.

Tracking 5G Strategies and Deployments

I’ve created web pages to track the 5G strategies used by each major network in the United States. The pages go into detail about networks’ 5G strategies, compatible devices, and coverage profiles. I plan to update these pages regularly as 5G deployments move forward.

I intentionally omitted Sprint from the list. T-Mobile has been pulling the plug on Sprint’s 5G service. The spectrum Sprint used for 5G will be redeployed in the New T-Mobile’s network.

Abstract photo representing wireless technology

Variable-Rate Pricing, Network Switching, and Mobile X

Urban planners have a joke: “You aren’t in traffic; you are traffic.”

While most people consider how long they’d have to wait in traffic if they travel, almost no one thinks about how much worse they’d make traffic for everyone else.

Conventional tolls charge road users the same rates all the time. Variable-rate tolling is a clever alternative. Under that approach, people pay high tolls when roads are congested. Tolls are low (or non-existent) when roads are wide open. When managed well, variable-rate tolling can lead to huge improvements in efficiency.

Conventional cellular pricing is inefficient

Most of the time, cell phone networks are not at their max capacities. In these situations, a mobile subscriber can use data without degrading service quality for other users on the network or incurring substantial costs for the network operator. On the other hand, network capacity is a precious resource when networks are congested.

With conventional wireless price structures, a gigabyte of data use costs a subscriber the same amount regardless of how congested a network is. There’s a sense in which it would be way more efficient to vary the cost subscribers pay for a gigabyte based on how congested a network is.

With variable-rate pricing, people with money to burn and a need for high-performance could get great speeds all the time. Budget-sensitive consumers could get super cheap data most of the time, then reduce data use when bandwidth is in high demand.

Network switching

If a small town could have its entire population covered by one cell tower, multiple networks may still build towers. In some sense, this is horribly inefficient. On the other hand, it’s unsurprising given the structure of the wireless industry in the U.S. While roaming agreements allowing subscribers to use other carriers’ towers do a lot to reduce inefficiencies like these, the situation is far from optimal. Mobile phone subscribers are at the whims of whatever roaming agreements are in place between network operators.

Imagine an individual T-Mobile subscriber is out of the range of T-Mobile’s network and near another network’s tower. What if the subscriber could pay for temporary coverage from the tower? It’s not an option today, but there’s no technical obstacle making it impossible.

Google Fi uses a form of dynamic network switching that has huge benefits. While Google Fi typically uses T-Mobile’s network, Fi subscribers are automatically switched to Sprint or U.S. Cellular when those networks can deliver better performance.[1] Currently, only a tiny portion of U.S. consumers have access to this kind of network switching.

If more carriers embrace dynamic network switching, consumers will benefit. If dynamic network switching is combined with variable-rate pricing, consumers will benefit enormously.

Mobile X

Yesterday, Peter Adderton, the founder of Boost Mobile, began to tweet teasing a new carrier he’s working on called Mobile X:

While the first tweet was vague, it seemed to hint at some of the unconventional features I’d like to see. Today, Adderton shared a more promising tweet:

The image is the part I find most interesting. While I don’t know what Adderton is building, the mockup interface sure looks like it fits with a service that involves both dynamic network switching and user-selected levels of service quality.

Verizon’s Revamped Shared Data Plans

Verizon used to offer several different plans with shared pools of data. The carrier has now simplified its offerings with only two shared data plans. Both plans include unlimited minutes and texts. The cheaper plan offers 5GB of shared data. The more expensive plan offers 10GB of shared data.

For customers who enroll in paperless billing and Auto Pay, The 5GB plan costs $30 per month plus $25 for each line. The 10GB plan costs $40 per month plus $25 for each line.

Customers that don’t enroll in Auto Pay and paperless billing will be charged $10 more every month on each line.

Examples

  • Two lines on the 5GB plan would cost $80 per month with Auto Pay and paperless billing. That would include the $30 base charge for the plan and two $25 line-access fees.
  • Three lines on the $10 GB plan would cost $105 per month with Auto Pay and paperless billing (a $40 base charge plus $75 in line-access fees).
Picture of a broken phone

Is Phone Insurance Worth It?

Phone insurance usually isn’t a good deal. Companies offering phone insurance plans typically intend to make a profit. These companies profit when customers, on average, pay more into insurance programs than they get paid out.

When considering the costs of phone insurance, think in terms of a long time horizon. One of Verizon’s insurance plans, Verizon Protect, costs $17 per month. Imagine you purchase a new phone from Verizon for $600 then insure it with Verizon Protect. If you use the phone for three years and keep it insured the whole time, you’ll end up making 36 payments of $17. After three years, you’ll have spent $612 on insurance. That’s more than the original cost of the phone!

Considerations

Whether phone insurance is worth it will depend on your situation:

  • How much would you have to pay for insurance?
  • What would it cost to replace your phone without insurance?
  • What sort of deductible would your insurance plan have?
  • How risk-averse are you?
  • How careful are you about protecting your phone?
  • Would phone insurance offer any added conveniences (e.g., extra-fast repairs)?

Examples

High-end phones

I recently purchased a Samsung Galaxy S20 from Verizon. The phone has a list price of about $1,000. For $17 per month, I can cover the phone with Verizon Protect. While Verizon primarily pitches that protection plan, there’s another plan called Wireless Phone Protection that offers similar coverage for only $6.85 per month.

The Wireless Phone Protection plan comes with a $200 deductible on the S20. Since it would normally cost me $1,000 to replace the S20, the insurance plan could save me up to $800.

The protection plan’s monthly fee works out to be less than 1% of the amount I would save if I lost or destroyed my phone. I’m clumsy and tend to put my phones through a lot. There’s a greater than 1% chance I’ll break or lose my S20 in any given month. Accordingly, the insurance plan would offer me good value in the short term.

Depreciation

Today’s high-end phones will be tomorrow’s budget phones. While the S20 has a list price of about $1,000 today, it’ll be cheaper in the future. If Verizon still sells the phone in three years, it’ll cost far less.

While the replacement cost of my phone will decline over time, the rate I pay to insure it won’t. In some cases, it can make financial sense to (a) insure a high-end phone briefly after purchase and (b) drop the insurance at a later time.

Budget phones

Most companies don’t closely match the cost of insurance plans to the value of a phone. My favorite budget-friendly phone right now is the Motorola G7 Play. It costs $130 from Motorola. Verizon’s Protect plan still costs $17 per month for the G7 Play. The Wireless Phone Protection plan still costs $6.85 per month.

The G7 Play is not worth insuring. The phone has a $9 deductible. Verizon’s insurance would only save me $121 if I lost or broke a G7 Play. In just eight months, the Verizon Protect plan would cost more than a brand new device.

Self-insurance

In most cases, I recommend that people self-insure their phones. While the peace of mind you can get from an insurance plan is nice, the companies offering the plans usually come out ahead of consumers.

Some people will argue that self-insurance isn’t always reasonable. Today’s fancier phones are expensive. Many people would have trouble covering a big, unplanned hit to their finances. In my view, most people who cannot afford to self-insure are buying phones that are too expensive. Some of today’s budget phones are great. Self-insuring is easier with a low-cost device.

AT&T and Cricket Drop $15 Plans

In March, T-Mobile began offering its $15 per month Connect plan with 2GB of data, unlimited minutes, and unlimited texts. AT&T and AT&T’s flanker brand, Cricket, quickly came out with similar plans for $15 per month. Both AT&T and Cricket have stopped offering the plans to new customers. It’s now come out that customers who purchased these plans will not be able to renew at the same price after 7/14/2020.

Here’s an excerpt from a text I received from Cricket the other day:

We hope the $15/2GB plan has helped you during this difficult time. Starting July 15, 2020, the plan will no longer be available. You can either select a different plan or we will move you to the $30/2GB plan when your bill cycle renews after July 14, 2020.

A credible-looking Reddit thread suggested AT&T Prepaid’s $15 plan would also become unavailable for existing customers after 7/14/2020.

Reflections

Shortly after the T-Mobile Connect plan launched, I began recommending it on Coverage Critic and on the list I maintain at MrMoneyMustache.com. My decision to recommend T-Mobile’s Connect plan rather than AT&T’s $15 plan drew some criticism on Reddit and raised questions from commenters on MrMoneyMustache. After all, AT&T’s network is more expansive than T-Mobile’s network.

I was worried AT&T’s plan wouldn’t stick around. Here’s a bit I wrote in March:

It’s not clear how long AT&T’s plan will be around. People who take advantage of AT&T’s offer today won’t necessarily get the same great deal each month for the foreseeable future. On the other hand, it looks like the T-Mobile Connect plans will continue to be available to new and existing subscribers for years.

About a month ago, I saw a screenshot from a chat conversation with a Cricket customer service representative. The representative suggested that Cricket subscribers on the $15 plan would be grandfathered. I remained skeptical. I wasn’t convinced the representative’s words were authoritative. I continued not to make a strong recommendation of Cricket or AT&T’s $15 plans. Today, I feel like my skepticism was validated.

Black Wireless & Mango Mobile Fail To Deliver

Earlier this year, two brands owned by the operator Red Pocket, Black Wireless and Mango Mobile, began offering what looked like a great deal…While the offer looked amazing, I didn’t bother writing about it. I’d previously had bad experiences with the carriers’ parent company, Red Pocket, and this recent offer looked sketchy.

That’s how I opened a retrospective post about a seemingly too-good-to-be-true plan that Black Wireless and Mango Mobile were offering. In the post, I explained why I found the carriers’ promotional deal sketchy:

  • The descriptions of the offer were confusing and possibly contradictory.
  • While Black Wireless typically offered service over AT&T’s network, the promotion was for service over T-Mobile’s network. Black Wireless was doing a terrible job of conveying that information to potential customers.
  • I couldn’t understand how Mango Mobile and Black Wireless would be able to profitably sell cheap plans with data allotments so much higher than those offered by other carriers piggybacking on the same networks.

I ended my post by suggesting that I may have been too skeptical:

I was suspicious the promotion would end up as a fiasco that looked bad for Red Pocket. However, it looks like the company has sorted things out.

New developments

It turns out my skepticism was warranted. Subscribers that took advantage of the deal are having their plans canceled. Here’s the start of a message Black Wireless sent subscribers on the plan:[1]

Hello, this is Black Wireless. Unfortunately, we have forfeited our contract with our vendor for T-Mobile services due to business reasons. Your service will stop by April the 10th, thus we contacted you to see whether you wish to continue the service with us and in this case we will add a web credit on your online Black Wireless account so you can use the credit to purchase a new plan with a SIM.

“Due to business reasons” is an awfully vague explanation.[2] While I’m not certain what happened, I’m suspicious Black Wireless and Mango Mobile were improperly reselling T-Mobile business lines to non-business consumers.[3]

Damage Control

A Reddit poster associated with Black Wireless commented in a thread about the new developments.

We apologize for any inconvenience…We are providing several options for the customers affected, which include switching to our legacy Black Wireless plans and/or refunds for the balance of the time (remaining months) after the period ending April 10th. Black Wireless has been in the telecom business since 1997 and the wireless business since 2011 and we are here to assist you to make this as seamless as possible. Black Wireless is based out of New York. Thank you for your time and be safe during this trying time.

It was good to see Black Wireless joining the conversation, but the comment frustrated me. A bunch of statements in the comment are misleading or only half true.

The people who eventually created Black Wireless existed in 1997, but Black Wireless did not exist yet. Further, Red Pocket took the reigns of Black Wireless in the last several years. While Black Wireless may technically be based out of New York, I feel like the commenter was trying to mislead people about how closely the company is tied to the U.S. I’m pretty sure the company Red Pocket offloads most of its operations to is based out of Chennai.[4]

In a second comment, the individual associated with Black Wireless gave some level-headed insights:

We did not lose any contract, but merely the plan we had with the underlying carrier due to unforeseen circumstances. We could only do our best at this point to assist our customers in order to make sure they get the service they require or if desired a refund. In this MVNO environment you must understand there are certain criteria we must adhere to and terms we cannot state in order to stay within our business requirements and guidelines with the underlying carrier and contracts/agreements.

If we take the comment at face value, it contradicts what Black Wireless told subscribers via text message: “Unfortunately, we have forfeited our contract with our vendor for T-Mobile services due to business reasons.”

While I’ve found the handling of the whole situation unprofessional, it looks like the companies involved are taking the right steps to offer refunds to affected customers.

Mint Extends Unlimited Data Through 5/14/20

Last month, I wrote about Mint Mobile offering its subscribers unlimited data at no extra charge from 3/14/2020 through 4/14/2020. I just got an email from Mint explaining that the carrier has extended the unlimited data through 5/14/2020.

Mint’s policies around the free data remain the same. Subscribers that use up all of their regular, allotted data can add more data in 3GB increments. Mint will initially charge for these 3GB data add-ons, but subscribers will be refunded within a day. To be eligible for additional data add-ons, a subsciber must have already used 95% of his or her last data add-on.

UNREAL Mobile Duplicates Mint Mobile’s Pricing Structure

The MVNO UNREAL Mobile recently revamped the structure of its plans. Here’s a screenshot of the carrier’s new offerings:

UNREAL Mobile Plan Options

Copying Mint

If you follow the wireless industry closely, this may look familiar. UNREAL Mobile has duplicated Mint Mobile’s plans and pricing. The structure isn’t just similar between the companies. It’s exactly the same. Mint even offers the same special deal for new customers that purchase 3 months of service.

UNREAL runs over AT&T’s network. In many respects, AT&T has a better network than T-Mobile, Mint’s host operator. Still, I’m not ready to say UNREAL is a better option than Mint. I had a lousy experience with UNREAL’s current parent company, Red Pocket. Joe Paonessa of BestMVNO had a lackluster experience with UNREAL itself.[1] That said, the new prices are excellent for service over AT&T’s network. Despite my reservations, I’m still tempted to trial UNREAL’s service.

Bogus “Unlimited” Plans

UNREAL offers extra data at vastly reduced speeds for customers that use up all of their allotted, regular data.[2]

In Unlimited Plans At 2G Speeds Are Bogus, I argued that it’s ridiculous to describe plans with this policy as “unlimited plans.” Mint has enough integrity not to advertise its basically identical plans as “unlimited.”