Spectrum Is Expensive

The FCC’s C band auction recently closed with a total of about 81 billion dollars in bids. This was by far the highest-grossing spectrum auction in U.S. history. Previously, the largest auction garnered about 45 billion dollars.1

In the C band auction, about 280 megahertz of spectrum in the 3.7-3.98GHz range was reallocated to cellular companies. Spectrum in this frequency range is particularly appealing to operators of cellular networks. The spectrum offers great characteristics, combining a potential for covering large areas with a potential for delivering fast speeds.

The amount of money committed in the recent auction drives home a point that I think most casual observers miss: spectrum is an enormous expense for cellular networks in the U.S. With the auction closing at about 81 billion dollars, U.S. networks are spending over $250 per person in the United States in a single auction.2

Grayscale phone

Let’s Retire The CDMA/GSM Distinction

Understanding cell phone compatibility across networks can be tough. A common understanding has emerged: some cell phones are CDMA devices while other phones are GSM devices. According to the common understanding, GSM phones work with GSM networks, and CDMA phones work with CDMA networks. The common understanding has never been entirely accurate. For many years, a CDMA phone sold by Sprint wouldn’t necessarily work on Verizon’s CDMA network. Similarly, a GSM phone sold by AT&T wouldn’t necessarily work with T-Mobile’s GSM network. Beyond that, plenty of phone models have supported both CDMA and GSM.

Although the common understanding of the CDMA/GSM dichotomy wasn’t ever entirely right, it was at least useful or directionally accurate for many years. Not anymore. Networks are phasing out 2G and 3G technologies. All of the major networks in the U.S. today are dominated by 4G LTE technology. LTE isn’t GSM or CDMA. LTE is its own thing.

MVNOs typically can’t explicitly name their host networks. As a result, MVNOs often use the CDMA and GSM acronyms to label their networks. An MVNO that offers service over AT&T and Verizon’s networks might refer to the AT&T service as “the GSM service” and the Verizon service “the CDMA service.”

Just this week, the carrier Tello launched service over T-Mobile’s network. Tello is calling the T-Mobile network the “New GSM Network.” While I understand Tello’s rationale, I worry Tello is continuing a trend that ultimately confuses consumers about cellular technologies and phone compatibility.

Thanks For Approving My Merger!

T-Mobile’s former CEO, John Legere, was extremely successful in branding himself as an advocate for consumers. While I admire Legere’s success, I don’t think he lived up to the persona he created.1

Today, Legere shared a tweet that reaffirmed my feelings:


While I think a lot of criticism of Ajit Pai has been unfair, “advocating for wireless competition” is quite the phrase. It feels particularly insincere coming from Legere who made the better part of $100 million from a bonus and other compensation tied to the closure of the merger between T-Mobile and Sprint. I’m on the record saying I expected the merger to be bad for consumers. Eight months later, I continue to stand by my view.

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:

Consumer Cellular Being Sold To A PE Firm

The private equity firm GTCR is planning to purchase a majority stake in the carrier Consumer Cellular for 2.3 billion dollars. With roughly four million subscribers, the purchase price comes out to over $500 per subscriber. The deal is expected to close in late 2020.

I don’t know what source Mike Dano of Light Reading is relying on, but he seems to have insights into the details of the sale:

After a bidding war that involved Dish Network, Altice USA, Ultra Mobile, a group led by Boost Mobile founder Peter Adderton and others, Chicago private equity company GTCR has purchased Consumer Cellular for around $2.3 billion.

A year of acquisitions

The wireless market in the U.S. has seen a lot of movement lately. Sprint, Ting, Boost, Consumer Cellular, and a whole bunch of brands owned by TracFone have either been acquired in the last year or are in the process of being acquired.

The latest deal with Consumer Cellular presents interesting contrasts with the acquisition of Boost Mobile. DISH paid about 1.4 billion for roughly 9 million Boost subscribers. The cost per subscriber in the Boost acquisition came out to about $150, roughly one-fourth of the cost per subscriber in the Consumer Cellular acquisition. Consumer Cellular’s lower churn rate may explain some of the discrepancy.

Tello After The T-Mobile & Sprint Merger

The carrier Tello has offered some of the best prices in the industry for a while now. Until recently, the major downside of Tello was that it ran over Sprint’s lackluster network.

Ever since the merger between T-Mobile and Sprint closed, I’ve been wondering what the future would look like for Tello. On Friday, Tello shared a blog post that shed some light:

  • Tello plans to start implementing service over T-Mobile’s network in late 2020.1
  • Tello does not plan to change its pricing structure at this time.2
  • Sprint-only service is expected to be available until at least mid-2021.3
  • Sprint-only phones may see a big decline in the performance of data service before mid-2021.4

Phone compatibility with T-Mobile

Fortunately, many Tello subscribers already have phones that are compatible with T-Mobile’s network. High-end phones purchased in the last few years are particularly likely to work with T-Mobile.

If you bought a phone in the past 2 years — such as a recent iPhone or Galaxy — it likely already has support for both networks. Same goes for iPhone XR, XS, or later that should be good for the full T-Mobile experience, but devices older than 2018 may not be able to tap into the full capabilities of the new network.

Tello recommends using phones that support LTE bands 2, 4, 12, 66, and 71 along with VoLTE. Customers without compatible phones will probably need to upgrade their devices if they want to remain with Tello after the legacy Sprint network shuts down.

The long term

Tello has said it won’t raise prices, but I don’t think that’s a long-term commitment. I wouldn’t be surprised if we see a price hike by the end of 2021. Tello will be more appealing with the expanded coverage offered by T-Mobile’s network. Additionally, the market for low-cost service is likely to become less competitive as Sprint disappears and large companies buy out a number of MVNOs.

While we may see a price increase eventually, I’m tentatively excited for Tello’s future. T-Mobile’s network is likely to offer Tello subscribers a far better coverage experience than Sprint’s network ever could.


Visit Tello’s website


Artificial Hotspot Limits

It’s common for cell phone plans to include limits on mobile hotspot data that are separate from limits on overall data use limit. E.g.,

  • Verizon’s Get More Unlimited offers unlimited regular data but caps mobile hotspot use at 30GB.
  • One of Mint Mobile’s plans comes with 35GB of regular data but caps mobile hotspot use at 5GB.

Recently, a Reddit user was confused about Mint’s policy and asked:

What’s the reason for the 5gb cap on the hotspot? I have a friend who this plan would be perfect for, however he tethers his iPad frequently to watch YouTube. Not sure what the big deal is since you could just switch the sim anyway.

Here’s how I responded:

My speculation:

Even though Mint allows 35GB of use, it knows the vast majority of subscribers won’t use that much data. If all subscribers used their full allotments, the plan would be much less profitable for Mint.

By restricting hotspot use, Mint reduces data use and (more importantly) dissuades some very heavy data users from ordering the plan in the first place.

I may not have that that exactly right. Mint’s arrangements with its host operator, T-Mobile, are not public knowledge. But the underlying logic is right. A gigabyte of mobile hotspot data isn’t more cost-intensive for a carrier than a gigabyte of on-device data.

Verizon Plans To Acquire Tracfone

This morning, Verizon announced plans to acquire Tracfone. The planned deal will involve an acquisition of the Tracfone brand and a bunch of subsidiary brands like Total Wireless, Straight Talk, and SafeLink.

At the moment, these brands have about 21 million subscribers. The deal is slated to be worth six or seven billion dollars (or about $300 per subscriber):1

The consideration for the transaction will include $3.125 billion in cash and $3.125 billion in Verizon common stock, subject to customary adjustments, at closing. The agreement also includes up to an additional $650 million in future cash consideration related to the achievement of certain performance measures and other commercial arrangements.

Along with the subscribers and brand names, Verizon is acquiring Tracfone’s roughly 850 employees and Tracfone’s retail presence in over 90,000 locations.2 Verizon expects the deal to close in the second half of 2020.

Reflections & open questions

Tracfone and Verizon will need to pass through some regulatory hoops before the deal is official. If the acquisition goes through, it will cause a massive shift in the industry. Tracfone’s user base makes up about 5% of the U.S. wireless market and a major share of the prepaid market.3

At this time, I’m guessing Verizon will continue to operate several Tracfone brands rather than consolidate Tracfone subscribers under the Verizon brand name.4 Years ago, a Verizon executive discussing Verizon’s lackluster number of prepaid subscribers stated the following:5

“Our retail prepaid is above market. We’re really not competitive in that environment for a whole host of reasons and it’s because we have to make sure that we don’t migrate our high-quality postpaid base over to a prepaid product…Quite honestly, we use the Tracfone brand as our prepaid product.

About 13 million of Tracfone’s subscribers already have service running over Verizon’s network.6 I don’t know what will happen to the 8 million subscribers on other networks. I’m guessing Verizon will try to transition most of them to the Verizon network, but Verizon may sell the subscribers to other carriers.

When the merger between Sprint and T-Mobile closed, I wrote:

I continue to think the merger is going to be bad for consumers over the long term.
I’m guessing the merger between Sprint and T-Mobile contributed to the viability of Verizon’s Tracfone acquisition. As with the merger, I’m not optimistic about the effects this new acquisition will have on consumers in the long term.

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.