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

There’s No Escaping Bad Customer Experiences

Even cellular industry insiders can’t order phones and service without trouble. Prakash Sangam, an industry analyst, shared this tweet last month:

I’ve been thinking about the tweet a lot. In the last few months, I’ve opened accounts with all three of the major networks. Two of my ordering experiences were quite bad.

I’ll run through my experiences with each network. Go ahead and skip to the second half of the post if reading about my experiences doesn’t sound interesting.

Order 1: T-Mobile

I ordered a new line of service and an iPhone SE from T-Mobile. Everything went as expected. T-Mobile was the clear winner in terms of the customer experience.

Order 2: AT&T

I tried to order service from AT&T’s website while making use of AT&T’s bring-your-own-device (BYOD) program. AT&T was running an online-only promotion for BYOD lines that involved a waived activation fee and a $250 visa gift card for new subscribers.

A canceled order

A day after placing my order, I got an email from AT&T explaining that the company canceled my order. Here’s an excerpt:

We couldn’t verify this order [redacted] really came from you. For your security, we canceled it. Don’t worry. If there was a hold on your card, we’ll release the funds. Let us help you reorder your item(s). Visit an AT&T store. Be sure to bring your identification.

I have no idea why AT&T outright canceled the order. It would have been more convenient if AT&T paused the order until I could verify my identity.

Attempted phone resolution

I called AT&T to see if I could resolve the issue without going into a store. The agent I spoke with encouraged me to restart the order over the phone. I was worried that ordering by phone would make me ineligible for the online-only promotions. The agent told me she could add on the promotions at the end of the ordering process. I was skeptical, but I proceeded.

The reordering process was aggravating. I had to slowly re-share all of the information I had previously sent through AT&T’s website. After over an hour on the phone, the line dropped before I finished my order. AT&T didn’t call me back.

Going in a store

After two failures, I gave up and went into an AT&T store. I was worried placing an order in a store would make me ineligible for the promotions I wanted to take advantage of.

The AT&T sales representative I met with told me that the store could waive my activation fee and match the $250 visa card promotion with a bill credit of the same size. After sitting at the AT&T store for a bit while the AT&T representative consulted his colleagues, I was informed that the store actually couldn’t match the $250 promotion. I decided to cut my losses and pulled the trigger on service anyway.

A long-running problem

AT&T’s support forum is full of people frustrated with the same issue. Worse yet, complaints about this problem with promotion eligibility have been showing up for more than two years. In that time, AT&T hasn’t done a damn thing to solve the problem.

Order 3: Verizon

Along with a new line of service, I ordered a Galaxy S20 UW and a smartwatch from Verizon. The customer experience sucked.

Trade-in fiasco

When I placed my order, I decided to trade in an iPhone 6. While Verizon typically valued an iPhone 6 trade-in at $12, Verizon was running a promotion where customers who upgraded to the S20 5G UW could get a $350 credit for an iPhone 6. Based on the terms on Verizon’s website, it wasn’t clear whether I’d be eligible for the promotion as a new customer. Here’s a screenshot of the terms:

Trade in terms for $350 credit

When I checked the value of my iPhone 6 on Verizon’s website, I was offered $200 for it. I couldn’t quite figure out what was going on. I ultimately assumed I was ineligible for the $350 credit but eligible for some other promotion.

During the checkout process, Verizon’s website continued to suggest I’d get a $200 credit. Once the phone was actually inspected, Verizon revised its value down to $12. Here’s a screenshot from the email I received:

Trade in adjustment email

I don’t know why Verizon wrote, “Better qualifying promotion found.” Looking at my Verizon bills, I don’t see any credits that would correspond to either a $200 or a $350 credit.1

Contacting support

I reached out to Verizon’s support to figure out what happened with my trade-in. It didn’t go well.

The agent I talked to through Verizon’s chat-based support initially agreed that something went wrong:

The agent ran into trouble trying to make adjustments:

The agent later told me that I wasn’t eligible for the bill credit since the promotion started after I submitted my trade-in:

A promotion for a $350 bill credit was running in June. My earlier screenshot was taken at that time. I don’t know why the agent suggested otherwise.

Per the advice of the original agent, I switched over to contacting Verizon’s trade-in department by phone. After a few unsuccessful hours with Verizon’s support, I cut my losses and gave up.

Wrong phone specs

The S20 5G UW I ordered arrived with different specs than Samsung initially advertised. I previously wrote a whole post dedicated to the issue.


Why the hell are customers’ experiences so bad?

I’ve described the cell phone industry as a “confusopoly.” Scott Adams coined the term and defined a confusopoly as:

A group of companies with similar products who intentionally confuse customers instead of competing on price.

In my recent orders, I came out several hundred dollars behind my expectations. If Verizon and AT&T had user-friendly ordering systems and less confusing policies, that wouldn’t have happened. Still, I don’t think the confusopoly concept fully explains my bad experiences.

By canceling my online order, AT&T made me ineligible for its gift card promotion. There’s a sense in which that saved AT&T a few hundred bucks. On the other hand, I don’t think AT&T intentionally screwed me. New customers are worth a lot to AT&T. Each time AT&T cancels an online order, there’s a chance that they’ll entirely lose a customer. Many people won’t bother coming into a store after a canceled order.

I’m left scratching my head. In most industries where new customers are valuable, a lot of effort goes into making customer experiences positive. What’s going on in the cellular industry?

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

Rumors About A Potential Consumer Cellular Sale

Earlier this week, Mike Dano of Light Reading reported on rumors about Consumer Cellular:

Consumer Cellular – one of the nation’s largest MVNOs – is in discussions with other companies for a potential sale, according to two people familiar with the issue. The discussions appear to be in the early stages, and may not result in a transaction.

An acquisition of Consumer Cellular’s roughly four million subscribers would be big news. The new rumors combined with Ting’s sale of its subscriber base earlier this month raise the possibility that MVNOs are feeling squeezed.

As Sprint folds into T-Mobile, network operators may be increasing what they charge MVNOs for network access. MVNOs may also worry their offerings will become less competitive as DISH enters the marketplace. The CEO of Ting’s parent company, Elliot Noss, suggested something along those lines:

For many quarters now, I have discussed the outlook for Ting Mobile within the context of how DISH enters the market and what that would mean for the industry competitively. I absolutely believe that they will be very aggressive with pricing, which has two implications for our announcement. First, it would make remaining as a retail MVNO that much more difficult. Second, it will make their entry into the market that much more successful. The net result is that DISH is well positioned to disrupt the US mobile market.

Ting’s Subscriber Base Acquired by DISH

News came out today that most of Ting’s assets, including Ting’s mobile customers, have been acquired by DISH:1

Effective August 1, 2020, most Ting Mobile customers across the U.S. became customers of DISH. These customers will continue to use their current phones and will enjoy the same rates and excellent customer experience. As with DISH’s recently acquired Boost customers, these Ting Mobile customers will have access to the new T-Mobile network.

Tucows, Ting’s original parent company, will retain ownership of Ting’s technology stack. Tucows plans to offer Mobile Service Enabler (MSE) solutions to help wireless carriers run their businesses. Here’s a bit of information I received from Tucows’ PR team:

Now, as a Mobile Services Enabler (MSE), Tucows is opening up its mobile platform and the foundation on which the MVNO Ting Mobile was built. The same platform that helped Ting Mobile create some of the happiest mobile customers and top Consumer Reports lists year over year. DISH is becoming Tucows’ first MSE customer—starting with Ting Mobile, and adding Boost Mobile’s estimated 9 million customers in the 2nd half of 2021.

The Verizon Network

So far, I haven’t seen Ting directly address the plans for the carrier’s Verizon-based service. An email from Ting’s PR team said there would be “no data migration, service interruption or billing changes.”

I expect customers on Ting’s Verizon-based service will not be forced to migrate immediately. I’m not sure what will happen in the long term.

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).