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.

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.

Picture of a confused person looking at bills

Verizon Prepaid’s Confusing & Awesome Promotions

Verizon Prepaid is offering some great deals right now. Notably, a single-line plan with unlimited minutes, unlimited texts, and 16GB of data is now available for as low as $35 per month.

Multiple promotions and discounts are stacking on top of each other. This has been baffling for some consumers. A price calculator on Verizon’s website that fails to take some of the promotions into account has contributed to the confusion.

To sort things out, I’m going to run through the promotions and discounts one by one.

Double data

For about a year, Verizon has been running a double data promotion. The prepaid plans regular allotments of data have been doubled at no extra charge:

  • The usual 500MB plan become a 1GB plan
  • The usual 3GB plan became a 6GB plan
  • The usual 8GB plan became a 16GB plan

Auto Pay discount

Customers who sign up for Auto Pay can get a $5 per month discount. This discount is only available (a) after the first month of service and (b) on lines of service with base prices of at least $40 per month.

Multi-line discounts

On multi-line plans, Verizon offers discounts on added lines. These discounts do not apply to the first line on a plan. The size of the discount depends on the data allotment subscribers opt for:

  • 1GB: No discount
  • 6GB: $10 per month discount
  • 16GB: $15 per month discount
  • Unlimited: $20 per month discount

$10 off first line

A recent, online-only promotion offers $10 per month off the first line of service on either a 16GB or unlimited plan. This discount only applies after the first month of service.

Examples

A single-line on the 16GB plan has a base price of $50. In the first month, no discounts apply. After the first month, the $5 Auto Pay discount and the $10 discount on the first line of service come into effect. As a result, the ongoing price (before taxes and fees) comes out to $35 per month.

Two-lines of service on the 16GB plan would cost $85 in the first month ($50 for the first line and $35 for the second line thanks to a $15 multi-line discount). After the first month, the ongoing rate would fall to $65 per month (the $10 discount on the first line would kick in along with two $5 Auto Pay discounts).

Commentary

$35 for a single-line with unlimited minutes, unlimited texts, and 16GB of data on Verizon’s extensive network is a great deal. If Verizon wants to make its prepaid plans easier for consumers to understand, I see a few steps it could take:

  • Fix the price calculator to include a $10 discount on the first line of service if a 16GB or unlimited plan is selected.
  • Keep the current pricing and data allotments but drop all the complexity of double data. Forget having a 3GB plan that actually comes with a 6GB data allotment. Just call that a 6GB plan.
  • Let the Auto Pay discount kick in for the first month if customers set it up Auto Pay immediately.

AT&T Matches T-Mobile’s $15 Plan

Last week, T-Mobile began offering a plan with unlimited minutes, unlimited texts, and 2GB of data for only $15 per month. A few days later, AT&T responded by offering its own $15 per month plan with unlimited minutes, unlimited texts, and 2GB of data.

Plan terms

I dug around to learn about the plan’s policies. Here are my impressions at the moment:

  • New subscribers need an AT&T prepaid SIM (costs $4.99).
  • Mobile hotspot and tethering are permitted.
  • Unused data rolls over for one month.[1]
  • Taxes and fees are not included in the $15 base price.
  • Unlimited international texting to over 100 countries is included.
  • Streaming video traffic will be throttled by default, but subscribers can turn the throttle off.
  • The plan is not eligible for AT&T’s discounts for paperless billing or automatic payments.
  • Data has a soft cap—once 2GB of regular data has been used, additional data can be used at significantly reduced speeds.

Limited time offer

AT&T has repeatedly described its new $15 plan as a promotion and a limited time offer. I don’t know when the plan will cease to be available.[2]

T-Mobile Connect vs. AT&T’s plan

AT&T’s $15 plan has a handful of substantial advantages over the $15 T-Mobile Connect plan:

  • AT&T has better nationwide coverage.
  • SIM cards are cheaper from AT&T ($5 vs. $10).
  • Only AT&T offers data rollover.
  • AT&T has a soft cap on data, while T-Mobile Connect has a hard cap.

However, 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.

T-Mobile Connect Launches With $15 Per Month Service

In November 2019, T-Mobile committed to offering a new, budget plan if a merger between T-Mobile and Sprint was approved:[1]

[The New T-Mobile will offer a] competitive $15 per month prepaid option– half the price of the lowest T-Mobile plan today – to EVERYONE, especially lower-income consumers.

T-Mobile launched that plan last week. I didn’t expect it to be available so soon. It looks like the plan’s rollout was accelerated in response to the coronavirus:[2]

T-Mobile Connect was announced in November of 2019 as part of 5G for Good – the first planned Un-carrier moves for the proposed New T-Mobile – but in response to customer needs in these trying times, the Un-carrier is launching it this week.

Plan versions

The new T-Mobile Connect plans come with unlimited minutes and texts. Subscribers have two options for their data allotments:

  • 2GB plan – base price of $15 per month
  • 5GB plan – base price of $25 per month

Taxes and fees are not included in the base price of either plan. T-Mobile plans to boost data allotments by 500MB each year:[3]

T-Mobile Connect also has an Annual Data Upgrade, giving customers an additional 500MB of monthly data, every year, at no additional cost, for the next five years.

Plan terms

I’ve read through a lot of detail’s T-Mobile’s published about the plan. Here are my biggest takeaways from that reading:

  • New subscribers must purchase a T-Mobile SIM card for $10.[4]
  • International roaming is not available for T-Mobile Connect plans.
  • Data has a hard cap. Subscribers who’ve used all their regular data cannot continue to use the internet at reduced speeds.
  • Up to five T-Mobile Connect lines can be combined on a family plan. Line prices stay constant regardless of the number of people on a plan.
  • Mobile hotspot and tethering are permitted.
  • Video is throttled to 480p by default, but subscribers can turn off throttling.

Metro’s offer

T-Mobile’s flanker brand, Metro, will temporarily offer a plan similar to T-Mobile’s $15 plan:[5]

For the next two months, Metro is offering a $15 plan – that’s half the price of the current most affordable plan. For 60 days after customers activate, it’s just $15 per month for unlimited talk and text plus 2GB of high-speed smartphone data.

Unless I’m missing something, it seems like anyone who’s torn between the T-Mobile’s $15 plan and Metro’s plan should go with T-Mobile.

My take

T-Mobile’s Connect plans will be a great option for budget-sensitive consumers that don’t use a ton of data. Based on what I’ve seen so far, it looks like subscribers on the Connect plans will have a level of priority on par with most of T-Mobile’s postpaid subscribers. If my speculation is accurate, that may give the Connect plans a big advantage over the budget-friendly plans offered by many of the MVNOs that operate over T-Mobile’s network (e.g., Mint Mobile).

Earlier today, I placed an order for the $15 per month T-Mobile Connect plan. I’ll write more about it once I’ve had a chance to trial the service.

Twigby Launches Smart Value Plans

The MVNO Twigby just launched a handful of what it calls “Smart Value Plans.” These plans are an alternative to plans using Twigby’s build-your-own-plan structure.

Each of the new plans comes with unlimited minutes and texts. The plans differ in their data allotments. Twigby has a 3GB, 5GB, and 10GB Smart Value Plan. The new plans cost a bit less than an equivalent plan would cost under Twigby’s old build-your-own-plan structure.

Monthly DataNew PriceOld PriceSavings
3GB$20$2829%
5GB$25$3324%
10GB$35$4319%

For the first six months of service, Twigby offers customers 25% off the prices above.

U.S. Telecom Companies Take The “Keep Americans Connected” Pledge

In response to coronavirus-related threats, the FCC recently asked a large number of U.S. broadband and telephone companies to take the Keep Americans Connected Pledge. Companies that take the pledge commit not to cut off subscribers who fail to pay their bills for reasons related to the coronavirus. Companies further pledge to waive late fees for subscribers that fail to pay.

From a document on the FCC’s website:

The Keep Americans Connected Pledge reads as follows:Given the coronavirus pandemic and its impact on American society, [[Company Name]] pledges for the next 60 days to:(1) not terminate service to any residential or small business customers because of their inability to pay their bills due to the disruptions caused by the coronavirus pandemic;(2) waive any late fees that any residential or small business customers incur because of their economic circumstances related to the coronavirus pandemic; and(3) open its Wi-Fi hotspots to any American who needs them.

In a very short period of time, a ton of American telecom companies took the pledge. Here’s an incomplete list of players in the wireless industry that have already pledged:

  • AlticeUSA
  • AT&T
  • Comcast
  • Sprint
  • T-Mobile
  • TracFone Wireless
  • US Cellular
  • Verizon

It will be interesting to see how these companies’ commitments play out.

Tracfone’s $40 Per Year Plan

Tracfone is offering a super cheap annual plan through its eBay store. For $39.99, customers can get a plan with:

  • 365 days of service
  • 1200 texts
  • 1200 minutes
  • 3GB of data
  • Service over AT&T, Verizon, or T-Mobile’s network

The allotments of data, texts, and minutes last for an entire year and do not renew each month.

It’s awesome to see that the offer is available on AT&T and Verizon’s extensive networks. As I understand it, Tracfone will ship a SIM card for each of the three networks, and subscribers can then choose which network to use.

This is one of the best deals I’ve seen for an extremely low-use plan. Unlike some of the other companies offering ultra-cheap plans, I have a lot of faith in Tracfone. I’ve gone ahead and ordered a plan, and I expect to post an update once I’ve had a chance to trial the service. I don’t know how long this deal will be around for. Tracfone has suggested it’s a limited time offer.

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.