Up arrows indicating improvements

Visible Party Pay Improvements

Visible, a flanker brand of Verizon, offers just one plan: unlimited minutes, texts, and data for a base price of $40 per month. In 2019, Visible launched a feature called Party Pay. With Party Pay, customers can join together in parties to get lower rates:

  • 2-line party – $35 per line each month
  • 3-line party – $30 per line each month
  • 4-line party – $25 per line each month

Unlike conventional family plans, Visible bills each member of a party separately. Additionally, Visible doesn’t try to limit parties to family members. Visible subscribers are allowed to form parties with strangers and over the internet.

Previously, Visible capped parties at a maximum size of four people. Today, Visible dropped that cap. It’s a great change. Managing a Party Pay group used to be clunky. If one person dropped out of a full Party Pay group, the remaining members would have to either pay more or scramble to quickly re-fill the party. Now, large parties can be formed online. If someone drops out of a party, monthly prices for those left in the party won’t change as long as at least four lines remain.

I might start my own Party Pay group that’s open to anyone, but if you’re looking for a group now, consider joining this big one that’s actively seeking members.

Other changes at Visible

Visible recently released a handful of other updates:

  • e-SIM is now supported for subscribers with compatible iPhones.
  • Visible brought back a referral program. If you refer a friend, you get a month of service for only $5.
  • Calls from the U.S. to Mexico, Canada, the Virgin Islands, and Puerto Rico are now free.
  • Visible launched a new community forum platform.

More Data Coming To Mint Mobile

Mint Mobile just announced that it will soon offer more data on some of its plans. The carrier’s prices won’t change.

Right now, Mint offers 3 plans with fixed data allotments (all the plans include unlimited minutes and texts):

  • 3GB per month – As low as $15 per month
  • 8GB per month – As low as $20 per month
  • 12GB per month – As low as $25 per month

Starting January 28, the monthly data allotments will increase between 1GB and 3GB:

  • 4GB per month – As low as $15 per month
  • 10GB per month – As low as $20 per month
  • 15GB per month – As low as $25 per month

I assume the data increase will be available to both new customers and existing customers, but I haven’t confirmed. As far as I know, there will be no changes to Mint’s unlimited plan.

Ryan Reynolds, an owner of Mint, shared a video about the upcoming change:

Ting Launches New Plans & Pricing

Ting’s subscribers and some of the company’s other assets were acquired by DISH earlier this year. At the time of the acquisition, Elliot Noss, the CEO of Ting’s parent company, wrote:

Soon, DISH will be offering much improved pricing.

Today, Ting is delivering on that promise. The carrier just launched four new plans. While almost all Ting subscribers will get better prices through the new plans, an email I received stated, “Existing customers are also welcome to keep their current Ting Mobile rates should they wish to.”

Ting’s new Flex option is similar to Ting’s old pay-for-what-you-use model. A base price of $10 per month provides service with unlimited minutes and texts. Subscribers on the Flex plan then pay $5 per gigabyte of data used (half of Ting’s old $10 per gigabyte rate).

Ting’s new plans include three other options that may make sense for heavier data users. Each option includes unlimited minutes and texts:

Set 5 GB

  • $25 per month
  • 5GB of full-speed data each month
  • No restrictions on mobile hotspot data

Unlimited

  • $45 per month
  • 22GB of full-speed data each month
  • Up to 12GB of data per month can be used for mobile hotspots

Unlimited Pro

  • $60 per month
  • 35GB of full-speed data each month
  • Up to 30GB of data per month can be used for mobile hotspots

Subscribers on these plans that run out of full-speed data can use additional data at sluggish, 2G speeds at no extra charge.

“Unlimited” done right

I’m normally critical of carriers offering “unlimited” plans that cap full-speed data. While the word “unlimited” in the names of some of Ting’s plans could be misleading, Ting is transparent about data caps. The screenshot below comes from Ting’s Plans page:

Ting "Unlimited" plan characteristics screenshot

Ting’s transparency stands in contrast to the usual strategy of burring limitations in fine print.

Ting post-acquisition

I’m not sure how much confidence I have in Ting following the acquisition by DISH. While Ting currently offers a great customer experience and some of the best support agents in the industry, I’m less optimistic about the long term.

I’m guessing Ting’s subscriber base will eventually be folded into DISH or another carrier owned by DISH. In all likelihood, the transition will lead to deterioration in the quality of subscribers’ experiences.1

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:

US Mobile’s Low-Cost Plans

US Mobile is a low-cost carrier that offers service over Verizon and T-Mobile’s networks. In the last few months, US Mobile launched two plans that look like great deals for subscribers that opt for Verizon’s network:

  • $15 per month – Unlimited minutes and texts + 2.5GB of data
  • $30 per month – Unlimited minutes and texts + 10GB of data

US Mobile charges more in fees than most of its competitors. The final cost of these two plans will probably be about $5 per line higher each month than the base prices.

I often think of T-Mobile’s Connect plans and Mint Mobile’s 3GB-8GB plans as the cost leaders in the U.S. wireless market. While these plans have excellent prices, coverage on these plans isn’t as good as the coverage offered by Verizon’s network.

US Mobile’s plans are more expensive than Mint’s plans and T-Mobile’s Connect plans, but the price differences are relatively small. US Mobile may have some of the best options for people that want extensive coverage but also want cheap service. I’m planning to test and review one of the new plans soon.

AT&T Store

AT&T Introduces Mix-And-Match Program

Earlier this week, AT&T launched Unlimited Your Way. Customers on multi-line plans can now mix and match between AT&T’s primary plans. For example, a family with three lines can put one phone on AT&T’s Unlimited Starter plan, another phone on the Unlimited Extra plan, and a final phone on the Unlimited Elite plan. Before the program launched, AT&T required all lines on a multi-line account to use the same plan.

Pricing

It doesn’t look like AT&T has changed prices for accounts with 4 or fewer lines. AT&T has added a 5-line price to its website.1 The table below shows AT&T’s per-line pricing before taxes and fees and after a discount for enrolling in paperless billing and automatic payments.

LinesUnlimited EliteUnlimited ExtraUnlimited Starter
1$85$75$65
2$75$65$60
3$60$50$45
4$50$40$35
5$45$35$30

Reflections

Verizon has allowed customers to mix and match between its primary plans for years now. I’m glad to see AT&T copying Verizon’s policy. Since prices aren’t changing, I think the new program will be good for consumers.

What’s Going On With Smartwatch Plan Prices?

As far as I can tell, all eight carriers that support cellular service on Apple Watches have the same standard policy: service costs $10 per month. In general, watch service is only available as an add-on (e.g., stand-alone plans are not available), and carriers only offer the add-on to postpaid subscribers. Plans offered for other eSIM-based smartwatches generally follow the same $10 per month standard. Why?

Providing service for watches shouldn’t cost network operators much. Most people barely use data on their watches. Demands watches place on networks are minimal. The marginal cost for a network operator provisioning an eSIM should be close to $0.

In an open and frictionless market, I’d expect competition to drive down the price of smartwatch plans. For some reason, that isn’t happening (at least in the United States). I wonder if carriers that offer the Apple Watch have to agree to artificially keep watch service plans at $10 per month. However, it’s hard to square a policy like that with Verizon’s recent changes to some of its plans. Subscribers on Verizon’s Do More Unlimited and Get More Unlimited plans are now eligible for a discount that brings smartwatch service down to $5 per month.

I’m baffled. If you know what’s going on, please leave a comment.

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.

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.

DISH, MATRIXX, and Dynamic Pricing

DISH and MATRIXX Software just came out with a press release titled: “DISH selects MATRIXX Software for dynamic pricing and monetization of its 5G network”.

I’m a huge advocate of variable-rate pricing. Varying data charges based on how congested cellular networks are would bring huge efficiency gains.

While the press release seems promising, it’s full of corporate jargon and light on substance. Here’s the key bit from the press release:

MATRIXX’s API-first architecture is proven to deploy quickly and cost-effectively. Combined with DISH’s AI strategy, it will determine network availability and utilization, dynamically changing prices throughout the day. MATRIXX’s cloud native, continuous integration/continuous deployment (CI/CD) pipeline then automates pricing updates.