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.

Reflecting On Ting

Ting had a phenomenal reputation for its customer support. Given that lackluster support is par for the course in the cellular industry, it’s particularly impressive that Ting managed to buck the trend while offering a low-cost service.

Earlier this month, DISH acquired Ting’s subscriber base. DISH’s customer support has a lousy reputation. I’m worried that a lot of what made Ting special will disappear as subscribers gradually become integrated with DISH.

While I’m sad to see Ting changing, the recent moves were reasonable for Tucows, Ting’s parent company. Here’s a screenshot I took showing the change in Tucows’ share price in the handful of hours after the news about the acquisition of Ting’s subscribers went public:

Tucows' stock rose over 16%

Changes for Ting subscribers

I’ve found Elliot Noss, Tucows’ CEO, and many of Ting’s employees to be unusually straight talkers. While understandable, it was a bit disappointing that some of the usual candor was missing in statements and discussions related to the acquisition. Still, light was shed on important factors that could affect Ting subscribers going forward. The excerpts below come from Elliot Noss’ Reddit post.

Pricing

For those following, DISH is now becoming a fourth competitor in mobile with T-Mobile taking over Sprint. We are going to help them grow their business and try and make tens of millions of customers as happy and satisfied as you all have been. And for you, soon, DISH will be offering much improved pricing.

I have no reason to doubt that prices will come down. Ting did a great job pushing forward pay-for-what-you-use pricing, but Ting’s data charges haven’t been competitive with the rest of the market for several years. While I expect data prices will come down, I don’t know if DISH will let Ting’s customer base stick with pay-for-what-you-use pricing indefinitely.

Customer support

Our customer service people will still be the ones answering your calls, etc. for the first while and before they are not we intend to help DISH be able to provide service that has you just as happy.

In my view, Ting managed to offer far better support than any of the major carriers offer their own, postpaid customers. I seriously doubt DISH’s customer support will offer the same quality that Ting’s support agents offer.

T-Mobile’s Misleading Claims About Its Four Unlimited Lines For $100 Deal

Yesterday, T-Mobile shared a press release announcing deals the company is about to launch. Starting July 24, T-Mobile will offer four lines on its Essentials plan for $25 per line each month. The Essentials plan is the most basic of T-Mobile’s postpaid unlimited plans.

Customers making use of T-Mobile’s deal on the Essentials plan will have the option to take advantage of a second promotion on the Samsung Galaxy A71 5G:1

If you need 5G phones too, for just $5 more per line, get four lines for $30 each per month, plus taxes and fees with autopay on T-Mobile Essentials PLUS four Samsung Galaxy A71 5G included with bill credits and eligible trade-in.

Bragging

At the beginning of its press release, T-Mobile brags about how unbelievable the upcoming deal will be:

Four lines for just $25/month each, an unheard of price point for unlimited postpaid.

T-Mobile brags again a bit later:

This price point with unlimited data has not been offered for everyone in postpaid wireless in, well, ever.

And then again:

This price point for unlimited postpaid is unheard of. As in, unlimited high speed data at this price has never been offered before for everyone in postpaid wireless in the history of ever.

Despite T-Mobile’s claims, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen postpaid unlimited plans at this price point. Sprint previously offered its Unlimited Kickstart plan for $25 per line.

Note how the caveat word “postpaid” shows up in each of T-Mobile’s boasts. Prepaid brands Visible and Cricket offer four lines for $100. Other prepaid carriers have offered similar deals in the past. Unlike T-Mobile, both Visible and Cricket include taxes in the $100 list price of their four-line plans.

No high-priority data

Postpaid plans tend to have features that prepaid plans do not. Notably, postpaid service is likely to come with high-priority data during congestion. While T-Mobile’s Essentials plan is postpaid, it does not include high-priority data.

T-Mobile’s statements are a bit disingenuous. It’s strange for the company to brag about how the upcoming deal will involve postpaid service while neglecting to mention that a major feature people associate with postpaid service is missing.

AT&T Prepaid Adds 6 Month Option To Its 8GB Plan

In one of my recent posts, I discussed the awesome deals AT&T is offering on its prepaid plan with unlimited minutes, unlimited texts, and 8GB of data each month. At the time I wrote the post, AT&T offered the plan with three different price structures:

  • Month-to-month payments ($40 per month)1
  • Three months purchased upfront ($33 per month or $180 total)
  • One year purchased upfront ($25 per month or $300 total)

Now, AT&T has added another option. Customers that purchase six months of service upfront can get the 8GB plan for $30 per month.

Before AT&T added the six-month option, I was comparing AT&T’s plan to Mint Mobile’s 8GB plan. The plans look even more similar now that both carriers offer 3, 6, and 12-month payments options.

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.