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Wireless Providers Create Challenges for Smartphone Upgrade Marketplace

samsung s7Smartphone manufacturers are dealing with sluggish sales for the newest and greatest phone models because American consumers are increasingly resistant to paying for top of the line devices.

Apple, Samsung, and others are facing some of their biggest challenges ever delivering upgrade features deemed useful enough to encourage consumers to spend the more than $600 that many high-end phones now command in the marketplace. As blasé new features fail to deliver a “must-have” message to consumers, many are hanging onto their existing phones and refusing to upgrade.

The decision by wireless providers to stop subsidizing devices backed by two-year contracts have delivered sticker shock to consumers looking for the latest and greatest. The Apple iPhone 7, expected to be announced this month, will likely carry a price of $650 — a serious amount of money, even if your wireless provider or Apple agrees to finance its purchase interest-free for 24 months. Despite the fact wireless providers charged artificially higher service plan rates to recoup the cost of the device subsidy over the length of the contract, consumer perception made it easier to justify paying $200 for a subsidized phone versus paying full retail price and getting cheaper service.

As a result, consumers are strategically holding on to their cell phones longer than ever and avoiding upgrade fever just to score a lower cell phone bill. The Wall Street Journal reports that since T-Mobile started the trend away from device subsidies in 2013, Citigroup estimates the smartphone replacement cycle has now lengthened to 29.6 months, considerably longer than in 2011 when upgrades were likely even before the two-year phone contract expired.

The average combined revenue earned per subscriber from service and equipment installment plan fees is still rising, despite the alleged "price war."

The average combined monthly revenue (in $) earned per subscriber from service and equipment installment plan fees is still rising, despite the alleged “price war.” (Image: Trefis)

Wireless providers don’t mind the change since they endured fronting the subsidy cost to phone manufacturers and slowly recouped it over the next two years. Not dealing with a subsidy would make the accounting easier. But AT&T and Verizon Wireless both understood the average consumer doesn’t have a spare $650 sitting around for a new device, much less the nearly $2,500 it would cost to outfit a family of four with a new top of the line smartphone every two years. So they entered the financing business, breaking the cost of the device into as many as 24 equal installment payments. Instead of paying $672 for a Samsung Galaxy S7, Verizon Wireless offers 24 equal installments of $28. That would be a distinction without much difference from the old subsidy system except for the fact some carriers are trying to sell their equipment financing obligations to a third-party, allowing them to move that debt off their books as well.

In fact, wireless providers are doing so well under the “no-contract/pay full price or installments” system, Wall Street analyst firm Trefis has started to ask whether the so-called wireless carrier “price war” is just a mirage. The firm notes (reg. req’d.) all the four major carriers are doing well and collecting an increasing amount of money from their customers than ever before. Much of that added revenue comes from customers bulking up data plans and being forced to pay for unlimited voice and texting features they may not need. But Trefis also points to reined in marketing spending at the carriers, who no longer have to entice customers into device upgrades as part of a contract renewal.

Things are looking worse for phone manufacturers that have relied on revenue based on the two-year device upgrade cycle in the United States. Apple is under growing pressure as its iPhone faces declining demand. In the U.S. alone, analysts predict iPhone sales will drop 7.1% this year. UBS predicts an even less optimistic 9% drop, followed by a 5% drop next year, even after iPhone 7 is introduced. AT&T has already reported some of the lowest upgrade rates ever during the first three months of 2016.

Another clue consumers are planning to hold on to their smartphones longer than ever — sales of rugged cases and screen protectors are up, as are smartphone protection/loss insurance plan sales, according to AT&T senior VP Steven Hodges. Parents even expect their children to give their phones better care.

Customers “realized it was a $500 to $700 device,” Hodges said at an industry conference held in June. “As such, they started taking care of them differently. You tell a kid this is only $49, the kid is going to use his phone as a baseball at times.”

Other customers are looking forward to benefiting from a dramatically lower bill after paying off their device in 24 months.

Kristin Maclearie has an iPhone 6 and she wants to keep it for the long term, if only to see her Verizon bill drop once she finishes her monthly payments. She told the Wall Street Journal as long as it keeps working, “I’ll just hang onto the one I have,” she said. “Unless something really cool comes out…but they’re always similar.”

Unlimited Data is Back (With Fine Print): T-Mobile/Sprint Push Unlimited Data Plans for All

Tmo1LogoSeveral years after wireless unlimited data plans became grandfathered or riddled by speed throttling, America’s third and fourth largest carriers have decided the marketplace wants “unlimited everything” after all and is prepared to give customers what they want, at least until they read the fine print.

T-Mobile Announces “The Era of the Data Plan is Over”: T-Mobile ONE

T-Mobile CEO John Legere used a video blog to announce a major shakeup of T-Mobile’s wireless plans this morning, centered on the concept of “unlimited everything.”

“The era of the data plan is over,” said Legere. T-Mobile’s new plan — T-Mobile ONE — does away with usage caps and usage-based billing and offers unlimited calls, texting, and data on the company’s 4G LTE network. The plan becomes available Sept. 6 at T-Mobile stores nationwide and t-mobile.com for postpaid customers. Prepaid plans will be available later.


“Only T-Mobile’s network can handle something as huge as destroying data limits,” said Legere. “Dumb and Dumber can’t do this. They’ve been running away from unlimited data for years now, because they built their networks for phone calls, not for how people use smartphones today. I hope AT&T and Verizon try to follow us. In fact, I challenge them to try.”



T-Mobile claims the savings with its unlimited plan are enormous compared to its bigger competitors AT&T and Verizon Wireless.

Verizon’s largest LTE usage-capped data plan would cost a family of four $530/month. That’s $4,440 more than T-Mobile ONE will charge.

T-Mobile ONE costs $70 a month for the first line, $50 a month for the second, and additional lines are $20 a month, up to 8 lines with auto pay (add $5 per line if you don’t want autopay). Customers can add tablets for an extra $20 a month.

T-Mobile does offer some caveats in the fine print which are relevant to customers:

  • All video streaming on this plan is throttled to support a maximum of 480p picture quality. Higher video quality is available with an HD add-on plan for $25/mo per line;
  • Tethering is included with T-Mobile ONE, but it is painfully speed-limited to 2G speeds — around 70kbps, just a tad faster than dial-up. At that speed, a web page that will take less than five seconds to load on a 4G network will take 17-25 seconds. A 60 second YouTube video will take nearly five minutes to watch, and downloading apps or sharing images is often impossible because of timeouts. If you want 4G tethering, that will be $15 a month for 5GB, please;
  • Customers identified as among the top 3% of data users, typically those who use more than 26GB of 4G LTE data a month will find themselves in the same data doghouse T-Mobile’s Simple Choice customers are in. That means during peak usage periods on busy cell towers, heavier users are deprioritized on T-Mobile’s network, but we’re not sure if that results in slight speed reductions or the kind of drastic 2G-like experience these kinds of “fair usage” policies often deliver.

Our analysis:

bingeonWhile we’re happy to see unlimited data plans return to prominence, T-Mobile is continuing to punish high bandwidth applications, tethering, and usage outliers with frustrating speed throttles.

T-Mobile’s biggest source of increasing traffic is coming from online video. About a year ago, Legere introduced T-Mobile’s Binge On program, which offers streaming video from T-Mobile’s partners without it counting against your usage allowance. This program had the potential of causing problems with the Federal Communications Commission’s Net Neutrality rules.

Legere seemed to avoid trouble by revealing enough information about Binge On to make it clear why the program exists — to reduce video traffic’s impact on T-Mobile’s network. That might seem counterintuitive until one looks at what it takes to be a Binge On partner — allowing T-Mobile’s Binge On-related traffic to be “optimized” to Standard Definition video (around 480p). No money changes hands between T-Mobile and its Binge On partners.

T-Mobile makes it easy to be a BingeOn participant.

T-Mobile makes it easy to be a Binge On participant.

Binge On was an important factor in freeing up bandwidth on T-Mobile’s network. Some analysts suggest two-thirds of T-Mobile’s video traffic load disappeared after Binge On was introduced. Video is likely the single biggest bandwidth consuming application on wireless networks today. If a customer is watching on a smartphone or even a small tablet, 480p video is generally adequate and has a lower chance of stopping to buffer.

slowAnother clue about the impact of online video on T-Mobile’s network is the same video throttling strategy is built into T-Mobile ONE and applies to all online video, whether the provider partners with T-Mobile or not. Also consider the extraordinary cost of the optional HD Video add-on, which defeats video throttling: a whopping $25 per month per device. That kind of pricing clearly suggests 1080p or even 4K video is a major resource hog for T-Mobile, and customers looking for this level of video quality are going to pay substantially to get it.

T-Mobile is also clearly concerned about tethering, relegating hotspot and tethered device traffic to 2G speeds, which will quickly deter anyone from depending on it except in emergencies. Again, traffic is the issue. Some semi-rural customers unserved by cable but able to get a 4G signal from a T-Mobile tower may think of using T-Mobile as their exclusive source of internet access. At speeds just above dial-up, they won’t consider this an option.

We’re also disappointed to see 26GB of usage a month as the threshold for potential speed throttling. T-Mobile ONE is not cheap, and without more detailed information about how often those exceeding 26GB face speed slowdowns, how much of a slowdown, and how quickly those speed reductions disappear when the tower gets less congested would be very useful. Until then, customers are likely to interpret 26GB as a type of soft usage allowance they will not want to exceed.

T-Mobile ONE also delivers a powerful signal to Wall Street because it raises the lowest price a T-Mobile postpaid customer can pay to become a customer from $50 to $70 a month for a single line. That’s quite a burden for some customers who will have to look to prepaid plans or resellers to get cheaper service. Other carriers rushed to meet T-Mobile’s $50 2GB plan when it was introduced, which has served as an entry-level price range for occasional data dabblers. If those carriers don’t immediately raise prices as well, they will undercut T-Mobile. That could provoke an increase in cancellations among customers buying on price, not plan features. T-Mobile is banking consumers will appreciate unlimited data enough to pay extra for peace of mind.

Jackdaw Research found customers enrolled in 2GB and 6GB T-Mobile plans, T-Mobile ONE represents a price increase. Those signed up for 10GB or unlimited service will pay the same or slightly less with T-Mobile ONE.

Jackdaw Research found customers enrolled in 2GB and 6GB T-Mobile plans will see a price increase with T-Mobile ONE. Those signed up for 10GB or unlimited service will pay the same or slightly less.

sprintlogoSprint: Unlimited Freedom: Two Lines of Unlimited Talk, Text, and Data for $100/month

Not to be outdone by T-Mobile, Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure today announced his own company’s overhaul of wireless plans, featuring the all-new Sprint Unlimited Freedom plan, which offers two lines of unlimited talk, text and data for $100 a month, with no access charges or hidden fees.

Starting Friday, Aug. 19, Sprint customers can sign up for the new plan, which costs $60 for the first line, $100 for two lines, and $30 for each additional line, up to 10. Sprint pounced on the fact its Unlimited Freedom plan for two is $20 less than T-Mobile charges.

Otherwise the two plans are remarkably similar — too similar for the CEOs of both companies that spent part of today engaged in a Twitter war.

T-Mobile CEO John Legere and Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure traded tweet barbs this morning.

T-Mobile CEO John Legere and Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure traded tweet barbs this morning.

“Sprint’s new Unlimited Freedom beats T-Mobile and AT&T’s unlimited offer – only available to its DirecTV subscribers – while Verizon doesn’t even offer its customers an unlimited plan,” read Sprint’s press release.

unlimited freedom“Wireless customers want simple, worry-free and affordable wireless plans on a reliable network,” said Marcelo Claure, Sprint president and CEO. “There can be a lot of frustration and confusion around wireless offers, with too much focus on gigabytes and extra charges. Our answer is the simplicity of Unlimited Freedom. Now customers can watch their favorite movies and videos and stream an unlimited playlist at an amazing price.”

Sprint has also essentially joined the T-Mobile optimization bandwagon, limiting streaming video to 480p, but it goes further with optimization of games — limited to 2Mbps, and music — limited to 500kbps. There does not seem to be any option to pay more to avoid the “optimization” and Sprint is not offering a tethering option with this plan.

“While we initially questioned using mobile optimization for video, gaming and music, the decision was simpler when consumers said it ‘practically indistinguishable’ in our tests with actual consumers,” said Claure. “In fact, most individuals we showed could not see any difference between optimized and premium-resolution streaming videos when viewing on mobile phone screens. Both provide the mobile customer clear, vibrant videos and high-quality audio. Mobile optimization allows us to provide a great customer experience in a highly affordable unlimited package while increasing network efficiency.”


boostAlso, beginning Friday, Aug. 19, Sprint’s leading prepaid brand, Boost Mobile introduces its own unlimited offer, Unlimited Unhook’d:

  • Unlimited talk, text and optimized streaming videos, gaming and music
  • Unlimited nationwide 4G LTE data for most everything else
  • $50 a month for one line
  • $30 a month for a second line up to five total lines

In addition to the Unlimited Unhook’d plan, Boost Mobile will also unveil the $30 Unlimited Starter plan, which includes unlimited talk, text and slower network data (2G or 3G) with 1GB of 4G LTE data. Customers looking for more high-speed data can add 1 GB of 4G LTE data for $5 per month or 2 GB of 4G LTE data for $10 per month. Multi-line plans are also available for families looking to save some money for an additional $30 a month per line.

“There’s a lot of confusion and clutter in prepaid, but is doesn’t have to be that way. Boost Mobile is offering the simplest solution with plans that are easy to understand,” said Claure. “Boost has something for everyone, whether you need a truly unlimited plan with 4G LTE data or want to save extra money with a low-cost plan.”

T-Mobile Lets Customers Binge On Porn With No Data Caps; PBS Still Capped

Dantes-Inferno-BrothelIf you are willing to spend $20 a month for a porn video service created for mobile devices, T-Mobile will let you watch forever without counting against your monthly data cap.

The latest “zero rating” (exempting some ‘preferred’ content from data caps) controversy from John Legere’s T-Mobile means if you watch educational programming from PBS on your mobile device, it will take a bite out of your usage allowance. But you can nibble all you like on MiKandi, the latest addition to the Binge On program.

MiKandi, which claims to offer “DVD quality” adult entertainment, calls it a victory for freedom of speech:

“When mainstream tech companies announce new platforms it tends to be another way to censor your online experience,” MiKandi CEO Jesse Adams said in a company blog post. “T-Mobile is treating adults like adults and we hope that other tech companies follow in their footsteps.”

T-Mobile hasn’t exactly trumpeted their new association with a porn video supplier, quietly adding the site to its growing list of data cap free websites. But now that it is there, can Pornhub be far behind?

FCC Wants Details About Usage Caps and Zero Rating from Comcast, T-Mobile, and AT&T

An AT&T Logo is pictured on the side of a building in Pasadena, California, January 26, 2015. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

An AT&T Logo is pictured on the side of a building in Pasadena, California, January 26, 2015. REUTERS/Mario Anzuoni

Editor’s Note: Stop the Cap! learned in May from a well-placed source that the FCC would “get serious” about data caps if Comcast moved to further expand them in its service areas across the country. It appears that day has arrived although it is too early to tell what direction the FCC will move in. Comcast’s data cap program has grown the most controversial, triggering at least 13,000 consumer complaints from what the company continues to claim is only a limited “trial.” But wireless providers’ growing interest in exempting certain data from counting against a customer’s allowance — a practice known as “zero rating” — has also attracted interest because of its potential impact on Net Neutrality policies.

WASHINGTON (Reuters) – The Federal Communications Commission said on Thursday it has asked major Internet providers to discuss innovative data policies in the wake of the government’s Net Neutrality rules.

FCC chairman Tom Wheeler told reporters Thursday that commission staff sent letters on Wednesday to AT&T, Comcast and T-Mobile “to come in and have a discussion with us about some of the innovative things that they are doing.”

Wheeler said the letters are focused on data policies.

T Mobile has introduced a new “Binge On” policy that does not count some digital video services against data limits.

Comcast is rolling out its own live streaming TV service called “Stream TV” that would not count usage against data caps if using Comcast services.

AT&T has had “sponsored data plan” programs that allow content providers to subsidize users wireless data.

Wheeler said the commission wants to welcome innovation in its open Internet order. He said the commission wants to “keep aware” of what is going on.

On Dec. 4, a U.S. appeals court heard arguments on Friday over the legality of the FCC’s Net Neutrality rules, in a case that may ultimately determine how consumers get access to content on the Internet.

The fight is the latest battle over Obama administration rules requiring broadband providers to treat all data equally, rather than giving or selling access to a so-called Web “fast lane.”

(Reporting by David Shepardson; Editing by Chizu Nomiyama)

Wireless Carriers’ Ho-Hum Economics of Wi-Fi Calling; The Real Money is Still in Data

telecom revenueThe year 2013 marked a significant turning point for phone companies that have handled voice telephone calls for over 100 years. For the first time, the volume of domestic telephone calls and the revenue generated from them was nearly flat. For the last two years, both are now in decline on the wireless side of the business as North Americans increasingly stop talking on the phone and text and message instead.

The U.S. wireline business peaked in the year 2000 with 192 million residential and office landlines. Over the next ten years, close to 80 million of those — 40 percent, would be permanently disconnected, replaced either by cell phones, cable telephone service, or a Voice over IP line. Wireless companies picked up the largest percentage of landline refugees, most never looking back.

Over one-third of more than $500 billion in annual revenue generated by telecom companies in 2013 came from voice services. Although that sounds like a lot, it’s a pittance of a percentage when compared to 2005 when AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon Wireless earned most of their revenue from voice calls. Ten years ago, wireless companies principally sold plans based on the number of calling minutes included, and many customers often guessed wrong, paying per minute for calls exceeding their allowance.

At first, this represented a revenue bonanza for the wireless industry, which earned billions selling customers minute-based calling plans that came with built-in cost-controlling deterrents for long-winded talkers — the concern of using up their calling allowance.

attverizonStarting in 2008, wireless industry executives noticed something peculiar. While revenue from texting add-on plans was surging, the growth in calling began to level off. Wireless voice usage per subscriber peaked at an average of 769 minutes in 2007 and began falling after that year. By 2011, the average customer was making 615 minutes of calls a month. As customers began downgrading calling plans, wireless carriers shifted their quest for revenue towards text messaging.

For awhile, texting earned wireless companies astounding profits that required little extra investment in their networks. SMS service at most carriers was effectively priced at $1,250 per megabyte, broken up into 160 byte single messages. In 2011, over 2.3 trillion text messages were exchanged. A message that cost a wireless carrier an infinitesimal fraction of a penny to send and receive cost consumers up to 20 cents or more apiece if they lacked an optional texting plan. To further boost revenue, some carriers like Verizon Wireless began to pull back offering customers a variety of tiered texting plans with different messaging allowances, switching instead to a single, more expensive unlimited texting plan. Many customers balked at the $19.95 a month price and began exploring other forms of messaging each other.

chetan sharmaThe industry’s demand for profit eventually threatened to kill the goose that laid the golden egg. At the same time wireless carriers were raising prices on text messages and forcing customers into expensive texting add-on plans, free third-party messaging apps began eating into texting volume. By 2012, the use of SMS declined for the first time, with 2.19 trillion text messages sent and received, down 4.9 percent from a year earlier.

It took little time for the wireless industry to realize the days of offering plans based on calling minutes and texting were quickly coming to an end. Younger users began the cultural trend of talking less, texting more — but using a growing number of free alternative apps to do so. As a result, both AT&T and Verizon shifted their plans away from focusing on revenue from calling and texting and instead moved to monetize data usage. Today, both carriers offer base plans featuring unlimited voice calling and texting almost as an afterthought. The real money is now made from selling packages of wireless data.

Wi-Fi calling allows customers to make and receive voice calls over a Wi-Fi connection, not a nearby cell tower. The prospect of bundling that option into a cell phone just a few years ago would have been unlikely at some providers, unthinkable at others. It was never considered a high priority at any traditional carrier, although T-Mobile began offering the service all the way back in 2007.

Since most calling plans now bundle unlimited calling, letting calls ride off the traditional cellular network is no longer much of an economic concern.

wifi callingSome even expect carriers to eventually embrace Wi-Fi calling, declaring it superior to alternatives like Hangouts and Skype, which require an app to handle the call. A Wi-Fi call can be received by anyone with a phone.

This month, the last holdout, Verizon Wireless, capitulated and announced it had won approval from the FCC to introduce Wi-Fi calling to customers, joining Sprint, T-Mobile, and AT&T. But Verizon plans to initially limit that service, offering an app that must be installed to make and receive Wi-Fi calls. The other three carriers integrate Wi-Fi calling directly into the primary phone call app already on the phone.

The introduction of the service is unlikely to have a significant economic impact on any wireless carrier. Most have ample room on their networks to handle cell call volumes. Whether a call is placed over Wi-Fi or traditional cellular service, it will ultimately end up on the same or a similar IP-based phone switch as it makes its way to the called party.

With little revenue-generating opportunities for voice calling or SMS messaging, companies have nearly stopped the practice of monetizing individual telephone calls, preferring to offer unlimited, all-you-want calling and texting plans that used to cost consumers considerable amounts of money.

Now wireless carriers see fortunes to be made slicing up and packaging gigabytes of wireless data, sold at prices that have little relation to actual cost, just as carriers managed with text messaging for the last 20 years. A Verizon Wireless customer using 12GB of data in October that kept a now-grandfathered unlimited data plan paid just under $30 for that usage. (This month Verizon raised the price of that coveted unlimited plan by $20 a month.) Verizon charges $80 for that same amount of data on its new “XL” data plan. Verizon’s cost to deliver that data to customers is lower than it was five years ago, but customers wouldn’t know it based on their bill. As always with the wireless industry, costs often have no relationship to the price ultimately charged consumers.

Interference Alert: Wireless Carrier Coalition Advocates Barging Into Your Free Wi-Fi Space

Critics question the wireless industry's claim LTE-U and Wi-Fi can co-exist peacefully.

Critics question the wireless industry’s claim LTE-U and Wi-Fi can co-exist peacefully. (Image: EVOLVE)

Consumer groups and cable operators are warning the Federal Communications Commission a plan by the nation’s largest wireless carriers to introduce premium Wi-Fi services for their mobile customers may create serious interference problems for existing Wi-Fi users.

AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile are all members of EVOLVE, a group advocating for LTE-U and LAA, technologies that will depend largely on the unlicensed Wi-Fi bands to deliver wireless data to their mobile customers.

Cable operators fear the proposal will give mobile providers an unfair advantage, introducing more traffic into the already crowded Wi-Fi bands while mobile operators reserve the right to use a licensed control channel to shift their customers’ traffic back and forth between unlicensed and licensed spectrum at will. Cable industry critics of the plan claim allowing mobile operators to dump customer traffic into the Wi-Fi bands is likely to worsen interference, harming the cable operators’ investment in a growing network of Wi-Fi hotspots and in-home Wi-Fi.

Consumer groups agree with the cable industry.

The Open Technology Institute at New America, Public Knowledge, Free Press, and Common Cause have filed a joint statement with the FCC warning the agency “mobile carriers will have both the ability and strong incentives to use LTE-U and LAA to engage in anti-competitive behavior harmful to consumers,” all while making a tidy profit charging customers for the use of a service comparable to Wi-Fi, now a free alternative to the carriers’ 3G and 4G data networks.

The groups argue Wi-Fi standards were developed with unlicensed users in mind, able to co-exist peacefully with other similar Wi-Fi signals. The proposed LTE-U technology from wireless carriers is far less sensitive to neighboring signals.

“LTE-U/LAA is designed to be centrally controlled by a network anchored in a separate, exclusively licensed frequency band,” the consumer groups wrote. “3GPP, the mobile industry standards body, may ultimately design LAA in a manner that shares fairly with Wi-Fi and other unlicensed technologies; yet several studies filed by commenters demonstrate that the version of LTE-U that U.S. carriers plan to deploy by next year coexists poorly with Wi-Fi, degrading both throughput and latency (delay).”

LTEUWiFiCritics contend the wireless industry’s proposed service is not as likely to use “Listen Before Talk” effectively, a standard that checks for existing traffic before powering up on an unlicensed frequency. Consumer groups fear mobile carriers will have both the ability and a strong incentive to use LTE-U and LAA to charge consumers for the use of unlicensed spectrum and give themselves an unfair advantage by escaping the interference its own technology can cause other users.

“Carriers also have powerful incentives to use LTE-U to deter mobile market entry by ‘Wi-Fi First’ providers, such as wireline ISPs,” argue the consumer groups, also referring to independent providers like Republic Wireless that depend primarily on Wi-Fi for smartphone connectivity. “Carriers deploying LTE-U will have the apparent option to adjust their access points to introduce just enough latency to frustrate consumer use of real-time applications, such as video calling.”

Another incentive is money. For several years, wireless carriers have encouraged customers to offload their mobile data traffic to Wi-Fi. But since Wi-Fi traffic does not count against the customer’s usage allowance, it also reduces revenue opportunities. LTE-U is a variant of LTE, and carriers traditionally do count that traffic against a customer’s usage allowance. For the first time, mobile customers will accrue usage charges based on their use of unlicensed frequencies. For some, they may have no other choice.

Ellen Satterwhite, a spokesperson for WifiForward, a coalition of companies advocating for more unlicensed spectrum for Wi-Fi, said LTE signals never play well with traditional Wi-Fi.

“When LTE and Wi-Fi signals collide, LTE wins,” Satterwhite said.

“The wireless carriers have completely changed their tune about Wi-Fi—because they have to,” said David Callisch, vice president of corporate marketing for Ruckus Wireless, a Sunnyvale, Calif.-based maker of Wi-Fi hardware, whose customers include Verizon and AT&T. “Wi-Fi for them is like a train going down the track,” Callisch told Bloomberg BNA in an interview. “You could get hit by it or you could jump on the train. They’re jumping on the train.”

“Carriers have historically hated Wi-Fi, because they can’t control it,” Callisch added. “They’ve always liked the licensed band, because they can buy it and they can control it and they can deliver a quality of service to customers over it. With Wi-Fi, you can’t do that.”

But with LTE-U they have the control they crave, able to use network management technology that prioritizes their customers over other conventional Wi-Fi users. Even better, they can charge customers for using it.

Both cable operators and consumer groups want engineers, not business executives, to carefully develop standards and rules that guarantee Wi-Fi users can co-exist with other users of unlicensed frequencies before the technology is switched on.

HissyfitWatch: Witch Hunt – T-Mobile Declares War on “Abusive LTE Tethering”

heavy user

Burn Her! T-Mobile CEO John Legere announces a data hog crackdown.

T-Mobile’s CEO has declared war on about 3,000 current customers caught “stealing data from T-Mobile” by using workarounds to avoid T-Mobile’s tethering usage allowance.

T-Mobile customers with unlimited 4G LTE plans get a fixed allowance to be used for tethering when using the Smartphone Mobile HotSpot feature, which allows laptops, tablets, and other wireless devices to share a T-Mobile wireless data connection.

“These violators are going out of their way with all kinds of workarounds to steal more LTE tethered data,” said John Legere, CEO of T-Mobile USA. “They’re downloading apps that hide their tether usage, rooting their phones, writing code to mask their activity, etc. They are ‘hacking’ the system to swipe high-speed tethered data.”

Legere claims the “clever hackers are willfully stealing for their own selfish gain” and are running up as much as two terabytes of usage a month over T-Mobile’s network. Legere thunders he won’t allow this on his watch and the company is starting a campaign of countermeasures this week to go “after a small group of users who are stealing data so blatantly and extremely that it is ridiculous.”

Legere was not specific about how T-Mobile identifies customers it considers to be abusing its network, but a new FAQ on the carrier’s website explains what will happen to those deemed to be exploiting workarounds to exceed T-Mobile’s standard 7GB tethering allowance:

We’re first warning these customers that they’re illegally using more data than they bought. We hope folks will stop on their own so they can keep their current plan. These customers are on an unlimited 4G LTE smartphone plan that includes a set amount of Smartphone Mobile HotSpot data, but they’re using workarounds to make their tethering look like smartphone usage which helps them use significantly more 4G LTE tethering than their plan includes.

Customers who continue to do this will be warned, then lose access to our Unlimited 4G LTE smartphone data plan, and be moved to an entry-level limited 4G LTE data plan.



Legere is clearly concerned the crackdown could be interpreted by the Federal Communications Commission as a Net Neutrality violation.

“These abusers will probably try to distract everyone by waving their arms about throttling data,” Legere wrote. “Make no mistake about it – this is not the same issue. Don’t be duped by their sideshow. We are going after every thief, and I am starting with the 3,000 users who know exactly what they are doing. The offenders start hearing from us tomorrow. No more abuse and no risk to the rest of our customers’ experience. It’s over. If you are interested, you can find more info in our [FAQ].

The FCC has no rules prohibiting usage caps, but the issue of speed throttling is less settled and Legere’s comments are intended to frame the issue in terms of data theft and violations of the company’s terms and conditions.

Carriers are often less lenient with hotspot usage because desktop computers and laptops often consume much more data than portable handheld devices like tablets and smartphones. T-Mobile admits that customers who need to consume a lot of data should find another ISP:

[Wired] Broadband services would be a better solution for customers who need more high-speed for tethered devices.

LTE-Unlicensed: How the Wireless Industry Plans to Conquer Your (and the Cable Industry’s) Home Wi-Fi Hotspot

special reportWith billions of dollars in new revenue and royalties to be made, Qualcomm and some members of the wireless industry are pushing regulators to quickly approve a new version of LTE wireless technology that will share many of the same frequencies used by home and business Wi-Fi networks, creating the potential for speed-killing interference.

Wireless operators believe LTE-Unlicensed (LTE-U) could be used to offload much of the growing wireless data traffic off traditional 4G LTE wireless data networks. With the cost of securing more wireless spectrum from regulators growing, LTE-U technology would allow operators like AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and T-Mobile to use the U-NII-1 (5150-5250MHz) and U-NII-3 (5725-5850MHz) unlicensed bands currently used for Wi-Fi to deliver high-speed wireless broadband traffic to their customers.

Qualcomm and Ericsson, behind the newest iteration of LTE, have a vested interest promoting it as the ideal choice for metrocell, indoor enterprise, and residential small cell applications. Every manufacturer incorporating LTE-U technology into everything from carrier-owned microcells to smartphones will owe royalty payments to both companies. With billions at stake, Qualcomm is doing everything possible to tamp down fears LTE-U signals will create harmful interference to Wi-Fi signals.

qualcomm lte-u

At the Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas held in January, a Qualcomm representative went as far as suggesting LTE-U will improve home Wi-Fi service. (5:42)

RCRWireless News:

[Qualcomm] set up a screened room with eight pairs of access points occupying the same channel and added Wi-Fi access-point terminals in one room and LTE-U terminals in another. The results show the average throughput of 3.3Mbps with Wi-Fi alone more than doubled to 6.7Mbps when the LTE-U access point was introduced.

In another test to show that LTE-U is a better neighbor to Wi-Fi than Wi-Fi itself, they took eight Wi-Fi nodes and replaced four of them with LTE-U nodes, the result of which showed a 1.9Mbps increase in average Wi-Fi throughput. In almost every test, the LTE-U enhanced network outperformed traditional Wi-Fi.



Industry observer Dave Burstein is concerned advocates of LTE-U are trying to rush approval of the technology without verifying Qualcomm’s non-interference claims.

“The telcos are considering 40 and 80MHz channels that could easily swallow half of more of the Wi-Fi spectrum,” Burstein writes in response to an EE Times article about the technology. “If Wi-Fi is important, that’s a mistake to allow. Advocates are trying to rush it through even though there is not a single independent test or field trial.”

Qualcomm dismisses the interference complaints pointing to its own research showing the two standards can co-exist adequately. But multi-billion dollar wireless companies with nationwide Wi-Fi networks at stake are far less confident. In fact, LTE-U has already divided the two largest wireless carriers in the United States. Verizon Wireless is an original proponent of LTE-U while AT&T has expressed “concern,” a polite way of saying it isn’t happy. What separates AT&T and Verizon Wireless? AT&T has invested in a nationwide network of more than 34,000 Wi-Fi hotspots. Verizon offers just over 5,000, most for FiOS customers or those in especially high traffic venues.

A Stanford University professor with no ties to Qualcomm or the wireless industry privately shared his belief allowing 5GHz Wi-Fi signals to commingle with LTE-U is going to cause problems.

lte-u-unlicensed-spectrum-v3The development of “Wild West” Wi-Fi has always tracked differently than the licensed cellular/wireless business. Over more than a decade, evolving Wi-Fi standards have come to expect interference from other nearby Wi-Fi signals. In a densely packed city, more than two dozen Wi-Fi signals can easily be found all competing for their own space across the old 2.4GHz and newer 5GHz unlicensed bands.

Wi-Fi proponents credit its robustness to its “politeness protocol.” Before a wireless router or home hotspot fires up its Wi-Fi signal, it performs several tests to check for other users and constantly adjusts performance by backing off when it discovers interference from other signals. That is why a user can receive strong Wi-Fi signals but still endure reduced performance, as the hotspot accommodates nearby hotspots and other traffic.

It works reasonably well, according to Rupert Baines, a consultant at Real Wireless.

“But [Wi-Fi signals] are delicate, and they rely on implicit assumptions that there aren’t other things there (or aren’t too many),” Baines told EE Times. “In effect, they behave as though the unlicensed band were not technology neutral but were Wi-Fi only.”

The intrusion of LTE-U changes everything.

On the March 24, 2015 episode of Tuesdays with Roger, Recon Analytics’ founder Roger Entner talks with Wireless Week about the questions raised as major carriers, including T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless, plan to launch LTE into unlicensed territory. Concerns abound, particularly for consumers and companies who rely on Wi-Fi and don’t want licensed use in unlicensed bands to interrupt that service. (7:31)

Change in and of itself is not necessarily a bad thing, especially if LTE-U is superior to Wi-Fi, and some proponents suggest it is. Jag Bolaria, an analyst at The Linley Group, argues LTE better manages data/call handoff better than Wi-Fi access points can. LTE is also a more efficient spectrum user than Wi-Fi.

Last week, South Korea’s LG U+ demonstrated LTE-U was capable of 600Mbps speed, eight times faster than traditional LTE. But to accomplish that level of speed, LG U+ had to occupy 60MHz of bandwidth in the 5.8GHz band and allocate an extra 20MHz from its traditional LTE service. The company plans to further expand its use of South Korea’s 5.8GHz unlicensed band by occupying 80MHz of it to further boost speeds to 750Mbps. But the company did not say how the tests affected others sharing the same frequencies.

If LTE-U is superior, then why not gradually move every user towards the technology and away from Wi-Fi?

Aptilo Networks AB CEO Torbjorn Ward answers LTE-U is a solution in search of a problem.

“I think LTE on unlicensed sounds like a good idea if it wasn’t for the fact that there are four billion devices on Wi-Fi out there,” he told Light Reading, noting that 802.11ac can already run at 100Mbps, so there’s little need for the LTE boost. “I think when it comes to unlicensed, you can do a longer range with LTE, but I don’t see the full benefit.”

That does not seem to matter to LTE-U’s developers or cell phone companies that lack robust Wi-Fi networks of their own.


In the original Qualcomm/Ericsson proposal, both companies promote the fact they could launch LTE-U in the unlicensed Wi-Fi bands “as-is.” That is a big problem for AT&T and other Wi-Fi users because LTE-U evidently employs few, if any protection protocols in its initial specifications for other traffic. Verizon Wireless is reportedly lobbying against the development of interference protection protocols and has publicly asserted its interest in deploying LTE-U regardless of other users.

“In [the] USA, there are no requirements for unlicensed deployment that require changes to LTE air interface,” Verizon stated in its proposal: “New Band for LTE deployment as Supplemental Downlink in unlicensed 5.8GHz in USA.”

LTE-Unlicensed has been characterized as "rude" for not avoiding interference to other users.

LTE-Unlicensed has been characterized as “rude” for not avoiding interference to other users.

Clint W. Brown, business development director of mobility wireless connectivity at Broadcom, and a vice-chairman of the Wi-Fi Alliance counters it is premature to approve LTE-U in the unlicensed Wi-Fi band without more testing and information about its interference protocols.

“We’ve heard about the tests they’ve done, but it’s not factual,” Brown told EE Times. We haven’t seen the data and we don’t know how the tests were set up. First, I’d like to see if [LTE-U] can detect low-level signals. Second, I want to make sure it features a ‘Listen before Talk’ decision process so that LTE-U will wait for an opening rather than barging into the conversation already taking place in the unlicensed spectrum. Third, there should be a back-off mechanism, when it sees a collision. “We aren’t aware of any publicly available documents explicitly stating those attributes.”

The Federal Communications Commission has also now taken an interest and issued a public notice asking stakeholders and consumers to share their thoughts on LTE-U and a companion technology known as Licensed Assisted Access (LAA) that would hand off data sessions between a wireless carrier’s traditional 4G LTE network and LTE-U.

The makes the discussion political as well as technical. The FCC traditionally permits industry groups to define standards, but Republican Commissioner Mike O’Rielly now worries the FCC might butt into that process.

“The decision to jump into this space rather casually causes me great concern,” O’Rielly said. “In particular, any step that could insert the commission into the standards work for LTE-U comes with great risk. I will be vigilant in ensuring that the commission’s involvement does not result in taking sides with various stakeholders, hindering technological innovation, or having any say about what technologies should or should not be deployed.”

monopolyFor the moment, O’Rielly’s concerns about the FCC are premature as long as a division exists over LTE-U among many of the industry players:

  • Companies FOR LTE-U: Verizon, China Mobile, Qualcomm, Ericsson, NTT DoCoMo, T-Mobile USA, Deutsche Telekom, TeliaSonera, and China Unicom.  Equipment manufacturers also in support: Nokia, NSN, Alcatel-Lucent, LG, Huawei, ZTE, Hitachi, Panasonic, and others;
  • Companies AGAINST LTE-U (as now defined): Orange, Telefónica, Vodafone, AT&T, Sprint, SouthernLINC, US Cellular, DISH and a handful of vendors.

Burstein also uncovered evidence the wireless industry may be stacking the deck against increased competition and consumers. He found 11 of the world’s largest wireless companies (including AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint) quietly colluding on a proposal that would block anyone other than currently licensed LTE users from being able to use LTE-U on a standalone basis. The opaquely-titled proposal, “Precluding standalone access of LTE on unlicensed carriers,” is at least frank about its reasoning: “Standalone deployment in unlicensed spectrum implies drastically different business models from nowadays and might impact the value chain.”

In other words, if consumers are able to get savings from LTE-U using a new generation of non-traditional providers like Republic Wireless or Cablevision’s Freewheel that do not depend primarily on cellular networks, it could cost those 11 traditional wireless companies billions in lost revenue. To stop that, the companies propose requiring a special LAA “guard signal” to stop standalone access of LTE-U. Since only licensed cell phone companies have access to those frequencies, it automatically locks out new upstarts that lack mobile spectrum of their own.

Sneaky insertions like that may be exactly why the Obama Administration’s FCC is being more activist about monitoring the wireless industry, potentially cutting off anti-competitive proposals before they can become adopted as part of a formal technical standard.

RCRWireless News gets deep into the development of LTE-Unlicensed and how it will impact cellular infrastructure, Wi-Fi and small cells. (25:39)

American Broadband Ripoff: Compare Your Prices With Eight Competing Providers in Bratislava, Slovakia

bratislvaThe largest telecom companies in the United States, their trade associations, and Ajit Pai, one of two Republican commissioners serving at the Federal Communications Commission routinely claim America has the best broadband in the world. From the perspective of providers running to their respective banks to deposit your monthly payment, they might be right. But on virtually every other metric, the United States has some of the most expensive broadband in the world at speeds that would be a gouging embarrassment in other countries.

Slovakia – A Long, Tough History, But Better Broadband than the United States

Bratislava, the capital city of Slovakia, has existed since the year 907. From the 10th century until just after the end of World War 1, the city (then commonly known by its German name of Pressburg) was part of Hungary and the Austro-Hungarian empire. After the “War to End All Wars,” ethnic Czechs and Slovaks jointly formed a democratic Czechoslovak Republic in 1918 which existed peacefully until the Germans arrived in 1938 and renamed part of Czechoslovakia… Germany.

Unfortunately for the Czechs and Slovaks, life didn’t get much easier after the end of World War II. As Stalin sought to create a buffer zone between Germany (and western Europe) and the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, along with most of Eastern Europe, faded behind the Iron Curtain into the Soviet sphere of influence.

The city center of Bratislava

The city center of Bratislava

After decades of deterioration under autocratic rule, the Czechoslovak Velvet Revolution of 1989 restored multi-party democracy and Communism was was on its way to being fully extirpated across Europe.

By the time the June 1992 election results were announced, it was clear the country’s constituent Czechs and Slovaks had irreconcilable differences and were headed to national divorce court. On one side, the Czech-oriented Civic Democratic Party, headed by Václav Klaus. On the other, Vladimír Mečiar’s Movement for a Democratic Slovakia, whose aims were obvious based on its party name alone. With the writing on the wall, Klaus and Mečiar managed to work out an agreement on how to divide the country and on Jan. 1, 1993 the Czech Republic and the Slovak Republic were born.

Since the separation, Slovakia has prospered, and is now recognized to have a high-income advanced economy with one of the fastest growth rates in both the European Union and the OECD. It joined the EU in 2004 and adopted the Euro as its currency in 2009. Slovakia had to bring its economy up to date after fifty years of Communism. The country had a functioning telecommunications infrastructure, albeit one highly dependent on dilapidated equipment produced in the German Democratic Republic (the former East Germany) and the Soviet Union.

After the Slovak Republic was born, Slovenské Telekomunikácie maintained a monopoly on Slovak telephone lines and telex circuits under the close watch of the Ministry of Transport, Posts and Telecommunications. It took until the year 2000 for economic reforms to allow for the privatization of telecommunications. As was the case in many other central and eastern European countries, Germany’s Deutsche Telekom (T-Mobile) won a majority ownership in the company, which is today still known as Slovak Telecom.

The Slovak Broadband Marketplace Today

Slovak-TelekomThe Slovak government insisted that telecommunications networks in the country be competitive and it maintains oversight to make sure monopolies do not develop. It rejected claims that total deregulation and competition alone would spur investment. Slovakia welcomes outside investment, but also makes certain monopoly pricing power cannot develop. As a result, most residents of Bratislava have a choice of up to eight different broadband providers — a mix of cable, telephone, wireless, and satellite providers that all fiercely compete in the consumer and business markets.

Many providers are foreign-owned entities. UPC, Slovakia’s cable operator, is owned by John Malone’s Liberty Global. Slovak Telecom is owned by Germany’s T-Mobile/Deutsche Telekom. Tooway is a French company.

300Prices are considerably lower than what American providers charge, although speeds remain somewhat lower than broadband services in Bulgaria, Romania, and the Baltic States. At one address on Kláštorská, a street of modest single family homes (some in disrepair), these companies were ready to install service:

  • RadioLAN offers 18/1.5Mbps unlimited wireless service for $21.85 a month;
  • UPC offers 300/20Mbps unlimited cable broadband for $30.63 a month;
  • Slovanet offers 10/1Mbps DSL with a 240GB usage cap for $18.56 a month;
  • Swan offers 10.2Mbps/512kbps unlimited DSL for $24.70 a month;
  • Slovak Telecom offers 10/1Mbps DSL with a 240GB usage cap for $21.96 a month;
  • Benestra offers 10/1Mbps DSL with a 4GB per day usage cap for $24.24 a month;
  • Satro offers 9Mbps/768kbps unlimited wireless service for $29.32 a month;
  • Tooway offers 22/6Mbps satellite Internet with a 25GB usage cap for $54.79 a month.

In other parts of the country, two providers are installing competing fiber broadband services. Slovak Telecom is slowly discarding its old copper wire infrastructure in favor of fiber optics, and is already providing 300Mbps service to some residents to better compete with UPC Cable. Some areas can get straight fiber service, others get VDSL, an advanced form of DSL offering higher speeds than traditional DSL. Orange, a provider not available in the immediate area of our sampled home, has already installed its own fiber service to over 100,000 fiber customers and is growing.

In comparison, Comcast sells 105Mbps service in Nashville, Tenn. for $114.95/mo (not including modem fee) with a 300GB monthly usage cap. That is one-third the speed of UPC Cable at nearly four times the cost… if you stay within your allowance. Prices only get higher after that.

T-Mobile: AT&T Gouges Us With Data Roaming Rates 150% Higher Than Average

Phillip Dampier October 22, 2014 AT&T, Broadband Speed, Competition, Consumer News, Internet Overcharging, Public Policy & Gov't, Rural Broadband, T-Mobile, Wireless Broadband Comments Off on T-Mobile: AT&T Gouges Us With Data Roaming Rates 150% Higher Than Average

bill shockT-Mobile has asked the Federal Communications Commission to investigate AT&T’s “artificially high roaming rates” charged when its customers travel outside of T-Mobile’s home service area.

T-Mobile is heavily reliant on AT&T for roaming service outside of major cities and the country’s smallest national wireless carrier complains AT&T is using their market power to put it at a major disadvantage, which could force new limits on roaming access in some areas.

T-Mobile provided examples of the damage already done by AT&T’s roaming rates:

“Limitless Mobile has severely restricted its customers’ access to AT&T’s network ‘for the sole reason that AT&T’s data roaming rates are too high and by continuing roaming access, Limitless could not maintain a commercially competitive retail wireless data offering to the general public,’” T-Mobile told the FCC.

The Rural Wireless Association noted that competing carriers “cannot sustain the provision of data roaming services if [they] must provide that service at a loss.”

The problem of data roaming rates is getting larger as carrier agreements are due for renewal at many mobile providers. Independent cellular companies are finding AT&T unwilling to renew at prices and terms comparable to their existing contracts. Instead, they face renewal rates that average a minimum of 10 and as much as 33 times higher than the national carriers’ retail rates.

For example, T-Mobile’s agreement with AT&T includes a data roaming rate that is now 150 percent higher than the average domestic rate that T-Mobile pays for data roaming.

This is one thousand percent higher than the data roaming rate negotiated between Leap Wireless and MetroPCS prior to their respective acquisitions, wrote T-Mobile.

With the stark price increases, carriers have begun imposing limits, including speed throttling and data caps, on customers when roaming on AT&T’s network.

t-mobile-set-recordBecause of AT&T’s artificially high roaming rates, T-Mobile wireless customers roaming in South Africa have a better user experience than customers roaming on AT&T’s network in South Dakota, argues T-Mobile. Their speed is twice as fast, and their data usage is unlimited.

T-Mobile is asking the FCC to intervene by establishing some type of standard about what constitutes “commercially reasonable” roaming rates as part of its 2011 Data Roaming Order, designed to protect competition.

This year, carriers dependent on Verizon Wireless or AT&T to help deliver “nationwide coverage” are negotiating roaming access to the companies’ 4G LTE networks for the first time. Most roaming agreements used to only cover 3G service, delivered at a slower speed.

If carriers like Sprint and T-Mobile are unable to negotiate fair terms, both companies will be at a major competitive disadvantage, relegated to providing only regional coverage or charging higher prices for roaming service.

AT&T vice president of regulatory affairs Joan Marsh said T-Mobile’s request bordered on being illegal, in direct violation of the Telecommunications Act. Marsh argued T-Mobile and other carriers should be incentivized to build their own networks instead of relying on cheap roaming access from companies like AT&T. Marsh added any move by the FCC to set rates or benchmarks would be beyond the FCC’s mandate. Wireless carrier rates are deregulated and not subject to common carrier regulation.

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