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Sprint Applying Speed Breaks to Top 5% of Wireless Data Users Accessing Congested Cell Sites

throttleEffective June 1st, all Sprint contract and prepaid customers, as well as those using Virgin Mobile USA and Boost will find their wireless data speeds throttled if Sprint finds they are among the top 5% of users on a congested cell site.

Text messages are being sent to all customers about Sprint’s new “fairness algorithm” that it will use as part of its data “prioritization management.”

“Beginning 6/1/14, to provide more customers with a high quality data experience during heavy usage times, Sprint/Virgin Mobile USA/Boost may manage prioritization of access to network resources in congested areas for customers within the top 5 percent of data users.”

Such text messages are unlikely to be understood by average customers who have no idea how much data they use, don’t understand what “prioritization of access” means, or what would make them a “top 5 percent” data user. What many do understand is that they were sold “unlimited use” plans that will be much harder to use if they are identified as a 5%‘r.

Fierce Wireless found answers to several unanswered questions:

  • Boost and Virgin customers exceeding 2.5GB of data use a month used to find their data speeds cut to 256kbps until the beginning of their next billing cycle. In March, Sprint announced it was further cutting speeds in the punishment zone to 128kbps for affected prepaid customers;
  • Sprint’s postpaid/prepaid customers are likely to find themselves throttled once they exceed 5GB of usage per month.

speedbumpSprint says the throttle will only be activated on “congested cell sites” and will impact WiMAX, 3G and LTE 4G networks owned by the company. Anyone who has used Sprint’s 3G network will discover most urban and suburban Sprint cell towers are frequently congested, judging by the low speeds many customers endure. Rural customers or those served on the edge of a suburban area may never find themselves throttled and Sprint promises once traffic clears, the throttle is shut off.

At the same time, once Sprint labels you a “heavy user,” they can leave you in the penalty box for up to 60 days because the network prioritization will also apply during the following month of service.

“Customers that continue to fall within the top 5 percent of data users will continue to be subject to prioritization,” Sprint said.

The approach “will enable us to provide more customers with a high quality data experience during heavy usage times,” Sprint said in a statement sent to FierceWirelessTech.

Other wireless carriers also have employed speed throttling to control their grandfathered “unlimited data” customers, Fierce Wireless notes:

During September 2011, Verizon Wireless implemented what it  termed a “network optimization” plan to limit the bandwidth for the operator’s top 5 percent of 3G smartphone users who are on a grandfathered unlimited data plan. (Ed. Note: However, because of FCC requirements, Verizon cannot throttle its 4G LTE customers.)

One month later, AT&T Mobility  instituted a similar plan, targeting the top 5 percent of users on unlimited plans in specific high-traffic locations. However, AT&T was forced to alter its approach in early 2012 after an outcry from users who were unprepared to have their speeds reduced, particularly in cases where some of them had only consumed 2 GB of data. AT&T’s revised policy slowed speeds of unlimited data users who exceeded specific data thresholds.

T-Mobile US also uses a form of prioritization, noting “certain T-Mobile plans may be prioritized” over service plans under its GoSmart Mobile prepaid brand.

Sprint Signals New Focus on Profitability; Cutting Back Upgrade Promotions, Discounts

Phillip Dampier April 24, 2013 Broadband Speed, Competition, Consumer News, Sprint, Virgin Mobile, Wireless Broadband Comments Off

SprintSprint will focus its postpaid wireless business on profitability in 2013, with reductions in customer discounts and a tighter upgrade policy that will raise prices for some and slow down others seeking new subsidized smartphones.

CEO Dan Hesse today told Wall Street investors Sprint will be leveraging its upgraded LTE network to help hold the line on discounts and early upgrades, reminding customers Sprint’s Network Vision plan is delivering better service with faster speeds and fewer dropped or blocked calls.

Sprint released its 1st quarter 2013 earnings this morning, showing the company reduced its quarterly losses from $863 million in the same quarter last year to $643 million. The company spent $1.4 billion during the first quarter on network upgrades, primarily on forthcoming 4G LTE network roll-outs.

Steve Elfman, Sprint’s president of network operations reported the company activated more than 12,000 LTE-upgraded cell towers by the end of the quarter, slowed only by inclement weather. This year will see a massive increase in those numbers.

“We now have zoning complete on over 32,000 sites and leasing complete on over 31,000 sites. More than 25,000 sites already or have already begun construction,” Elfman reported. “Our weekly construction starts are now at a level to achieve our goals for the year. There are over 600 cities under construction and we have now launched 4G LTE in 88 cities with over 170 expected to launch in the months to come.”

Hesse

Hesse

While Elfman oversees LTE upgrades, Sprint is also busy working towards decommissioning its Nextel network on June 30. Despite repeated warnings Nextel’s demise was close at hand, at least 1.4 million Nextel customers, nearly all business accounts, are still active on that network. Sprint is focusing most of its promotional budget again this quarter on convincing those customers to convert to Sprint service. But only 46 percent of Nextel customers took Sprint up on their repeated offers during the first quarter. Many others left for Verizon Wireless, switching off not only their Nextel commercial phones, but also those on Sprint’s network as well.

Sprint expects to hold on to a declining number of its Nextel customers as the second quarter progresses, until the network is switched off for good at the end of June.

That hurts, because Sprint has also been losing customers due to “pardon our dust” construction-related service interruptions as part of LTE 4G upgrades. Those disruptions are expected to accelerate  as more cities are prepared for LTE service.

Sprint’s Lifeline cell phone service for the poor, Assurance, also took major hits during the quarter after the FCC tightened eligibility requirements for the free/low-cost cell phone service. The company switched off 224,000 accounts in the last three months that either failed to re-certify eligibility or were never qualified in the first place. Sprint’s wholesale customers, which resell access on the Sprint network, are also busy deactivating unqualified Lifeline wireless lines, so Sprint expects a similar number of disconnects during the second quarter as those accounts are dropped from the network.

As Sprint turns its attention to profitability, revenue numbers at Sprint improved slightly. Sprint’s prepaid division added 568,000 net prepaid customers, and Virgin Mobile raised its minimum top up amount for 90 days of service to $20 (up from $15 with a credit card). As customers upgrade their Sprint postpaid phones, more customers are also encountering Sprint’s $10 “premium data” surcharge.

Customers will also discover a tightening of Sprint’s discounts and upgrade promotions. Among the efforts underway:

  • curtailing or eliminating certain customer credits and discounts;
  • tightening device upgrade policies to end early upgrades, although Sprint still retains its 20 month upgrade policy for now;
  • holding the line on phone subsidies for increasingly expensive smartphones.
Sprint's prepaid mobile division

Sprint’s prepaid mobile division

Slowing phone upgrades is particularly important for Sprint’s bottom line.

“I think the policy shifting is important in the industry because subsidies just keep going up and I think from the economic model perspective of the carriers we just can’t afford to upgrade as often,” said Sprint CEO Dan Hesse. “We’re not seeing any evidence yet that customers are interested in upgrading less often if they see less difference or improvement year-over-year in terms of what’s going on with these devices. In fact the opposite might be true which means these policies are really quite important for the industry.”

Hesse admitted that the drive to increase profits could cost Sprint some of its postpaid business, and probably already has over the last three years. But Hesse noted many of those contract customers have migrated to the company’s prepaid service, which keeps revenue in-house. Hesse expects as long as popular phones are available on prepaid plans, price-sensitive customers will continue to migrate towards prepaid service.

“I think what you are seeing is maturing of the U.S. markets beginning,” Hesse noted. “The U.S. has always been or traditionally been almost exclusively postpaid and it’s beginning to look like other markets that have a higher prepaid mix in terms of the number or percentage of customers.”

Welcome to Virgin Mobile’s Higher Calling: The 2.5GB/256kbps Usage Throttle Starts Friday

Not quite.

Virgin Mobile founder Richard Branson is trying to convince customers they should sign up with a phone company that only sells you the services you need, but if “unlimited data” is one of them, look somewhere else.

Starting Friday, Virgin Mobile will quietly begin to throttle “heavy users” who reach 2.5GB of usage on their “unlimited use” data plans.  For the remainder of the billing cycle, Virgin will reduce mobile broadband speeds to just 256kbps — comparable to a significantly congested 3G connection.

It’s a long fall from Virgin Mobile’s original unlimited data offer which the company briefly attempted in the summer of 2010.

Entirely reliant on Sprint’s mobile network (and now operates as the prepaid division of Sprint), Virgin Mobile couldn’t handle the demand and quickly threatened to slow down the connections of their heaviest users.

The carrier’s decision to set a specific limit for its speed throttle was originally intended to take effect last October, but was delayed until March 23, 2012.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/New Virgin Mobile Ad.flv

Virgin Mobile’s delayed implementation of its speed throttle coincides with this imaging “refresh” of the “New Virgin Mobile” starring a timeless Richard Branson. (1 minute)

Virgin Mobile explains its reasons:

This change comes about because of the enormous data usage driven by our new more sophisticated smartphones, and the more extensive uses customers are finding for these devices.  We want to be able to serve our Beyond Talk customers who use these unlimited plans for their data-centric daily activity, primarily for regular access to email, the Internet, and social networking sites. Our goal is to ensure our products perform at the best possible level and that we have the best possible experience for all subscribers.  These control options are similar to those other carriers have in place ? and that Virgin Mobile maintains for its Broadband2Go product as well.

These plans are still unlimited.  There is no cap or limit on how much you can consume in any given month.  In order to ensure optimal network performance and a good customer experience for all subscribers, we are moving forward in establishing some parameters.

Most Beyond Talk customers will not experience a change in the performance of their Virgin Mobile service or notice any difference.  If you use this service for typical email, internet surfing and downloading, your throughput speeds should not be noticeably impacted.  For Beyond Talk subscribers who are using more than 2.5GB during a monthly plan cycle, limits to throughput speeds for the remainder of their monthly plan cycle will enable us to preserve overall network performance and customer experience.

The company’s redefinition of the word “unlimited” in nothing new in the world of mobile data.  T-Mobile, AT&T, and Cricket all throttle their customers when they exceed a certain level of usage, yet some still market “unlimited use” plans that many customers don’t realize are limited in usefulness when arbitrary allowances are exceeded.

Concerns for “optimal network performance” and “a good experience for all” disappear when you pull your wallet out. Virgin Mobile will reset your usage allowance to zero if you agree to pay for a new month of service the moment they’ve throttled your service.  That will get you another 2.5GB of usage, whether it preserves overall network performance or not.

http://www.phillipdampier.com/video/Richard Branson Message.flv

Watch Virgin Group’s Richard Branson explain why Virgin Mobile wants to change the image consumers have about their mobile phone company.  A fine print disclosure that “unlimited” mobile data really isn’t may not change things for the better.  (2 minutes)

AT&T Scores Last (Again) in Consumer Reports’ Ratings; Oddly AT&T Reseller Scores Highest

AT&T has once again scored dead last in a nationwide survey (subscription required) of wireless providers commissioned by consumer magazine Consumer Reports.

Among national coverage carriers, Verizon Wireless again scored the highest, but not highest overall when including smaller independent and regional carriers.  Top honors were won by Consumer Cellular, a relatively small company in Portland, Ore. that ironically depends on bottom-rated AT&T’s network to deliver service.  What sets Consumer Cellular apart from other carriers is its near-exclusive focus on selling phone service to America’s senior population.  Working with groups like the AARP to market simple cell phones to older, less technologically-comfortable customers, over 85% of Consumer Cellular customers are over the age of 50.  The vast majority are occasional cell phone users, primarily using cell phones to make and receive calls.

Regional carrier U.S. Cellular, which used to top Consumer Reports‘ surveys, scored second.  Most U.S. Cellular customers are in the Pacific Northwest, Midwest, and parts of the East including New England.  CREDO, better known under its former name Working Assets Wireless, scored third.  It provides service over the Sprint network.

Among major-sized providers, only Sprint managed to escape the poor ratings for value received by AT&T, Verizon, and T-Mobile.  Also ironic, T-Mobile continued to score better than AT&T, which is still working feverishly to acquire the German-owned carrier.

AT&T also did poorly in delivering reliable voice and data services, according to respondents.  Customer service was also deemed lacking.

Consumer Reports

“Our survey indicates that subscribers to prepaid and smaller standard-service providers are happiest overall with their cell-phone service,” said Paul Reynolds, electronics editor for Consumer Reports. “However, these carriers aren’t for everyone. Some are only regional, and prepaid carriers tend to offer few or no smart phones.”

Consumer Cellular being a prime example. 

Consumer Reports surveyed 66,000 Americans for its 2011 Wireless Satisfaction Survey and found little had changed from last year.  The consumer magazine recommends consumers who don’t make or receive a lot of calls or are not addicted to wireless data services consider a prepaid plan instead of a two-year contract.  Competition in the prepaid arena continues to force prices down, and most providers offer month-to-month service plans that can be automatically renewed through a checking account or credit card, eliminating any hassle purchasing “top up” cards.

Most of the prepaid providers resell service provided by AT&T, Sprint, or Verizon Wireless.  Two that don’t: MetroPCS and Leap Wireless’ Cricket, received little regard from those surveyed.  MetroPCS scored second from the bottom and Cricket didn’t make the ratings at all.  Two prepaid plans to consider first: TracFone, excellent for occasional calling, and Straight Talk, sold by Wal-Mart — better for those who like to talk a lot on their phones.  If you don’t need the sexiest handset around, Stop the Cap! also recommends Page Plus, which relies on the Verizon Wireless network, especially if you don’t need a lot of data services.

Canadians Trash Their Cell Phone Options: Bad Service, Worse Value; Koodo Rates Highest

Canadians overwhelmingly rate their mobile phone providers poor for value, telling Consumer Reports they are paying too much and getting far too little coverage and service in return.

The 2011 Consumer Reports Wireless Survey (subscription required) shows Canada’s largest cell companies are generally awful in the estimation of 15,000 Canadians polled for the survey.  At the very bottom of the barrel are mega-carriers Bell Mobility and Rogers, both rated lousy for service and customer support.

“You can always do better than Rogers and Bell, no matter what other carrier you can think of,” says Thierry Duluis, a Stop the Cap! reader in Quebec. “Biggest does not mean best.”

Consumer Reports agrees.  It top-rated Koodo, a no-contract carrier owned and operated by western Canada’s phone company Telus.  Koodo is a relatively new player, only launching service in 2008, but has since built a reputation for lower prices and reasonably good service to the majority of populated regions across Canada.  But Koodo’s data plans can be expensive and confusing.  A $5 data starter plan delivers 25MB of data, and automatically increments: 26MB-100MB = $10, 101MB-300MB = $15, 301MB-1GB = $20, 1.01GB–3GB = $30, + 2¢/MB above 3GB.  A alternative plan with a 2GB data allowance runs $25 a month with a 2¢/MB overlimit fee.

Consumer Reports

Ironically, several wireless brands owned by large Canadian phone and cable companies scored higher than their respective owners.  Koodo scored higher than Telus Mobility.  So did Fido, which is a wholly-owned subsidiary of Rogers.

Regional SaskTel, which operates in Saskatchewan, received an admirable rating from the consumer magazine, primarily because of its slightly better customer service.  But no carrier, prepaid or postpaid, did extremely well across all categories.  Canadians are frustrated by cell phone prices that are often higher than what their American neighbors pay, and are often accompanied with stingy usage allowances.

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