Thursday, March 2, 2017

Full Transcript: The Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern Talks Wireless Data Plans

Trying to figure this stuff out, but what would you say is the best all-around wireless plan you think you can get right now from the four big carriers in the U.S.?

Yeah, it is a really tough question. I think T-Mobile has done some really great things. What you see happening in the industry — and this is sort of T-Mobile’s biggest problem — they certainly had a huge jump in subscribers, at least they did last year in, I think it was the fourth quarter. They had a huge jump in subscribers, but you shouldn’t switch, and I make this point in the column. You should not switch to a different carrier for a deal. It’s just the worst thing you can do.

You only want to switch if you know that that has the best service in the places you are. That’s what’s most important. Saying something has the best plan can be a little misleading to readers or people that follow this podcast. I don’t like to say that because I don’t want people to go run and get T-Mobile and then find out, “Oh no, I don’t have service, my vacation home or my office is a T-Mobile dead spot.” That’s one of the biggest problems with T-Mobile and also Sprint. AT&T and Verizon in the U.S. have, I wouldn’t say superb coverage but they have the best coverage that you can get. That’s what’s made them more of a premium offering.

All this said, I feel like I’ve couched this all. T-Mobile does have some great deals, now you see Verizon, specifically this week, trying to catch up with an unlimited deal. You have Sprint also just hustling with the old Verizon guy all over the place saying, “We are the best, and we will basically give you everything for free. We’re so desperate for customers.” AT&T has also followed.

What’s great about T-Mobile is they have now switched to “all-unlimited plans.” You get a very big bucket of data, and we can talk about this in a few minutes. You get a very big bucket of data but they also have put the fees inside that. There’s no hidden fees on your bill, I think that’s actually really important because I think everyone needs to understand what’s happening on their bill. Even if you don’t think you can save any money, just understand where your money is going. These companies will take you for everything.

Oh yeah.

They do take you for everything.


It makes me feel better to just know where the money is going. For instance, in this process I called Verizon or went into a Verizon store and found out about like three things I didn’t know Verizon was offering, because it’s such a mess in their app and everything like that. Just understand what’s going with your bill.

First thing is to look up what the coverage is like in your area. You can do that using, what was that you mentioned? RootMetrics.

Yeah, RootMetrics is a great way to do that.

Do that, find out who offers the best coverage where you are.

Exactly, ask people. For example, one of the reasons I stay with Verizon is because my parents just got a house upstate and I know that Verizon has good service there, because I’ve seen other people with T-Mobile where there is no good service. That’s not something that would’ve come up on RootMetrics. Just ask around, or when you go to those places, see if anybody has that type of service or that carrier and decide then what you’d feel comfortable with.

This is a real tech reviewer problem, by the way but I also am on Verizon and then you know we’re constantly cycling through these loaner phones or these new devices that come through, and a lot of times some of the brand new unlocked cool phones that I’m trying to test are only operating on a GSM network and not CDMA. I have to basically get a different SIM card and something that will operate on that network as well. It seems like it’s still a little bit easier to switch from device to device is you’re on GSM.

It does, but some of the phones have both of the radios in it, so iPhone you shouldn’t have that problem. Also the Pixel, the new Pixels have both the radios so you should be fine. Yeah, totally, AT&T and T-Mobile are going to be more compatible with more phones, especially if you travel internationally.

Right. What are some of the catches in these plans? I was reading through the Verizon fine print the other day after they announced they were bringing out this $80-per-month unlimited plan back. It seems there are some instances where throttling is going to come into play. Some people may not even understand what throttling really means: They’re going to limit your data speeds on hotspots and tethering, which I do all the time.


What are some things that people should definitely be aware of if they’re thinking of some of these newer plans?

Let me try to describe it this way: With all of these plans now, all four of the big networks in the U.S. offer unlimited plans. Let’s use “unlimited” in quotes, because there really is no such thing as an unlimited plan. Just like there’s no such thing as anything in life is free, right? Nothing is free, nothing is truly unlimited. (...)

Okay, so let’s picture it this way: They give you an unlimited plan, right? That means you should have as many gigabytes in the world to stream video all day long and all night long. And I don’t know, watch all of Lauren’s videos and all my videos and download millions of files and all of these things, right? You should have enough to do all of that all through the month. Except that’s not really true.

The best way to think of it is like you have a highway and you’re cruising down the highway and you can go as fast as you can on that highway. You’re going to get as fast speeds when you’ve got this unlimited data, but if you hit a cap when there’s a lot of people on the network — if you’re in a place where there’s a lot of people using their phones and you’ve used a lot of data that month — the carrier will deprioritize your phone.

They might say, “Oh in this one area,” — could be a concert, could be some place, I don’t know, a train station, lots of people are on their phone and are on our network right now — “Oh, Joanna over there, she used 50 gigabytes this month of data. We are going to take her down right now, because the network is so busy. We’re going to throttle her speeds down.” Her LTE speeds are not going to be as fast as Lauren over there who is one of our customers who doesn’t have unlimited data and she’s only used two gigabytes this month. When there are these times of heavy traffic on these networks, they take the people who have unlimited data and have used a lot of data and bring down their speeds. Does that make any sense? (...)

Oh, okay, interesting. Where do products like Google Fi or a company like Republic Wireless fit into this landscape? We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the four big carriers so far.

Yeah, I think these are fascinating, and I think unfortunately there’s such a monopoly by these four big carriers and that’s what most people think to go to when they’re getting their service. Google Fi is really interesting for two reasons: It’s sort of the model that you pay what you use, and so here we’re buying like unlimited data or we’re buying eight gigs of data and you get 10 gigs because you get bonus data like who the hell knows what that means. There’s this model of you pay what you use that makes a lot of sense. If you know what one gigabyte costs a month or whatever and you paid that and then you just kept going and you paid for what you used, it would make sense. I think that’s a really interesting model, and Google doesn’t really have much to lose because they don’t have the major many years of what the other traditional carriers have offered.

I think there’s another interesting thing with wireless or Wi-Fi built into the plans. I think more and more obviously we have 5G on the horizon and other types of things. We are more and more around great and fast Wi-Fi, the handoff, making the handoff between Wi-Fi networks and mobile data makes a lot of sense. A lot of that engineering also has to happen in the phone. That’s what Republic Wireless is so good at. Also Wi-Fi calling, Wi-Fi phone calls can sound so much better than the traditional carrier phone calls. They have HD voice and things like that. I’ve thrown a lot in at this. I think they’re really interesting and you should look at them but also of course come back to where’s that coverage and does your device work with these companies?

by Recode Staff, Recode |  Read more:
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