Sunday, May 20, 2018

Data Plan Hell

So a few weeks back, I was talking about the “janky-net” that I had set up at home. There’s been a slight upgrade. I now have a Netgear LB1120 instead of a hotspot and bridge. It’s much less “janky” now, but there’s still the little teensy problem of finding a wireless data plan that doesn’t suck.

So there are basically 4 networks. Sprint/Verizon and AT&T/T-Mobile. These are “the big four”. I’ve paired them up based on compatible technologies. Everything else is an MVNO (Mobile Virtual Network Operator) that runs off the other four. MVNO’s are almost as good at their parent provider, but they get deprioritized and that basically means slightly slower speeds. Since I can get a good signal for any of the big four at my house, they would all work just fine as an ISP. The only real considerations I need to have are the terms and monthly costs.

Since wireless data is a completely different animal to hardwired ISP’s, it’s important to know about how it’s sold. First of all, you’re not only paying for speed, you’re also paying for how much data you use, and how you may use it. “Unlimited” plans are never truly unlimited, no matter what the advertisement says, and the terms they use to describe their services can be confusing.

So let’s look at a few terms:

First there’s tethering and/or hotspots. This is where you can connect other devices to your phone, or use a device that lets you connect various other devices to the network. This is the most useful feature on a data plan and an absolute must if you plan on using a wireless carrier as your home ISP. For this reason, the big four like to place heavy restrictions on their plans with regards to tethering and mobile hotspots. MVNO’s are usually (not always) more lax.

Then there are the speed terms: 4G/LTE, 3G, and 2G. Let’s look at each of them one at a time.

First let’s take a look at 3G since it is almost never used anymore. 3G speed is very nebulous. It’s defined as being at least 144Kbps up to 4Mbps. That’s a hell of a lot of wiggle room, and can mean the difference between not even playing low quality videos and easily watching DVD quality videos. You’ll never see any MVNO offer these speeds, and it usually requires a contract or a credit check to get something that even mentions 3G speeds from the big four.

Next, there is 2G speed. This is about 128Kbps, and even though it’s more than twice the speed of dial-up, it is pretty much worthless. You will not be able to stream even the lowest quality videos. If you are using one of the big four, you might be able to stream audio, but if it’s an MVNO, you are probably gonna have a bad time no matter what you are trying to use it for.

The one to look for is 4G/LTE speed. This is basically mobile broadband. This is typically between 5 and 15Mbps, but can achieve speeds up to 50Mbps. This can easily stream a NetFlix video. For typical web browsing, it’s indistinguishable from a hard wired connection, but watch out! You can go through a Gigabyte (GB) of data very fast at this speed. When you think about it, a typical internet user goes through about 1 to 2GB every day without even thinking about it!

So tell me, How many Gigabytes of 4G/LTE data does your mobile provider give you for the whole month? Do they let you tether it? How much do they soak you for it? These are the important questions.

I used to be with Consumer Cellular. They are an MVNO through AT&T. Their best deal on data was $40 for 10GB of 4G/LTE, but that was on top of the voice plan. Still, it was $4/GB of 4G/LTE. The downside was that additional data was charged at a much higher rate, and at some point they would drop you down to 2G speeds.

T-Mobile did a bait and switch on me. I went into one of their stores to get their Unlimited plan that would give me 10GB of 4G/LTE followed by unlimited 3G speeds for $50/month. It turned out that it wan’t 3G after all. It was 2G, and like I mentioned above, 2G is basically worthless. $5/GB wasn’t really all that cost effective either. To be fair, they also had a 22GB plan for $95, but that’s still $4.32/GB… Still worse than Consumer Cellular.

So far, it looks like Mint Mobile is the better choice. The plan is 10Gb of 4G/LTE followed by unlimited 2G for $25/month, and hotspot/tethering is 100% fine. This amounts to $2.50/Gigabyte, and sadly, that’s the price to beat. Seriously, I can’t find anyone who can even come close to touching it.

There are some downsides to Mint Mobile. For one, the biggest plan they offer is 10GB, and I need at least 20GB/month. To get around that, I had to buy two separate SIM cards and swap them twice a month. Initially, they each cost $75 and were good for three months of service. Unfortunately, to continue getting the 10Gb of 4G/LTE for $25/month you have to enroll in the 12 month renewal for $300. With two SIMs, that comes to a whopping up front cost of $600! CHA-CHING!

So I’m still looking for that perfect data plan. I really think a metered plan that charged about a $1/GB for tethered 4G/LTE data would be amazing. With a rate that low, I wouldn’t really have to budget my internet usage, and the more I used it, the more my provider would get paid.

You know what the best part of a plan with terms like that would be? It would end a lot of the ranting you hear from people sick of the monopoly broadband providers. Just pay a fair fee for each gigabyte of data transferred through the internet at a usable speed. Why the fuck is that so hard?

Oh well, enough about mobile plans. I could rant and rant on the subject all day, and you dumb fuckers will still walk into a mobile phone store to sign up for a sucker’s deal. “But I get free HBO for $75/month!” Yeah… On your PHONE.




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