The future in 2G

A lot of my job is done abroad. This year I spent almost two and a half months abroad, 73 days all told. Being out of the States so often and for so long, cumulatively, gives me many opprotunities to learn and to remember things I’ve forgotten since moving back to the US in 2008. I really appreciate these chances, even if some of them are lonely, or represent significant challenges at work. Enough are interesting and for personal adventure to keep me happy, and keep me traveling.

2014 brought one specific change to my travel methods, and because of that an experience I wanted to share. I no longer use local SIMs, save in extraordinary situations. In October of 2013, T-Mobile, an American mobile phone company, launched free international data roaming. Even now, more than a year later, typing those words feels amazing. Free international data. To give context, previous international data deals available in the US ran something in the realm of $30 USD for 50 megabytes of international roaming data. Thirty dollars for fifty megabytes. It’s easy to see why I switched to T-Mobile.

The catch, because of course there is one, is that this free and unlimited data comes down from the tower at 2G speeds.

So I spent one fifth of 2014 on 2G, and the remaining four fifths on LTE. Or with no service in the wilder parts of the US, specifically northern California, north western Colorado, and a lot of the cross-country train ride. That is another trade-off that comes with chosing T-Mobile. It’s an easy choice for me, being primarily a city person.

Having free international data and spending so much time on the road, be it in the trains of Hong Kong, Shanghai, and Tokyo, or the traffic of Manila and Shenzhen, not to mention factories, restaurants, and hotels, means a lot of phone time. A lot of email. A lot of Twitter. A lot of web. And that leads to the point. In 2014, the web is hard on 2G. Sites load slowly, first displaying banner ads and only then, tens of seconds later, the all-text content of the article. Mastheads take dozens of seconds to load, complex drop down menus and high-resolution logos. Analytics packages. And ads. Some activities and apps simply don’t scale well to 2G. Instagram, for example, is an exercise in patience, but a worthwhile one. And Google Maps, well…

In 2014 it feels like the network is finally everywhere, or almost. And it feels like the future. Being able to turn on my phone in any country on landing and check on my cat, at home in San Francisco, will probably still feel surprisingly wonderful for another couple of years. And 2G isn’t bad for most things. Despite how it probably sounds, this post is not meant as a complaint. It’s meant as a note, a reminder, and a future consideration. For example, loading time for maps matter. More than anything, maps are used when in unfamiliar locations, and often those are situations without great network access. Be it hotel wifi, 2G cell network, or just the slow connections of many smaller cities, maps are most necessary on the fringes, out of our comfort zone, and often in something of a hurry. Yes, most of the places I’ve been have faster networks. Hong Kong has excellent service, faster than the US in many cases. But not every place does. Not every city has LTE, nor every carrier, and that’s the point.

I view these 73 days on 2G as a test of how we interact with networks, and as a challenge for service design. Twitter as it used to be, all text 140 characters or less, was the perfect low-bandwidth mobile-first service. Modern Twitter, with video, photos, expanded links, and soundcloud embedded, is increasingly something built for fast networks, for always-on connections. Not necessarily a bad set of decisions, but a definite shift from a service originally built on SMS, built for the mobile networks we used to have and that many still do.

Of course not all things are built for slow mobile networks, and that’s fine. Heck, Tumblr is one of them, image heavy and full of .gifs. Oh god, .gifs on 2G. If ever a format’s resurgence has come without consideration of bandwith, .gif is it.

Overall I think a few weeks on 2G is something product teams should experience, and consider, not just today or this year, but well into the future. There will be people on slower networks and with worse connections for much longer than San Francisco, which had quite poor cell networks just a handfull of years ago. If a service is designed to “change the world” it needs to be usable out in that world.

Letters to the FCC part 1, AT&T and T-Mobile

The purchase of T-Mobile by AT&T would be bad for consumers in the US for the following reasons.

Currently, T-Mobile is the only carrier that sells and supports unlocked phones.  This means that any GSM phone, which is most of the phones world-wide, will work on T-Mobile’s network. AT&T uses a software lock in their phones, like the iPhone, so that they can not be used on another network despite being GSM phones. This choice can be seen in only one light: an attempt to restrict consumer choice, and is an example of the kind of anti-consumer, anti-competitive behavior AT&T already exhibits, and a reason why they should not be allowed greater power in the US wireless market.

Also, T-Mobile is the only US cell provider that charges a lower fee for a contract that does not come with a phone. AT&T has incredibly high pricing (in line with Verizon, but higher than any other country in the world) which suggests collusion among the 2 largest US carriers and another reason to maintain several consumer options. In addition, AT&T’s high pricing is defended by the company as hardware subsidies for consumers, allowing them to purchase new phones at a fraction of the true cost through a subsidy repaid during the life of the contract.  However, AT&T’s contracts that do not include hardware cost, on a minute by minute and text message by text message, the same as their subsidy containing counterparts.  T-Mobile, as of this writing, offers a package for $70/month that includes a phone and the same package, sans phone, for $50/month, leaving the consumer with a clear idea of the cost of the hardware subsidy ($20/month).

The fact that AT&T offers no plan including data at under $75/month indicates that they are not only colluding with Verizon to maintain pricing but that giving AT&T more leverage by removing T-Mobile, one of their few true competitors, would be horrible for the US consumer. Note that, because the phones are not interoperable, Sprint and Verizon are not true competitors with AT&T, as the consumer must buy new hardware. In other countries around the world, where all wireless providers are based on the GSM standard, switching providers is a very low cost proposition, requiring only a new SIM card and agreement, not new hardware.  This drives prices down and improves service.  In the US the differing wireless standards act as a brake on competition, hindering subscriber movement, and ultimately leading to higher prices because companies like AT&T and Verizon do not have adequate competition.  The purchase of T-Mobile by AT&T would only worsen the situation, and I urge you, even in the event that it recieves your approval, to constrain AT&T with the following requirements.

1. All phones must be sold unlocked. With no remaining GSM competitor in the US, there is no need for AT&T to lock the phones to their wireless network.  The only reason they do this is to enable them to charge exorbitant overseas roaming fees, because the user can not simply install a local SIM card in their AT&T-provided phone.

2. AT&T must offer “bring your own phone” plans that are cheaper for daily use than the “subsidy including” plans. The fact that they do not do this now is simply disgusting, because it means they believe their customers are too stupid to notice the dishonest pricing of non-subsidy plans.

3. AT&T must remove the false charges they currently apply for incoming text messaging.  Currently AT&T charges both the sender and the reciever of a text message, a practice that has been found illegal in other countries and does not apply to any other of their services, such as phone calls or email. Text messaging has a near-zero delivery cost, and their current policies represent nothing more than rampant profiteering.

4. AT&T should institute pay-per-use options for voice minutes, rather than requiring the user to pre-pay for a block that may or may not be used and will expire if unused. This billing practice helps no one outside of AT&T, and the fact that it is the default US (but not global) standard speaks only to how poorly our wireless carriers are regulated and how poor a job competition has done to improve pricing options.

In their current position as one of the two largest US wireless carriers, AT&T has done a horrible job supporting their customers, with high pricing and mediocre service. The acquisition of T-Mobile does not indicate a change of heart on their parts, and simply improves their pricing leverage over the US consumer.  As their chief regulator, their behavior is a reflection on your willingness to defend the US consumer.  Please, do not give them the power they seek and instead fight for broader choice and lower prices, two things that US consumers are currently at the bottom of global rankings on in the wireless provider category.

Thank you.