Technobabbles I try to sound like I know what I'm talking about. Don't be fooled.

9Jun/1210

Did Virgin Mobile USA cut an anti-Android deal with Apple?

Note: There are several embedded tweets in this post that may not appear properly on all devices. Tweets will definitely lack context (what they're "in reply to") on lower-end devices or browsers without JavaScript. Visit the post in a full browser on a PC for the best possible viewing experience. Hopefully WordPress 3.4 will include better tweet display mechanisms and I'll be able to remove this notice.

All right, so the big news is, Virgin Mobile USA will soon carry the Apple iPhone 4S. Which is to say, my pre-paid, Sprint-owned cellular telephone carrier may have cut a deal with Apple to make all their Android devices suddenly look unattractive.

Why do I think that? Oh, no reason, just the plan prices. As my long-time Web contact Zoli Erdos asked of Virgin Mobile's Twitter customer service account, and got an interesting (but not entirely clear) answer:

Wait, "Auto top-up" just means letting them charge for monthly service automatically. I let them do that for my Motorola Triumph.1 Can I get that discount, too? Zoli already got an answer to that question, too:

Huh? Yep, exclusively for iPhone customers, Virgin Mobile USA will take $5/month off of your service plan if you let them charge you automatically every month. Want Android instead? Sucks to be you, you get to pay more.

This story gets even better. I asked, specifically, if there was some kind of deal going on between Virgin Mobile USA and Apple. The answer was surprising, but I'm not entirely sure the responding CSR actually read and understood what I asked:

Let me get this straight. I asked if Virgin Mobile and Apple decided to make Android less appealing, and the answer was "Yes!"? With an exclamation mark?

Wat.

Needless to say, I've been less than amused by the changes to Virgin Mobile's policies over the last year. First they jacked up prices for new customers right before launching the Motorola Triumph in June 2011.23 Virgin Mobile then started throttling 3G data after a 2.5GB monthly usage threshold.4 Then they ended grandfathered plan rates for users who upgrade their devices, meaning that if (when) I eventually upgrade away from the Triumph, my monthly fee will jump from $25/month to $35/month, just because I'm changing phones.5

What started as a great deal for cell phone service is still a good deal compared with contract carriers, to be sure, but the policy changes and new competitors like republic wireless entering the market make it much less sweet. ($19/month for unlimited everything? Tanj, republic, launch something newer than the LG Optimus already!) Ting and NET10 also offer lower-cost smartphone service compared to contract plans, but for my level of usage both are more expensive even than Virgin Mobile's current pricing.

I really don't like this iPhone policy. The one change over the past year that I was actually happy to see Virgin Mobile make was dropping their $10 monthly surcharge for Blackberry devices. Though RIM and its Blackberry devices are all but dead, it was nice to see Virgin Mobile start treating all smartphones equally, pricing-wise. Now, we're back to favoring one platform over the others, and I really don't like that. All smartphone platforms have roughly equal potential for using network capacity, so charging less for one of them makes absolutely no logical sense.

Whether or not there's some behind-the-scenes deal between Virgin Mobile — actually, let's be honest, if it exists the deal is with Sprint — and Apple that's responsible for this price discrepancy, it sure seems like a very anti-Android thing to do. Virgin Mobile, please treat all smartphone plans equally — no platform favoritism. It's the customer-friendly thing to do. Extend the $5/month "Auto top-up" discount to all Beyond Talk plan subscribers (you don't have to include grandfathered users, that's totally understandable) and maybe I won't jump ship to republic wireless as soon as they launch a more powerful device.


  1. I've had it since December, but haven't felt the need to review it as I did the LG Optimus V. Pretty much all the bug reports and battery life problems are absolutely true. If I feel like a writing project, though, I'll do a full review of my own, just for completeness. []
  2. Virgin Mobile have since remained unwilling to push Motorola to fix the software problems with said Triumph. Motorola, for its part, pretty much ignores/dismisses all bug reports. They keep offering "Factory Data Reset" as the solution to everything, and haven't said a peep about whether or not there will be a software update. As far as I'm concerned, Motorola's reputation as a phone maker is completely shot. []
  3. Again, I should do a full review of this phone. It's been out almost a year. I also have a really, really ridiculous story about how I got mine. Plus, I need to rant about the whole "Motorola isn't supporting its devices" thing. []
  4. At least there aren't any overage fees. It's slower, but it's still "unlimited". []
  5. As I understand it, this new policy would also affect an emergency switch back to my LG Optimus V, if my Triumph fails someday. That's one of the major reasons that I don't like the policy change. []
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    1. That CSR seriously didn't understand what you were saying. In any case, I wouldn't use a straightforward "Yes!" for that question. And well, it is said that iPhone users have a higher ARPU than Android users. But for unlimited everything plan, I don't know (they have to be the same, right?).

      • One more thing, for AT&T prepaid, you can't use iPhone on it (though there is a easy solution). So talk about discrimination. (And why can't I simply edit my last comment?)

        • More than anything, I think the CSR's answer was hilarious. Not necessarily (and probably not at all) representative of the true circumstances, but highly amusing. I don't take it as absolute truth or anything.

          Yes, it is said that iPhone users pay more, on average. But you are correct, an unlimited plan is an unlimited plan, and shouldn't have any cost difference between platforms. Which was kind of why I came out of my blogging hibernation to write this. Such pricing inequality leaves a bad taste in this geek's mouth. I'm not sure I'd feel differently if the iPhone launch excited me, either; I just don't like it, full stop.

          AT&T has issues. Seriously. But so do most prepaid carriers — I don't know a single prepaid telco in this country that will let me bring my own device. Mostly that's because the vast majority of them run on CDMA technology and they don't want to deal with unlocking, porting ESNs, and so forth. But even the ones running on GSM networks often use specially modified firmware on their phones such that devices from other carriers will not function properly if brought over. NET10 is the only (GSM) prepaid carrier I know of that sells standalone SIMs in the American market; according to their site, the only SIM service option from them is a $50/month unlimited plan. But at least you can put a NET10 SIM in an unlocked GSM iPhone.

          Whoops, I just realized that this comment became a secondary rant. Ah, well. If it generates a discussion, fine by me. :)

          Why couldn't you edit your first comment? My original theory was moderation limbo, but I just tested the site as an anonymous user and found that there's no editing option even if the comment doesn't get trapped in moderation. I thought I had a plugin for that, but apparently I was wrong. It's been too long since I've done any serious work on this site. I see that in addition to the lack of comment editing, I have two different ways of subscribing to comments by email; I need to fix that. Soon I shall upgrade a few things and tidy up around here. Thanks for pointing it out!

          • Actually I would be surprised if T-Mobile or other GSM carriers do not support prepaid SIMs to use on the unlocked phones you own. Now I get a unlocked iPhone, only find that I need to sign a contract which I tried to avoid? This does not make any sense. Unlocked iPhone should be more "universal" than only work on NET10. CDMA phones are an issue, but customers can avoid them, and CDMA is dying anyway (thank you Qualcomm). Discrimination is spread over almost every US carrier, and if we want to stop it, the best way may be legislation (well, there are too many things that need to be corrected by legislation, like healthcare insurances).

            And why every acronym gets its definition? Are they automatically added?

            • The cellular telephone industry in America is pretty customer-unfriendly compared to a lot of other countries. We have carrier-limited handset choices, double-charging of minutes/SMS fees (both caller/sender and recipient pay, instead of just the initiating party), high fees for things like extra megabytes of data or SMS messages over/without a texting plan, etc. etc. While an unlocked iPhone will work with a NET10 SIM, it will also work with AT&T or T-Mobile USA contract plans — though on T-Mobile current iPhones can only reach 2G data speeds in most areas due to network incompatibility. There are just very few options for getting service for an unlocked iPhone without signing a contract.

              Obviously a lot of those carrier policies happen "because they can". They're not illegal, and customers put up with them, so around they stick. Even though it means both smartphones I own (my Triumph and the Optimus V I'm keeping around for backup) would become obsolete, I very much want the cellular infrastructure in America to move to 100% GSM, so all the carriers would play more equally. Ideally, we'd have no more Verizon/Sprint/T-Mobile/AT&T – only phones, and the freedom to take our business anywhere with any handset, any time. Well, contracts might stick around because Americans aren't used to paying sticker price for cell phones, but once the contract is up the carriers should all do what AT&T has started doing (unlocking out-of-contract iPhones), for all devices.

              I could ramble on for a while about this, but I noticed a style bug in the sidebar that I want to fix, so I'll move on.

              By force of habit, and because a lot of non-technical family/friends/random Internet users read this site, I try to use <abbr>/<acronym> tags in everything I write. Sometimes I wonder if I shouldn't install a plugin to do it for me, but some acronyms/abbreviations have multiple definitions and a naïve plugin couldn't tell the difference. (A heavy-duty context-sensitive plugin, on the other hand, would take way too much CPU time.)

              • Double-charging really disturbs me. Even in China, we got rid of double-charging of calls years ago, and SMS is never double charged. Charging 20 cents per message is an unacceptable price, not to mention that I'm double charged. The problem with contract plans is that they are *really* expensive, and you get less than prepaid plans (although carriers usually limit the coverage and functions of prepaid users). Correct me if I am wrong, but I think iPhone is quad-band and shouldn't have issues with T-Mobile networks?

                Moving to 100% GSM seems impossible. Even LTE has two standards. Eliminating carriers seems to be something even more impossible, otherwise we won't have capitalism. In China, three carriers are running three different incompatible systems: China Mobile running TD-SCDMA (a Chinese system), China Unicom running UMTS (more commonly known as WCDMA but not as accurate, a European system), and China Telecom running CDMA2000 (a US system). This shows the efforts made by Chinese government to balance different interests. We are humans and we don't trust each other, so national and commercial interests usually overweigh consumer interests. Unlocking phones is great, but not as great because every carrier sets up barriers.

                You manually tag all these acronyms, even in my comments? That's for sure a lot of work. But I think for acronyms like SMS, CPU, CDMA, etc. are more easy to understand in their abbreviated forms (people will actually get confused with their full names).

                PS: Ah, now I can edit and delete my comments :)

                • I. Hate. Double-charging. I'm with you on that, and on how overpriced contract plans are. (Why do you think I use Virgin Mobile in the first place? ;) ) However, according to every source I've found, the iPhone 4S gets only EDGE service in most areas. This is one such source, and there are many others.

                  Hopefully over time the whole LTE thing will shake out as did VHS/Betamax and CD/Laserdisc before it. And even if not, I am glad to see companies like republic wireless (mentioned and linked in the post) challenging the existing industry norms. Change is, of course, inevitable; the question is, will it come fast enough?

                  Yep, all acronyms are manually tagged — though I only rarely bother editing other people's comments. As you said, some acronyms don't really need expansion. I thought ARPU did, though, because most people don't know enough about the industry to define it for themselves. As for CPU, SMS, CDMA, and so on, maybe I just have a bit of OCD about it. ;)

                  PS: Yep, I've been sneakily tweaking things behind the scenes killing unwanted OpenID icons, deactivating the duplicate comment subscription mechanism that was generating the extra checkboxes I noticed earlier, and adding comment editing. I don't necessarily like how this comment-editing plugin looks, but it was the best option I could find. I'll play with the styles later; at least it gives me the option to customize.

                  • That's weird, T-Mobile should fix that.

                    Aside from FDD-LTE and TDD-LTE, we still have one more 4G standard: IEEE 802.16m. This whole 4G thing is getting nasty, again.

                    Legislation may be a faster way, but considering the large amount of money AT&T spends on lobbying, *sigh*. It's not so easily to challenge industrial norms, ordinary people, like me (actually I may know more about carriers than ordinary people), have never heard of republic wireless.

                    Anyway, telecommunication industry in the US really needs a major reform. It's so bad now. Even though carriers in China do things that make me laugh, carriers in the US make me sick.

                    PS: please remove the time limit for editing and deleting comments.

                    • Nothing but agreement for the "meat" of your comment. Just wanted to say, I can't remove the time limit on editing without forking the plugin, nor do I want to.

                      Allowing comments to be edited indefinitely presents a number of risks, such as someone capturing the cookie that WordPress uses to remember you and then editing your past (approved) comments to include spam. Also, some kind of time limit is reasonable. I might add that the default was 5 minutes; I bumped it to an hour immediately on installation. An hour is plenty of time to correct typos and add an extra link or two. The editing feature isn't intended to allow progressively writing a novel. :P


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