TIME WiFi

There’s a Massive Battle Brewing Over the Future Of Wi-Fi

U.S. Government Obtained Verizon Phone Records Under Secret Court Order
Andrew Burton—Getty Images

There could be serious traffic congestion over the air

Verizon and T-Mobile are planning to use Wi-Fi networks to broadcast their cellular signals — a move that could clog up the airwaves and lead to fierce competition, according to a report in The Wall Street Journal.

The two wireless carriers are set to introduce LTE-U, an iteration of the LTE cellular standard that will switch to the least congested channel, which includes Wi-Fi frequencies. It eases the load on the carriers’ networks, but it could also burden Wi-Fi networks, reducing speed and quality. It’s also an inexpensive way to transmit signals, since Wi-Fi uses free, unlicensed airwaves, as detailed in a recent Fortune story.

This should worry companies such as Google, Cablevision, and Republic Wireless, who use Wi-Fi either as hotspots for users or to offer wireless services of their own. According to the Journal, Google officials recently wrote a letter to the Federal Communications Commission, remarking that LTE-U was “particularly worrisome” because wireless carriers “may view some Wi-Fi providers, such as cable companies offering Wi-Fi hotspots to their customers, as competitors.”

Verizon and T-Mobile are adamant their technology won’t degrade Wi-Fi connections. “Every test that we’ve done shows that LTE-U is as good of a neighbor to Wi-Fi as Wi-Fi is to itself,” Patrick Welsh, director of federal government affairs at Verizon, told the newspaper.

Wi-Fi usage is already growing rapidly among mobile users, and this development could lead to network congestion. In a report last year by Mobidia Technology, those on Android phones consumed 6.8GB and those with iPhones consumed 8.9GB of Wi-Fi data from July to September, 2014. In comparison, 1.8GB of cellular data were used by cellular subscribers over the same period.

MONEY Tech

Should You Get a Loan to Pay for Your Cellphone?

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Cultura/Chad Springer—Getty Images

As 2-year contracts fade away, new loan and leasing options are popping up.

The next time you buy a cellphone, things will probably be very different. And better, for the most part. Cellphone contracts look to be going the way of the flip phone, replaced by what are essentially no-interest phone loans. Here’s why that matters.

Comparison shopping is the consumer’s best tactic, and most big companies’ biggest headache. So for years, consumers have had to contend with complicated phone subsidies, early termination fees, family plans and data overage charges.

Now, half those headaches are on the verge of extinction. When Verizon announced earlier this month that it was doing away with phone subsidies and two-year contracts, it marked the fatal blow to what has been the most confusing part of cellphone shopping. Until now, the best phone deals often required iron-clad two-year contracts with a carrier that came with hefty separation penalties — $350 early termination fees, for example. The business model was confusing: carriers subsidized the price of phones to draw in customers who would pay high monthly bills. It wasn’t all bad — some people got nice new phones on the cheap – but it had the unhealthy market effect of blurring the real price of handsets.

Now, carriers are offering a different set of choices — buy your own phone, finance the phone or lease the phone. The good news is that the price of phones should be clearer — a Galaxy S6 Edge might cost $768 or 24 payments of $32, for example. Even better: This new model should also make consumers take a new look at bring-your-own discount plans offered by off-brands like Total Wireless (which is operated by TracPhone, but runs on the Verizon network).

But don’t think you are getting away that easy. While annual contracts are gone, and with them early termination fees, other terms and conditions have taken their place. Many consumers will end up with a new “monthly device payment” instead. Leaving a carrier before two years have passed will be a little less painful, but not painless. Consumers will have to pay off the phone loan somehow, by either paying the remaining balance, or paying part of it and returning the gadget, or both. Thanks to Sprint, there’s an option to “lease” phones, which is a little cheaper, but as you might expect from the name, requires consumers to return the gadget after two years.

And the saddest news of all: the bottom line from the big four carriers is that, no matter how they stack their fees on top of each other, all four end up charging consumers about the same for a newish smartphone with a good-enough data plan. Your individual needs might vary, and you might get a little better family plan here or a little newer phone there, but in the end, the prices are strikingly similar.

A Look at the Big Four Plans

When I priced them this week, here’s what I found. (These calculations exclude activation fees and taxes).

  • At Verizon, a Galaxy S6 Edge costs $32 a month for 24 months. Then, 3 GBs of data costs $45 a month. Then, users must pay a $20 monthly access charge for each phone. Total cost/month = $97
  • At Sprint, that phone costs $30 a month to lease or $33 a month to own for 24 months, plus $60 for “unlimited” monthly data, with strings attached. Total cost/month = $93
  • At T-Mobile, the Galaxy costs $32.50 a month for 24 months, plus $60 for 3 GBs. Total cost/month = $92.
  • At AT&T Wireless, a Galaxy 6 Edge costs $24 for 30 months – (see how that works there? Cheaper — but not, because of the longer term). Then 2 GBs a month cost $55. Total cost/month = $79, but with longer payment terms.

One very positive thing to note about these changes: All these firms are essentially lending you money for free to finance your new cellphone. Nothing wrong with free financing, as long as you understand the commitment you are making. Paying off a phone loan balance can be a fair way to deal with a cellphone divorce than an arbitrary early termination fee.

What Does it Mean for You?

Here’s how to compare phones: calculate the true two-year cost of your gadget, all add-on fees considered. That means total phone cost plus 24 monthly bills (if that’s your commitment) plus the value of what you’ll have at the end (a working smartphone? A phone you can’t wait to ditch? You’ll have to decide).

If you are the type to want the latest gadget at all times, (there are many of you — Recon Analytics says that 49% of Americans replace their device every year now), this new structure adds more flexibility. For example, Sprint is offering a “new iPhone for life” plan, which lets customers trade up to the newest iPhone once every year if they are on a leasing plan and turn in their old, working iPhone.

The phone loan programs should make Americans more aware of their gadget costs, and the fact that they usually own them after two years. Hopefully, that will make off-brand providers like Straight Talk ($45 a month for 5 GBs) worth a second look. And don’t forget, the traditional carriers all have their own sub-brands that offer cheaper, bring-your-own phone plans.

But note that all these changes come with a very important caveat. Now that cellphone companies are acting like lenders, they will….act like lenders. Many of these deals will only be available to consumers with good or excellent credit. So add “before I shop for a cellphone” to the list of times when it’s important to get a copy of your credit report and credit score. You can get your free annual credit reports at AnnualCreditReport.com.

More from Credit.com:

TIME AT&T

AT&T’s $49 Billion Acquisition of DirecTV to Get Regulatory Approval

It would be the year’s biggest media deal, report says

Step aside, Verizon and AOL.

If AT&T succeeds in its $49 billion dollar bid to acquire DirecTV, the match will be the year’s biggest media deal—an order of magnitude larger than the $4.4 billion Verizon agreed to shell out for AOL earlier this year. Even in the parallel universe where Comcast’s botched $45 billion Time Warner Cable takeover was a triumph, this deal is still bigger.

What’s more: the match—originally proposed in May 2014—seems very likely to go through. The deal is all but inked, reports The Wall Street Journal, citing unnamed sources.

Regulators from the Federal Communications Commissions are apparently in the midst of wrapping up their review of AT&T’s potential purchase. The company already has clearance from the Department of Justice. All that’s left is for the FCC’s five commissioners, including chairman Tom Wheeler, to formally submit their approval.

As Journal reporter Thomas Gryta notes:

The transaction will make AT&T the nation’s largest pay television provider in addition to the second biggest wireless carrier at a time when companies are trying to figure out how best to handle the massive shifts among media companies as video consumption moves online. The combination will pair AT&T’s regional U-verse pay TV business with DirecTV’s satellite operation, which is nationwide but lacks a robust broad band offering.

Previously, AT&T lost $4 billion and failed to win approval for an attempted T-Mobile takeover in 2011. This time round? Apparently things are going much more smoothly.

TIME T-Mobile

T-Mobile Will Pay This Record Fine For Preventing 911 Calls

SQUAWK ALLEY -- Pictured: John Legere, CEO and  President of T-Mobile US, in an interview at CNBC's San Francicso bureau, on April 28, 2015 -- (Photo by: David A.Grogan/CNBC/NBCU Photo Bank)
CNBC—2015 CNBC Media, LLC John Legere, CEO and President of T-Mobile US.

Largest such settlement that the FCC has ever imposed on a wireless carrier

T-Mobile has agreed to pay $17.5 million to settle an investigation that the cellphone service provider prevented its customers from making emergency 911 calls, the Federal Communications Commission said Friday.

For about three hours one day last summer, almost all of T-Mobile’s 50 million customers could not call for help by dialing 911 on their cellphones, according to the FCC. The problem was apparently due to two network outages that the wireless carrier experienced on August 8, 2014.

Americans increasingly rely on mobile phones to place emergency calls. About 70% of 911 calls are made from cellphones nowadays, the FCC estimates.

Every hour, Americans make an average of 27,400 calls from a wireless device to 911.

T-Mobile is paying the largest 911-related fine against a wireless carrier to date. But is not the only company that regulators have blamed for blocking calls to emergency responders.

Earlier this year, the FCC announced that Verizon would pay $3.4 million for its role in an outage that prevented many of its California customers from reaching 911 call centers for six hours in April 2014. The FCC subsequently fined wireless carrier CenturyLink and Intrado, which provides 911 communications services to telecom companies, a total of $17.4 million for the same incident.

During that outage, emergency workers missed 6,600 calls to 911, reporting urgent situations including “domestic violence, assault, motor vehicle accidents, a heart attack, an overdose, and an intruder breaking into a residence,” the FCC said in its enforcement announcement.

Last year, an investigation by the Verge found that 911 calls placed on cellphones frequently fail, according to consumer complaint records the news site obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request.

TIME Smartphones

Some T-Mobile iPhone Users Say Their Phones Are Crashing

iPhone Blue Screen, Restart, T-Mobile
Bloomberg via Getty Images T-Mobile US Inc. signage is displayed in the window of a retail store in Washington, D.C., on Oct. 23, 2014.

They're seeing the "blue screen of death"

Some T-Mobile iPhone users on Wednesday are reporting a “blue screen of death” followed by their devices restarting.

Users flustered by the problem say their iPhones are displaying the ominous blue screen randomly for a split second, then rebooting, often at 10 to 30 minute intervals, MacRumors reports. iPhones that have experienced the issue so far include the iPhone 6 Plus, 6 and 5s across several versions of iOS 8.

Though T-Mobile has not addressed the issue publicly, some users speculate the issue may be a memory problem. The carrier’s support staff has recommended to customers who call-in to try a hard reset. And if that doesn’t work, customers should try clearing out old text messages, then restoring their iPhones to factory settings with iTunes.

T-Mobile has not yet responded to TIME’s request for comment.

[MacRumors]

TIME Wireless

T-Mobile Will Let You Upgrade Your Phone Whenever You Want

T-Mobile
Steve Sands John Legere CEO of T-Mobile announces the company's new plans on March 18, 2015 in New York City.

New plan grants customers three upgrades a year with no additional cost

T-Mobile has been wreaking havoc on the wireless industry for two years with disruptive customer deals that upset the tradition of binding two-year contracts. Now the company has another new initiative that its larger competitors may be forced to respond to.

On Thursday, T-Mobile announced Jump! On Demand, a new initiative that will let users upgrade their smartphones up to three times a year without having to pay any additional fees. Customers can get their first phone on the plan for $0 down, then pay a monthly fee toward the purchase of the new phone. When ready for a new phone, a customer can trade in their current device for another one at no cost.

Rates for the monthly payment plan vary, but an initial promotion will let customers get an iPhone 6 with a payment plan of $15 per month when they trade in their old smartphone. These phone payment rates are in addition to the cost of the wireless plan.

There is some fine print. T-Mobile has an older Jump! plan that charges a $10 per month fee but includes perks such as phone insurance. This new plan has no fee, but no insurance. The payment plan also is part of an 18-month lease, and after a year and a half, customers must either upgrade to a new phone or pay the balance on their current phone to purchase the device outright.

Still, for people who are constantly eager to upgrade, the offering is an affordable way to always have the latest and greatest device. It’s also more flexible than offerings by T-Mobile’s competitors aimed at frequent upgraders.

Jump! Unlimited kicks off on June 28 at participating physical T-Mobile stores.

TIME mergers

Here’s One Big Reason T-Mobile Should Merge With Dish

Dish has been hoarding something very valuable

Satellite TV provider Dish Network is in talks to merge with wireless carrier T-Mobile, the Wall Street Journal reported late Wednesday evening, a move that would mark the latest in a series of successful and attempted deals consolidating the telecom industry.

T-Mobile—and its customers (and investors and lawyers)—has much to gain from combining with Dish. Despite years of edgy advertising and disruptive offerings flown under the marketing banner of “The Uncarrier,” T-Mobile remains stuck in fourth place behind its wireless rivals in terms of subscribers. T-Mobile’s outspoken CEO, John Legere, has long sought to make a big move to help his company compete with his industry’s twin titans, Verizon and AT&T, most recently by moving toward a merger with rival Sprint. That deal was ultimately called off under pressure from regulators.

What Dish offers T-Mobile is a finite resource valuable for big telecoms: Wireless spectrum, a government-regulated resource that carriers need to be able to offer service. Dish was markedly aggressive in snatching up such spectrum during recent government auctions, and now has about $60 billion worth of it. Until now, it hasn’t been clear what Dish was up to—it doesn’t run its own wireless network, so the spectrum was only beneficial to Dish as something valuable to hoard.

But if Dish and T-Mobile merge, T-Mobile would be able to tap into that spectrum, adding more and faster service across the country. That, combined with the continuation of its industry-unsettling “Uncarrer” strategy, could turn T-Mobile into a real threat for Verizon and AT&T for the first time. And because the deal wouldn’t reduce the number of major mobile carriers in the U.S., regulators are more likely to let this merger happen.

What’s in it for Dish? It would finally get to use that $60 billion in spectrum without the costly expensive of building its own wireless network — and start selling broadband data packages, too, moving into a lucrative new market.

MONEY The Economy

Another Merger? This Time It’s T-Mobile and Dish Network

Why do a mashup of cellphone service and satellite TV?

The merger news comes on the heels of the failed Time Warner Cable/Comcast merger. Though the deal is technically in the formative stages, the two companies have already determined who would lead the new company: T-Mobile’s offbeat CEO John Legere will remain CEO, while Dish Network’s Charlie Ergen would become chairman. Dish has billions of dollars of wireless licenses, and T-Mobile has the cell network to put those licenses to use. Re/code’s Ina Fried, however, says this merger is like two people who hook up because they are the last ones left in the bar at closing time.

TIME deals

T-Mobile and Dish Network Are Nearing a Merger, According to Reports

Purchase price and stock options have not been agreed upon

Dish Network and T-Mobile are close to a merger agreement that would mark another instance of recent consolidation deals amongst U.S. communications companies as traditional media grapples with changing business dynamics in the Internet era, reported the Wall Street Journal on Wednesday.

According to the Journal, semantics over the end price and cash versus stocks considerations have not been agreed upon.

The deal comes on the heels of a pair of major agreements—the $49 billion deal between AT&T and DirectTV, and a $67 billion agreement between Charter Communications, Time Warner Cable and Bright House Networks.

Read more details about the merger at the Wall Street Journal.

MONEY cellphones

3 Promotions That Show Sprint Is Desperate for Your Business

Sprint store sign
Andrew Harrer—Bloomberg via Getty Images

Sprint is offering crazy-sounding deals right now, including hand delivery of new phones. But that doesn't mean the wireless provider offers good value.

Sprint just announced that it will hand deliver new phones to customers’ homes and then help them set up the devices. The new promotion is set to start in Kansas City (near Sprint’s Overland Park headquarters) before rolling out to Miami, Chicago, and the rest of the United States.

Yet for anyone paying attention to the industry, the promo reads more as an act of desperation than a great deal. Though Sprint has been holding on to about 16% market share for the last few years—about the same as T-Mobile, and half as much as top-two carriers Verizon and AT&T—it has poor customer satisfaction rates and an especially high “churn” rate, or percentage of customers who dump their provider each quarter.

To be fair, the “D” word gets thrown around a lot when cellphones are being discussed. Last year, T-Mobile CEO John Legere accused AT&T of being “desperate” by offering a $450 buyout plan for customers who jumped ship from rival carriers. Then, days later, T-Mobile upped the desperation ante by offering its own $650 buyout plan—and AT&T quickly (and quietly) ended its offer. And it’s not just wireless carriers: Reviewers of HTC’s new “Uh-oh protection” program have called the deal desperate, since it offers a free replacement if you break your phone within the first year. Even iPhone users with AppleCare+ don’t get totally free phone replacements.

But Sprint in particular has garnered much attention over the years for especially desperate-sounding promotions. Here are 3 signs the company really, really wants your love.

1. Sprint will meet you at Starbucks, the gym, or wherever

The company’s new hand-delivery promotion offers a time-window precision that might make even Amazon Prime customers jealous.

“We will deliver pretty much anywhere… and it’s an exact-on-time delivery,” Sprint vice president Rod Millar told The Verge. “You can tell us ‘6:45, and meet me at McDonald’s.'”

Sounds convenient, but also potentially awkward—particularly for the Sprint “expert” who gets to roll up in this extremely cool-looking car and wait for you to finish ordering your fries.

2. Sprint will cut your AT&T or Verizon bill in half

This past December, Sprint announced it will now give you a 50% discount off whatever monthly fee you were paying AT&T or Verizon if you cancel your plan and switch.

Of course, the company also uses the promotion to get you locked into one of its various device programs. Those include the “iPhone for Life Plan,” which is not so much a chance for you to get a free new iPhone every few years (like it sounds) as it is a lease program in which you pay a monthly fee on top of your service charges—and do not technically own the phone.

3. Sprint will give you $550 to ditch T-Mobile

If you trade in your T-Mobile phone, you get $200 upfront from Sprint, plus up to $350 per line for dropping your T-Mobile contract.

Given that Sprint is in serious danger these days of slipping behind T-Mobile in the cellphone wars, this promotion makes sense. In 2014 alone, the company bought back more than 3 million phones from rival carriers.

Then again, if it wants to earn back market share, the service provider might want to focus less on promotions and more on, well, service. Sprint’s poor coverage kept it off of MONEY’s Best Cellphone Plans list last year, and despite some improvements, the company still ranks below its peers according the most recent report by RootMetrics, a company that rates mobile plans.

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