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 Tech

AT&T Knows the Days of 2-Year Contracts Are Numbered

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Richard Drew—AP

Consumers have better options.

The days of consumers being locked into two-year wireless contracts are numbered. We’ve known this for a while, what with the rise of prepaid and no-contract plans that charge no fees when a customer cancels the service. Why worry about having to pay an early termination fee of $100 to $350 for dumping a locked-in contract when there are other, less onerous plans with service that’s just as good?

This week AT&T, a pioneer in locked-in wireless plans, took a big step toward their extinction. On Monday, the wireless giant eliminated two-year contracts through partner retailers Apple and Best Buy. “I think it is one of those options that is going to go away slowly,” Ralph de la Vega, AT&T CEO of mobile and business solutions, explained to Re/code. The policy change is coming “not because we insist on it but because customers will choose it less often.”

The disappearance of two-year contracts and their outsized early termination fees is great for consumers. But the traditional tradeoff for being locked into a two-year contract—cheaper, subsidized prices for smartphones—is disappearing as well. Some consumers probably think of this as a negative, but in reality it is not.

When you run the numbers, it becomes apparent that a subsidized cellphone with a contract costs more in the long run compared to pretty much any other option out there today. Sure, the subsidized option initially costs less out-of-pocket. But the tradeoff for that cheaper upfront price is higher monthly bills. Virtually every analysis comparing contract vs. non-contract plans points out that when you look at total costs over two years or more, it almost always makes financial sense to skip the contract.

So feel free to rejoice that the era of two-year contracts is coming to an end.

TIME Google

Finally, You Can Get Your Google Maps Directions Anytime

Google Maps Returns To Apple's iPhone
Justin Sullivan—Getty Images

No wireless connection needed

You know those annoying moments when your phone goes offline and you can’t get directions to where you’re going? And it’s always at the least opportune moments?

Good news: That will soon be a thing of the past.

On Thursday, Google announced at its annual developers in San Francisco that turn-by-turn directions would soon be available — even without a data connection. All you have to do is save the route while you’re connected and the directions will be there when you need them.

Also, because GPS doesn’t need LTE coverage, it can still track where you are on your route and estimate the time remaining for your trip.

That will be especially game-changing in communities where fast, reliable wireless infrastructure is spotty. It’s one of many offline improvements Google announced at this year’s conference, including saving search results in Chrome and videos from YouTube.

MONEY Kids and Money

How to Save on Your Kid’s First Cell Phone

Children are getting phones at younger ages than ever. But the earlier you give in, the longer you'll be paying wireless bills.

When Dallas mom Jan Valecka’s twins hit that contentious tween age, the rite of passage she dreaded most was a relatively new one: when to get them cell phones.

“They were starting to see all their friends get smartphones and iPads,” says Valecka, a financial planner at her own firm. “They started lobbying hard.”

She caved when they started 5th grade and got them basic cell phones. The boy-and-girl twins are now 13 and in 7th grade. Their upgrade to smartphones costs Valecka about $75 a month each.

Valecka is hardly alone in dealing with the emotional and financial consequences of giving kids smartphones. A quarter of U.S. 8-and 9-year-olds now have them, according to the 2015 Parents, Kids & Money survey by Baltimore money managers T. Rowe Price. And a new study from Pew Research Center discovered that only 12% of American teens age 13 to 17 do not have a cell phones of any type.

To make the correct call, though, do the math to be sure you are ready for far-reaching consequences. After all, it’s not just a one-time purchase that parents are agreeing to, but a stiff monthly charge that could last for many years to come.

If you get your 12-year-old a plan that costs, say, $50 a month, that will set you back $4,200 though age 18. And that’s not even including any ancillary costs like equipment and upgrades, repairs and app purchases. Data overages, especially if your kids are heavy video watchers, could inflict significant extra damage.

Indeed, 23% of households report paying much more for their kids’ phone plans than they originally expected, according to a study by the National Consumers League.

That doesn’t have to be the case if you are thoughtful about how your decisions will affect household finances. Here are some suggestions:

1. Start with baby steps

A basic cell with phone and texting capability can be very reasonable indeed; Sprint, for instance, offers a WeGo starter phone for only $9.99 a month.

There are also prepaid plans available, with varying restrictions on minutes and data, and low-cost handsets. T-Mobile, for instance, offers a $40-a-month prepaid plan with unlimited talk, text and data on its own network, and 1 GB of nationwide LTE data. With hard limits in place, parents are essentially saving themselves from any unwanted bill surprises.

Consider it something of a trial period: If your kids prove responsible with their new gadgets, and aren’t constantly calling or texting their buddies late into the night, then you can talk about graduating to more elaborate phones and plans.

When you are all ready, every major carrier offers a version of a family share plan, like Verizon’s More Everything and AT&T’s Mobile Share Value. Additional lines cost less money than standalone packages, but contracts are often involved.

At that point the training wheels are off—and if you are sharing your family data package with your teenager, be prepared to blow through some usage limits.

2. Have the money talk

“The question that must always be discussed is, ‘Who will pay for what?'” says Mark La Spisa, a planner with Vermillion Financial in South Barrington, Illinois. “It’s critical to talk about it in advance of a child receiving their first phone.”

For an 8- or 9-year-old, it is unfair to expect anything beyond a token contribution. But teens who have their own income from part-time or summer work can start chipping in to cover part of the bill.

Also consider who the phone is really benefiting. If it is mainly for the parents’ peace of mind, that’s one thing. But if it is only for their enjoyment, and parents are not deriving any benefit at all, then “then they should be footing the bill,” says personal finance expert Gail Vaz-Oxlade, author of Money Rules.

3. Resist the lure of the constant upgrade

For her own kids, Vaz-Oxlade pays the bills, because she wants to get in touch with them. But she draws the line at hopping on the “hamster wheel” of getting them the latest-and-greatest gadgets on the market. That’s just throwing away money, in her opinion.

As a result she, her son and her daughter are all still using trusty iPhone 4s they got a few years ago.

TIME Wireless

Should You Switch to Google’s Wireless Plan?

The search giant’s consumer-friendly service isn’t for everyone

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Cheaper. More flexible. More convenient. These words are like catnip for consumers, making them stare saucer-eyed and salivating at whatever possibilities come next. And that’s the promise of Google’s new wireless service, Project Fi.

But should you jump ship from your current mobile plan into Google’s boat? First read up on everything we know about the radical new plan, then consider these factors before making the leap.

The Handset

If you’re an iPhone person, thanks for clicking on this story — you can move along now. That’s because to take advantage of Google’s wireless plan, you’ll have to use a Nexus 6 handset, co-developed by Google and Motorola Mobility and running Google’s Android software. So, no iOS users allowed, for now — but that leaves approximately 46.7% of mobile users for Google to woo, which is still an enormous market.

And running the latest and greatest version of Android, the Nexus 6 is an excellent smartphone, but it sure is a big fella. Actually, the technical term for a phone of its stature is “phablet,” and being part phone, part tablet, you might find the Nexus 6 a tight fit in your pants pocket. So, if that’s your preferred method of stowage, you’ll also want to pass on Google’s killer deal, at least until other phones are allowed to participate, too (Google’s offering is Nexus 6-only for now because it packs new tech making it capable of running on the plan).

Upfront Costs

Google (along with partners Sprint and T-Mobile) has done a commendable job of bringing the monthly cost of service down, but the up-front cost is fairly high compared to carriers that provide subsidized phones. To get in on the new plan, you’ll have to shell out for the Nexus 6, which starts at $649. If you already own a Nexus 6 free-and-clear (meaning you’re not contracted through another carrier), congratulations — you’re already eligible to switch over to Google’s new plan. But if you got your Nexus 6 through a deal from your current carrier, expect penalties, fees, and other financial wrangling to impede your cellular freedom. Google isn’t offering to pay switchers’ early termination fees, either.

Data Usage

This is where Project Fi shines. While its $10 per gigabyte rate is on par with other carriers, the key to the deal is how Google refunds users for unused data. Applying the reversed charges to the next month’s bill, Google can save you a good chunk of change on your mobile phone bill.
To find out how much you’ll save, just log into your mobile provider’s website and look at the summaries they provide. For instance, my wife and I have a 10 gigabyte Mobile Share Value plan from AT&T. But we only use six gigabytes of data, on average. (Full disclosure: I intended to sign up for their six gigabyte plan, but a promotional rate gave me 10 for the same price.) If I switched us to Google’s Project Fi, we would save $40 per month on our combined bill — that’s nothing to sneeze at.

Data Sharing

Project Fi is refreshing because it seems to come with no strings attached, but they could have called it the Bachelor Plan, because to use it right, you really need to fly solo. Take a family of three, for instance. Sharing that 10 gigabyte AT&T Mobile Share Value plan between three off-contract phones would cost for $145 per month. But if this family was to take Google up on its offer, it would cost $20 per line for voice service before the 10 gigabytes would add an additional $100 to the bill, for a total of $160. (And that doesn’t take into account the up-front cost of three Nexus 6 phones.)

Still, there are some flaws in this math. Since Google’s new plan only charges users for the data they consume, this family might get a refund. For instance, if the family uses just seven gigabytes, their net bill would only be $130. Still, this is also a fantasy because at this time there is no Project Fi family plan, so these people would actually need three separate plans.

In other words, for people who share data, Google’s new plan might save you some money, but not enough to offset the hassle of switching, or the upfront costs of the new phones.

Network Concerns

The game-changing feature of Project Fi is how it uses Wi-Fi as much as possible, even for making phone calls. But when you’re out of Wi-Fi range, you’ll be piggybacking on T-Mobile and Sprint’s networks, and this could be a concern for some users. In rating the four major carriers late last year, Consumer Reports gave Sprint’s network poor marks, but noted how T-Mobile had improved its service. Still, these rankings have to be considered on a case-by-case basis depending on where you live, work, and spend the most time. If you have access to Wi-Fi in those places, this plan could be great for you. But if Sprint and T-Mobile perform poorly there, it’s not worth making the switch to Project Fi — at least not yet.

TIME Wireless

Everything to Know About Google’s New Wireless Service

Project Fi is cheaper and more flexible than most wireless plans

Google is already an Internet Service Provider and a pay-TV operator. Now it’s expanding to become a wireless carrier as well.

Google unveiled Wednesday a new cell phone service dubbed Project Fi, which offers the same basic functionality as traditional wireless carriers, such as voice, text and Internet access, at a lower price than many common plans.

Here’s a primer on everything you need to know about Google’s Project Fi:

What exactly does Project Fi offer?

Project Fi offers a basic cell phone plan that includes unlimited domestic talk and text and unlimited international texts for $20 per month. International calls will cost $.20 per minute. Subscribers can add a monthly allotment of 1GB of data for $10 month, and increase the allotment by $10 per gigabyte.

One thing that makes Fi different from many mainstream carriers is that any data a customer doesn’t use shows up as a credit on their next bill — each 100MB is worth $1. There are also no overage penalties, as extra data use is charged at the same rate as data that is part of the plan. And, in a nice plus for international travelers, mobile data costs the same $10/GB in more than 120 countries.

How will Project Fi differ from what traditional wireless carriers offer?

Google’s service will switch between different high-speed wireless networks operated by Sprint and T-Mobile, depending on which is stronger in a given area. In addition to regular cellular coverage, phones on Project Fi will switch to Wi-Fi networks when available to place calls and access the Internet without using up customers’ data plans.

Using Wi-Fi for voice service is becoming an increasingly popular strategy in the telco industry — Cablevision recently unveiled a cell phone service that is entirely reliant on Wi-Fi connections and costs $30 per month.

What do I need to get Project Fi?

Right now, you can only use Project Fi with a Nexus 6, Google’s flagship Android phone. The Nexus 6 costs $649 for the 32GB version. Unlike traditional carriers, Google isn’t offering a subsidy on the phone in exchange for a two-year contract commitment (Project Fi is contract-free).

However, customers can pay for the device over the course of two years if they pass a credit check. And if you already own a Nexus 6, it’ll work on Project Fi.

How is Google able to build the infrastructure to offer cell phone service?

Google isn’t building its own cell phone towers for Project Fi. Instead, it operates on networks already operated by Sprint and T-Mobile. The big wireless carriers already make lots of money by effectively renting access to their networks to smaller carriers, who then resell that service to consumers using different branding.

Google, of course, could be a much bigger long-term threat to the wireless industry than the typical small-scale operator. But Sprint has reserved the right to renegotiate its deal with Google if the search giant gains a large number of subscribers, according to the Wall Street Journal.

Why would Google want to be a wireless carrier?

Google’s primary interest as a company is getting people on the Internet so that they can make Google searches and be served ads, which is how Google makes money. Developing new ways to make Internet access cheaper, faster or more reliable creates more opportunities for users to feed into Google’s core business.

Google likely doesn’t have aspirations to become the next AT&T or Comcast–those firms have incredibly high infrastructure costs and often contentious relationships with their customer base because of the high fees they charge. Rather, Google wants to tip the scales to force the giants in telecommunications to offer better service. This is already happening with Google Fiber, Google’s high-speed Internet service, which has prompted Time Warner Cable to boost Internet speeds for its own customers in places like Charlotte, N.C.

How will this affect the other carriers?

For now, any impact will be small, because Project Fi is only available on the Nexus 6. T-Mobile and Sprint will actually benefit financially because Google is paying them for their networks, and those companies will have the leverage to stamp out Google’s service if it develops in ways they don’t like. But in the long run, Google’s presence could force carriers to offer customers plans that are cheaper and more flexible. T-Mobile has already been filling this disruptive role in the telco industry through its aggressive Uncarrier plan.

Read next: This Is Facebook’s Latest Move to Take Over Your Phone

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TIME Mobile

This Country Has the Fastest Mobile Broadband

Go to Europe if you want fast mobile Internet

When it comes to mobile data speeds, Europe is world’s quickest region.

A new study by wireless network tracking service OpenSignal found that Spain has the fastest 4G LTE networks in the world, with download speeds of 18 Mbps on average. Denmark, Finland and South Korea tied for second place with speeds of 17 Mbps. The U.S., with speeds of just 7 Mbps, ranked 26th out of the 29 countries measured.

The U.S. fared better on the ‘Time on LTE’ metric, a measurement of how often users are able to access high-speed data service in a given country. South Korea topped the list with 95% accessibility, while U.S. came in 6th with 77% accessibility.

OpenSignal determined its rankings by measuring data speeds and LTE access between November 2014 and January 2015 for the 11 million users who have downloaded their app and subscribed to an LTE mobile data plan.

TIME innovations

You Asked: What Is 5G Wireless Data and Why Do I Want It?

TIME.com stock photos Social Apps iPhone
Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

Your phone's Internet speeds are about to get a whole lot faster

Back in the 2000s, it seemed like new wireless data technologies were as much of a reason to upgrade our phones as new hardware. Since the launch of the current 4G wireless data network, though, progress in the world of mobile data has seemed to slow. But at last week’s Mobile World Congress — an annual gathering of all the gurus who make wireless communication possible — we got a glimpse of the mobile broadband future: 5G.

Your first interaction with wireless data probably came in 2007, when Apple’s original iPhone was released, using EDGE data networks. Then, just over a year later, came the iPhone 3G, running on 3G data networks moving up to seven times faster than their predecessors. By early 2011, T-Mobile claimed to have America’s first 4G network, a technology that runs 10 times faster than 3G.

What’s next? That’s 5G wireless data. While the 5G standards have yet to be finalized, it could pack up to 1,000 times more capacity than 4G, says the European Commission. But here’s the catch: It won’t be ready until at least 2020.

While 5G will undoubtedly be faster than 4G, speed isn’t the only reason mobile operators want to make the jump. From mobile devices like smartphones and tablets to smart home gadgets and connected cars, it’s estimated that consumers’ appetites for Internet-connected gadgets will boom in the next five years. The current 4G networks just won’t be able to handle the load. 5G networks, however, could manage connections for 7 trillion devices — which means everyone on Earth could have around 1,000 connected devices before the network gets overloaded. In addition, 5G could save up to 90% on energy consumption over current standards.

And as exciting as it is to have a rock-solid Spotify signal in your car, 5G will stretch the potential of wireless data well beyond what we even dream about today. According to a recent article in Research*eu Focus Magazine:

The impact of 5G will extend well beyond telecommunications: by connecting people, machines and things on a massive scale, it will facilitate the delivery of personalized healthcare and support an aging society, it will help optimize transports and logistics, it will enhance access to culture and education for all, and it may virtually revolutionize public services.

The advance represented by 5G is so jarring that this is the best way to describe it: 1G networks powered the kind of massive, brick-sized cellular phones we equate with Zack Morris from Saved By The Bell. 2G technology connected to everyone’s first cellphone, those tiny Nokias that actually fit in our pockets. 3G made our handsets smart, while 4G let people have mobile data on tablets, laptops, and other devices. 5G will bring high-speed mobile Internet to everything: Your home, car, hospital, utilities, and yes, even your smartphone.

And speaking of smartphones, these devices might see the biggest lift of any gadget out there, since the new technology will give companies like Apple, Google, Huawei and Samsung the opportunity to push their boundaries further as the increased data gives them greater might. While today’s handsets all seem to be the same glass screen with front- and rear-facing cameras, the ability to download an 8K-resolution movie in a second could give smartphones new superpowers. I’d suggest holographic phone calls, but something tells me that dream will come across as laughably narrow-minded by the time we all have 5G. Time will tell.

TIME Wireless

Can Wi-Fi Replace Your Cell Phone Plan?

TIME.com stock photos Social Apps iPhone Facebook
Elizabeth Renstrom for TIME

Cablevision is building a cell phone service that relies entirely on Wi-Fi

The wireless industry has seen its fair share of changes over the last two years, many sparked by T-Mobile’s disruptive “uncarrier” policies that have been since co-opted by its rivals. But there could be even bigger shakeups coming in the year ahead.

New York-based cable and Internet operator Cablevision is preparing to launch a new cell phone service that relies exclusively on Wi-Fi, the New York Times reports. That would differentiate it from traditional mobile carriers, which use networks of cell towers to let users make calls, send text messages and surf the web. Google is also reportedly prepping a wireless service that may make extensive use of Wi-Fi.

A switch from cellular to Wi-Fi networks could have a huge impact on both the cost and quality of wireless service in the future. Here’s a quick look at what Wi-Fi-based carriers could mean for your cell phone plan:

How is a Wi-Fi plan different from a regular cellular plan?

Historically, cell phones have delivered phone calls, text messages and Internet data using cell towers owned and operated by wireless carriers like Verizon or AT&T. This system has created extremely widespread networks that let people make calls and access the web from almost anywhere in the U.S. But it also means the networks are extremely expensive to operate, so carriers charge customers high monthly fees to maintain them.

An increasing amount of activity on mobile phones is now being done using Wi-Fi networks instead of cellular networks. People can easily set up Wi-Fi in their own homes, while many businesses and municipalities are starting to offer Wi-Fi access for free. Cablevision has also been building its own network of Wi-Fi hotspots for use by its home Internet subscribers when they’re on the go.

Cablevision is now betting that its Wi-Fi hotspots are so widespread that it can build an entire mobile network around them. That means you’d use Wi-Fi not only to surf the Web at home, but also to send texts and make phone calls while out and about.

What are the advantages of a Wi-Fi cell phone plan?

The biggest differentiator would be price. Cablevision’s new Wi-Fi service, dubbed Freewheel, will cost $29.95 per month for new individual customers or $9.95 per month for customers who already subscribe to the company’s Optimum Online Internet service. A recent survey by research firm Cowen and Company found the average monthly cell phone bill on Sprint, Verizon or AT&T is about $140, though that factors in both individual and family plans.

Cablevision’s service also won’t require an annual contract, and it will provide unlimited data. Traditional cell phone carriers often require two-year contracts and punish customers with expensive overage fees if they exceed their data caps.

What are the disadvantages?

At launch, the only phone compatible with Cablevision’s new network is Motorola’s Moto G, which will cost $99.99. The service also won’t be able to match the wide coverage of mobile networks like Verizon’s or AT&T’s — Cablevision’s 1.1 million Wi-Fi hotspots are found only in the New York metro area.

For now, Optimum’s service doesn’t seem to be geared toward typical mainstream consumers. Cablevision Chief Operating Officer Kristin Dolan told the Wall Street Journal that Freewheel could be appropriate for college students, children or people with a fixed income.

What does this mean for the future of wireless?

People aren’t going to abandon reliable wireless carriers and their cellular networks anytime soon. But there will be growing pressure on carriers to make more effective use of Wi-Fi connectivity in urban areas. Google’s rumored wireless service may end up mixing Wi-Fi and traditional cellular networks, helping users automatically find and connect to the fastest or cheapest network while on the go, according to the Journal.

In the future, cellular networks could be viewed as a back-up connectivity option when Wi-Fi isn’t available. Such a model would lower cell phone bills as customers opted for cheaper data plans.

Should I subscribe to Cablevision’s Wi-Fi Network?

If you already subscribe to Optimum Internet (so you qualify for the cheaper subscription rate) and you live near New York and you don’t travel much, then maybe. Otherwise, it’s best to wait and see how the arrival of Freewheel impacts the offerings of the major carriers — and keep an eye out for Google’s upcoming service, which the Journal speculates could arrive in the first half of the year.

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