2016-11-06

My MetroPCS Experience and Review

I decided to try out MetroPCS.  I have been paying AT&T about $70 a month since the advent of the iPhone 3G.   Competitors offer less expensive plans.   Now is the time for me to look for alternatives.

My approach for selecting a new carrier is to (1) Figure out what level of service I need, (2) Figure out what quality and features I will be happy with, and (3) locating the low cost provider given that.

Any plan I sign up for should closely consider my usage.  I went to my AT&T account on-line and looked at the use of my AT&T plan over the past 18 months, and was able to determine my usage pattern.  With this information, I can find the most affordable plan for me.

Voice
Max of 300 minutes per month
Texts
Max of 50 texts per month (thanks to iMessage!)
Data
Max of 5.5 GB per month (outlier)
Data
Max of 2.5 GB per month (typical)
 table 1: my usage pattern

What I want out of a mobile phone service

Everyone has different interests when it comes to service quality and features. 

In terms of quality, my provider must be able to provide me with decent service.  Considering that Sprint doesn't cover my neighborhood very well, I am not currently looking at Sprint-based providers.  This might change over time as Sprint builds out its network in my region.

Another notion of quality is data performance - basically ping times and bits-per-second.  Sadly, no provider will honestly tell me with a what kind of performance I'll likely see in my neighborhood, so I'll have to try prospective providers in order to make a decision.

My notion of "features" needs an explanation. Modern phones like the iPhone support features like Visual Voicemail and WiFi calling.  I'd much prefer a vendor that supports advanced features.

Finally, there is cost.   I want to to pay as little as possible very month.  I don't want surprise charges.  I don't mind if I have to pay more if my usage radically increases, but I want that to be my explicit choice. 

I built a little table that describes the very basics that are important to me.  This table isn't all that intellectually sophisticated, but it does boil it all down to the essentials:

Quality
Service should provide adequate reliability where I typically go.  I'm not so interested in service quality in rural Wyoming, and am more interested in service where I spend 99.99% of my time (near home & work)
Features
Service should provide modern smartphone features I want
Cost
Service should be of the lowest available cost
table 2: desired service features

Services In The Running

So I scoured the Internet and priced out as many providers as I could find.  It took me several hours to do this.  In the end I boiled it all down to this chart:


Total Wireless
MetroPCS
AT&T (current)
Monthly Cost
$33.20
$40.00
$70.00
Adequate talk/text
Yes
Yes
Yes
Adequate Data?
Yes
Yes
Yes
Data
5 GB
3 GB + music
Unlimited
Advanced Features
No
Yes
Yes
Annual Savings
$441.60
$360.00
n/a
Tower Provider
Verizon
T-Mobile
AT&T

One first thing to note is that although all the plans are different, they will all meet my voice, texting, and data needs.   Yes, some provide more than others, but that's immaterial to me.  Providing me with 3 GB versus 100 GB is moot if I only use 2.5 GB.

Secondly, it is important to note that Total Wireless doesn't support modern features like Visual Voicemail.    Why?  I'm not sure, but I speculate that they've agreed with Verizon that they would not deliver advanced features.  But right there, it means that Total is worth a little less to me.

Finally, it is clear that choosing an alternate carrier WILL save me between $360 to $440 a year.  That's good money.

But there is a risk.  My AT&T plan is grandfathered in, and if I leave them I can never get it back.  So I want to try before I buy.  And so I will try MetroPCS and keep AT&T.  If MetroPCS services my needs, I will then terminate my AT&T account by having my AT&T number ported to MetroPCS.

So without further delay, here is my story of my MetroPCS "Trial".

Signing Up for MetroPCS

I went into the MetroPCS store to get service for my iPhone 6.  I went in for the 40$ plan, which provides 3 GB of data.

The store was empty, then crowded, then empty.  Very wavy.  Maybe people come in to pay their bills. There was one irate customer, but some people are nuts and she seemed a little crazy-stressed.  The poor sales guy definitely handled her professionally and everything was smoothed over.

I went to the counter and met Kevin, a sales guy.  Nice guy, good salesman, professional demeanor.   After some sales-pitching by Kevin, I convinced him I would only go for the $40 3GB plan.  He tried to get me to go for other things, but I told him that this was an experiment.  He didn’t try to hard-sell me… I think he realized I wasn’t going to be convinced (he was right).

The plan itself was $40/month total for 3 GB.  All the "executive compensation fees" that the big carriers tack on are not part of the MetroPCS strategy.  So my total bill was $40.  That's awesome, and it's the way it should be.

MetroPCS charges for a sim card, which is basically $10 + sales tax.  OK, take my money.  But in contrast, AT&T had the habit of charging me $30 (or is it $40?) for "activation", which was totally bullshitty.   Another win for MetroPCS.

Kevin told me of an option an extra $2 a month you get caller ID with name, but I didn’t want that so I declined.  Phone calls are so 20th century.

My plan runs for 30 days, which seems to imply that it “ticks back” through the months (as months are, on average, longer than 30 days.)  But instead it seems to be monthly, with payment due on the same day of the month every month.  So maybe a plan actually runs for 30.44 days (or 365.25÷12)

MetroPCS garbage moment #1: I asked Kevin about how I can pay my monthly bill.  Kevin told me that I can pay online (free).  If I pay at the in-store kiosk, they charge me $2.  If I pay at the store register, they charge me $3.  I think this totally blows, because it penalizes people who can’t readily get online (basically, the elderly, the poor, the inept, the illiterate).  This is shameful and MetroPCS should change their policy to not penalize those who are down on their luck.  People WANT to pay on-line because it is a convenience.   Those who cannot pay online can least afford the extra $2 or $3.

Of course, I'll pay online via credit card and avoid this "fee for the poor and elderly".

Kevin and I made a test call in the store using my new MetroPCS number, and it was all good.  I left.

The Service: First thoughts and beyond

The first thing I tried when I got to my car was a data speed test.  About 10.9 Mbit down and 1.45 Mbit up.  Little slow on the upside, but I’m OK with that if it's typical.

Once I got home, I found that I was getting one to two “bar” of signal at home, which is what I get with T-Mobile providers.  But I made several phone calls, and the quality seemed great regardless of the bar count.  In any case, I enabled WiFi calling, which also seems to work great.

Since I kept my AT&T number, I decided that I'd forward my AT&T calls to my MetroPCS number.  Sadly, due to a weird AT&T issue, AT&T wouldn't let me forward calls to anywhere.   I decided not to pursue this issue with AT&T.  And so therefore I have two phone numbers.  Good thing I have a spare phone.

Next I set up my MetroPCS voicemail.  This seemed just fine, and it worked just like any other modern visual voicemail service.

MetroPCS garbage moment #2: Next, I tried to move my MetroPCS SIM card to another device.  It turns out that MetroPCS links the SIM to the phone, and so you just can't move SIM cards around in MetroPCS world.  You have to contact MetroPCS to make such a device change.  You can do it in the store for $15, or (smarter), you can do it over the phone for free.

The MetroPCS Web Site

Once I had service, I tried to create a new account on the MetroPCS web site.  Lame old-school password rules don’t like any special characters.  That's weird, because security guys absolutely LOVE long, complicated passwords.  Doesn't MetroPCS respect security guys?

As I set up an account, the web site told me that it would send me an SMS to verify me.  That makes sense.  Except I couldn’t finish setting up account because I never received the SMS.  I tried many times, no SMS.  Humph.  Maybe I’ll get those SMS tonight?  Hope so.  But I’ll mute my phone in case they all come in at 2 AM.

No worries, 45 minutes later all the SMS come in and I am able to log into my account.  I hope SMS’s aren’t always deferred.  That’d be dumb.

Once I'm on their web site, its clear that its pretty basic and old-school (2010-vintage).  It seems like a great marketing opportunity to up-sell is being missed, but I do appreciate that the site fairly “lean” without too much junk.  That said, their web site could be leaner with fewer pointless resources.

I find where I can pay my monthly bill, and it looks like they’ll auto-deduct from my card.  Nice.  Will set this up later if I decide to stick it out.

Coverage

I happened to do a bit of regional travel this month (250 mile radius), and the MetroPCS service seemed fine. There were some dead spots when I traveled in one rural part, but that seemed to be at a rare point, and would impact me for fewer than 10 minutes out of a year.

Data and Performance

I did speed tests during the month and performance was quite variable - from a crazy fast 99 Mbit/s down to 5 Mbit/s.  Ping times were normal, and speed averaged 15 Mbit/second.  It was perfectly great for watching HD video over Netflix.  Upload speeds were worse, but I don't really upload much data (which, by the way, saves data).

After 29 days, I used about 1 GB of data.  In researching my data use, it was clear that music app data was not being counted against me.  I verified that Pandora and Apple Music data was "free" and not counted towards my monthly limit.

Since I was at the end of the month, I decided to exhaust my remaining "high speed data allotment"  to see the service's behavior.  I used Netflix to do finish off all my data.  About 70 minutes of HD video later, I got a text from MetroPCS that I had 10% "high speed" data left.  About 20 minutes after that, I got a text that I used all of my 3 GB.  The service immediately slowed down to about 132 kbit/second (maybe choked at 10% of 1024^2 bit/second?).  Of course, it remained on LTE.  The choke is at the IP layer, no doubt.

I wanted to see how my phone functioned while in "data used up" (choked) mode.  I asked Siri to give me directions to a friend’s house.  Given the slow data, my phone took about 20 seconds to start directions.  Asking Siri to give me directions to my local Target took about 25 seconds.  Asking Siri to get me directions to a friend's house 3000 miles away took about 3.5 minutes.

Streaming music was playable even after running out of high-speed data.  Pandora buffered for a long while but was able to play  tunes.  I’m not sure if music data is subject to the automatic choke, but speculate that it is.

I fetched my email, and that worked quickly.

So therefore, choked data speeds are still useful.

There is a way to add more data, but I didn’t look into that.



Ping (ms)
Download Mbit/S
Upload Mbit/S
AT&T
30
42
4.9
MetroPCS (high speed data)
30
15
2.6
MetroPCS (choked mode)
28
0.1
0.1
table: typical data performance I experienced


After a month, I decided to leave AT&T and stay with MetroPCS!

Being happy, I tried to later port my AT&T number over to MetroPCS.  I had to call 611 to do so.  But there was a ($12.50?) fee to change my numbers.  I decided it would be both simpler and cheaper if I simply dropped my MetroPCS plan and port it at sign-up time.

Weirdly, after my call to 611,  MetroPCS started to SMS me my “secret code” that I set up at account creation.  Anyone who stole my phone would then have my code!  And clearly my secret code can be converted to clear text by MetroPCS.   I don’t think this is smart, but maybe there is logic to it?

Dropping MetroPCS

My 30 days were up and I wanted to cancel my MetroPCS service.  I found I had to cancel via a phone call, as canceling is not available on the web site.  I called them up via 611.

But canceling isn't via 611 isn't as easy as it should be.  MetroPCS's automated Voice Response System (IVR) isn't always helpful.  No way to cancel it via IVR, so I had to get to an operator.  What a pain!  I had to say “operator” 3 times in a row in order to get out of an IVR loop and talk to an operator.  It said it really wanted to help me with the IVR, but clearly it could not help me.  CRAZY.  Ya know, if your IVR can’t handle all business issues, then you need a clean way to skip out of the IVR and you need to spend more money on operators.

An operator came on (Daniel).  I asked to cancel.   He was good spirited and had professional demeanor.  But he pushed me to another operator (no doubt they want to try to keep me.)  Preston answered, and I told him I was canceling because I was moving to Canada.  So he didn’t try to hard-sell me to stay.  Yay!

Cancelled service.  Phone line dropped immediately and my MetroPCS service was terminated.

Success!!!

Commitment to MetroPCS

So yesterday I went back to MetroPCS to leave AT&T for good.  I brought along three critical things: my phone, my AT&T Account Number, and my AT&T Account PIN.  The Account Number and PIN are required to move my AT&T phone number to MetroPCS.

I went up to a sales guy, Michael.  Again, the MetroPCS sales people have been fabulous with me. We briefly talked and he proceeded to give me an account and ported my phone number.  The new service using my old phone number took no more than 5 minutes, and my entire time at the store took less than 15 minutes.  Fast, efficient and accurate.

Since I was porting my number over, MetroPCS didn't charge me $10 for the SIM like they did when I wasn't porting.  So my total outlay for a month of service was $40.  Yay! 

A little while later I got an email from AT&T, telling me that my phone number was no longer associated with my AT&T account.   I'm not sure if AT&T owes me money for my terminated plan, but I suspect that I'll see a check in the mail soon. It's kind of sad - I was an AT&T customer for more than 15 years.

Then again, whatever its name, I've given AT&T more than $10,000.  So maybe it was time to break up with them.  If I keep this MetroPCS service for 15 years, I'll save about $5,400.

My Overall Experience with MetroPCS

Pros:
  • Services my needs
  • Saves me about $360 a year
  • No contract, so no commitments.
  • Great people in store and on phone
Cons.  (none of the cons are show-stoppers):
  • SIM card mobility restrictions.  You need to contact MetroPCS to move a SIM between devices.
  • Dumb extra charges that can cost the poor and elderly. Distasteful.
  • Weak 611 IVR system (at least for what I was trying to do)
  • Lame web site password limitations
  • Dated web site, that looks and works like 2005.
Update!

So I've gone through a month and it has been a glowing success, with no issues.  I do notice that MetroPCS and the iPhone count data in inconsistent units.  The iPhone incorrectly counts a Megabyte as 1024*1024 bytes, while MetroPCS counts a Megabyte correctly, as 1000*1000 bytes.  The network industry has never used the obtuse "kilo=1024" convention.  It is surprising that Apple gets this wrong.

Regardless, I was way under using my monthly data allotment.

Another Update!

I went with my friend Aaron to MetroPCS so that he could swap his SIM into a new phone.  Again, the sales guy was amazingly good.  He said that if he switched it at the counter there would be a $15 charge, but if the customer did it via the telephone, it'd be free.  Aaron did that successfully.  I've updated the above contrary information. 

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