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Full transcript: The Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern talks wireless data plans on Too Embarrassed to Ask

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On this episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask, The Verge’s Lauren Goode and the Wall Street Journal’s Joanna Stern discuss the finer points of wireless phone plans.

You can read some of the highlights from their discussion at that link, or listen to it in the audio player above. Below, we’ve posted a lightly edited complete transcript of their conversation.

If you like this, be sure to subscribe to Too Embarrassed to Ask on iTunes, Google Play Music, TuneIn or Stitcher.


Lauren Goode: I’m very excited to welcome Joanna Stern of the Wall Street Journal back on the show. She has just finished firing off an angry email to Kara.

Joanna Stern: Very angry.

To ask her why she’s not here. All caps.

I’m just going to do a Kara impression the whole time.

Oh, that’s a great idea.

How do I sound?

What would your be Kara impression be like? Kara, how’s your day going?

Not good Lauren. Really bad.

Why is going so badly?

Because, nobody’s doing their work except for me. I don’t know, I don’t know, what does Kara say?

That was pretty good. That was pretty good, if you were to get really specific you would probably have to say, “Nobody picks up the phone and calls people anymore the way I do.”

Oh, okay.

Something like that.

“Nobody picks up the phone.”

That was close. Yeah.

“They don’t make phone calls anymore. They’re just using data on their phones.”

That’s right.

“Now we have to talk about data and need to understand what that is, and I don’t understand.”

Are you wearing sunglasses indoors?

Yes. I’m wearing them.

There we go.

Very bright in here, but I look amazing. That’s actually Joanna saying that Kara looks amazing. I always think Kara looks amazing.

She does.

Even when she looks exhausted, it’s like the exhaustion of a great person who you know did something great with their no hours of sleep.

Yeah.

Kara, even though I made fun of you for the last three minutes, I really do love you.

We love you.

I always think you look beautiful with sunglasses on.

It’s the exhaustion of someone who’s been crawling through the vents in Yahoo all night.

Oh, is it a Yahoo scoop? Interesting.

No, this one’s not, actually.

Interesting even more.

We could play this whole process of elimination game for the whole podcast.

I know.

It could be anything.

Also, soon, when there is no Yahoo, what will Kara have scoops on?

Altaba, is that how you say it? Eric’s laughing. Eric Johnson our producer is like, “Oh gosh.” Eric’s like, “Oh I thought I was getting off easy today because Kara wasn’t here, but turns out that Lauren and Joanna are just going to go off the rails.”

Yeah, and do terrible impressions of Kara.

Well, Joanna, you joined us back in November when we talked about the latest updates to the MacBook Pro lineup, which was very controversial because of the touch bar.

By the way, I just want to say I still stand by that review. A lot of times things happen, and life happens, and you start to use the product and you start to realize, “Oh shit, I was wrong.” I don’t feel that way, I don’t feel that way at all. In fact, I’m about to probably get a new 13-inch Pro, that’s the old Pro, not the new Pro.

The old one.

Not to get off the rails, but I think I was right. I’m always right, but I think that was really like that.

The one with MagSafe, an SD card port, the old, old one.

Yeah, right exactly. The 13-inch pro Pro. Old pro.

Good for you.

Yeah.

One of our editors, Joe Brown, he just updated to MacBook Air, he just got a new one and he said, “I got a new MacBook Air.” I said, “You mean a MacBook Air, the old MacBook Air?” He said, “Yeah, I got a new old MacBook Air.”

Walt, we know, has stockpiled the MacBook Airs.

Has he?

If doomsday comes and we don’t have the MacBook Air, everyone to Walt’s house.

We’re all going to his bunker in Maryland.

Yeah, I have his address, should I say it on air? No? Okay. Today we are not talking ... Are we talking about MacBook Airs? What are we talking about.

We can. No, this time we’re going to talk about everyone’s least favorite aspect of their personal tech lives, that is: The wireless carriers. Maybe I’m projecting a little bit. Maybe it’s not everyone’s least favorite aspect of their personal tech lives, maybe it’s my least favorite thing.

You recently wrote a column about overage fees and wireless data plans. You really did a good job about breaking it down. Wireless plans change all the time now in the U.S. Then just the other day Verizon announced it was bringing back an unlimited plan for $80 a month and all that. Everyone should know, by the way, that when I first reached out to Joanna, this was a while ago after her column ran. I said, “Would you come on the show to talk about this?” She was like, “This is super boring.”

Yeah. It is really, really boring. I even was bored writing my column. It was actually somewhat not, because I only do a wireless story one time a year. By the way, inside baseball, one of the worst things to have to do as a journalist, as a tech journalist, is cover wireless plans. Dealing with the companies is so hard, because I’ll say this, they might be listening. I find that many people that work at the companies don’t understand the wireless plans because they’re so complicated. Your email chains soon turn, normally you’d have like, what, 10 to 20, whatever you see in your Gmail, right? They quickly turn to in the 100s.

Yeah.

That’s how many times you’ve been emailing the companies because they have all this fine print, and they have all these different plans. They’ve got grandfathered plans and they don’t know what’s going on.

In some cases you even ask a question, you’ll say, “But wait, can you help explain this aspect of the plan?” Or, “What’s the catch here?” Then did you ever find they’ll literally copy and paste?

From the website.

The wording that’s available on the consumer-facing website and send it to you and go, “As we’ve explained here blah blah blah?”

Right. Yeah, it’s like, “You didn’t explain it.”

You’re like, “No. I’m actually asking for …”

You didn’t.

Right, yeah.

We sort of just did that, I’m not even going to apologize for it.

No, don’t apologize. Let’s back it up a little bit. We are going to go through what you think the best plans are and what to look out for. A lot of things have changed in the past couple of years. What would you say really kicked off all of these un-carrier/next/month to month/new unlimited deals? What really started the ball rolling on this flurry of activity in the wireless epicenter in recent years?

It is T-Mobile. T-Mobile deserves a lot of credit. I would also say, T-Mobile did some great things, and then the chaos that ensued after is kind of T-Mobile’s fault. In terms of leading the way, T-Mobile made a lot of great changes for consumers, but God love them, lots of things went really wrong after that. Then you’ve got these competitors trying to follow suit. Let me just back up for some people who don’t know what T-Mobile did.

T-Mobile is really responsible for ending contracts. We could say there were some other things going on in the industry at the same time, but T-Mobile basically said, “Screw two-year contracts, we want people to be able to pay for their phones separately from the data and the cellular service that they get.”

Just to back up for some people who don’t know, this is really complicated, and actually it used to be a nightmare to try and figure out. When we were using two-year contracts, we were buying our phones with the service. Let’s take the iPhone, you were getting an iPhone for $200 dollars, right? “Great deal! $200, this phone is really $600, but I’m only going to pay $199.” Then you were agreeing to two years of service with Verizon or AT&T or Sprint or T-Mobile at that point. Baked into that monthly payment that you were actually paying for your service, for the data and for the cellular calls, was the price of the phone. You were paying off the price of the phone over two years and there were sort of mysterious fees in there. You didn’t know where your money was going.

What T-Mobile did was say, “You’ll buy your phone separately, we will either give you a phone for $650, you can buy the phone outright or you can pay us for two years in monthly installments for that phone. Then separately on your bill you’re going to pay for the data you use, and the minutes,” we don’t use minutes anymore but, “The other cellular service we provide. These are going to be two separate things on your bill.” The rest of the industry said, “Okay, T-Mobile’s really making sense here with them doing this.” Verizon followed suit. AT&T followed suit and Sprint followed suit. Now we pay for our phones separately from our wireless service.

It’s really not all that different, it’s just that it’s sort of bucketed or categorized differently. Now it’s more explicit. “Okay, here’s your monthly phone charge, it might be 20-something dollars a month over a period of months.”

Exactly.

Rather than that fee just being as you put it, and you put it well, mysteriously kind of baked in.

Yeah, it was mysteriously baked in, and one of the problems that would happen is actually people were not always upgrading their phones after two years and if you weren’t upgrading your phone after two years this was big problem. You were basically paying the carrier more money.

Than the phone was worth.

Than the phone was worth. Let’s say you bought that iPhone 4, you got it for $200, but then you decided I’m going to hold on to this iPhone til the iPhone 6, right? You got the 4s in there, you got the 5, the 5s, “I’m going to hold on to this iPhone till the iPhone 6.” For those years, you were paying the carrier more money for the phone because it was baked into the cellular fee.

It is a good thing that these two things were uncoupled. It is shocking now, when you go shopping for a smartphone now, you’re like, “Wait, shit, I got to pay $650 for a phone? I don’t have that kind of money.” Now the carriers offer this other option, which is a payment plan, you pay $20 to $25 off every month for the phone. Then at two years you’ve paid off the cost of the phone. If you want a new one, they’ll give you a new payment plan; if you want to hold on to the phone, you’ve paid for the cost of the phone.

One of the supposed benefits of the new month-to-month plans is that if you are a person who wants to trade in your phone sooner than you would’ve in the past, because you would’ve been locked in before, now you can trade in a phone and get a new one, if a new one comes out that strikes your fancy, right? Are people actually doing that?

I think a lot of people are doing that. At least early adopters are doing that. I think one of the things that is happening, this is one of the things that’s hurting Apple and other device manufacturers, is people are holding on to their phones longer.

There hasn’t been as much innovation or change in the phones so people maybe be holding on to their phones for maybe two to three years, sometimes four years. I certainly know in my circle of friends, a lot of people did not upgrade to the iPhone 7 despite Apple having a good run, or a decent run at this. People are holding off for the next one. They were able to say, “You know, the iPhone 6 was a great upgrade. I’m going to hold on till the iPhone Amazing that comes out in 2017."

Is that what it’s called?

Yeah, it’s probably the iPhone Amazing.

You heard it here first everybody, Joanna Stern with the scoop live on Too Embarrassed the Ask, the iPhone Amazing.

Tim Cook called me yesterday and told me that’s what it’s called.

That’s amazing.

Actually you know it’s with an I, it’s iMazing.

iMazing.

Yeah, yeah that’s what he told me.

You are blowing my mind.

I know. Jony is not totally happy with the I, he thought they were losing it. They didn’t call the iWatch the iWatch even though everybody calls it the iWatch. Or the iTouch, everyone calls it that too. They’re just going to bring it back with the iMazing.

Jony Ives can be found right now, somewhere in Cupertino’s campus with his head in his hands going, "We just X, just X, call it the iPhone X."

Yeah.

What would you say, it’s hard to say because this stuff is so fluid, it’s like trying to hold water in your hands.

Yeah.

Trying to figure this stuff out, but what would you say is the best all-around wireless plan you think you can get right now from the four big carriers in the U.S.?

Yeah, it is a really tough question. I think T-Mobile has done some really great things. What you see happening in the industry — and this is sort of T-Mobile’s biggest problem — they certainly had a huge jump in subscribers, at least they did last year in, I think it was the fourth quarter. They had a huge jump in subscribers, but you shouldn’t switch, and I make this point in the column. You should not switch to a different carrier for a deal. It’s just the worst thing you can do.

You only want to switch if you know that that has the best service in the places you are. That’s what’s most important. Saying something has the best plan can be a little misleading to readers or people that follow this podcast. I don’t like to say that because I don’t want people to go run and get T-Mobile and then find out, “Oh no, I don’t have service, my vacation home or my office is a T-Mobile dead spot.” That’s one of the biggest problems with T-Mobile and also Sprint. AT&T and Verizon in the U.S. have, I wouldn’t say superb coverage but they have the best coverage that you can get. That’s what’s made them more of a premium offering.

All this said, I feel like I’ve couched this all. T-Mobile does have some great deals, now you see Verizon, specifically this week, trying to catch up with an unlimited deal. You have Sprint also just hustling with the old Verizon guy all over the place saying, “We are the best, and we will basically give you everything for free. We’re so desperate for customers.” AT&T has also followed.

What’s great about T-Mobile is they have now switched to “all-unlimited plans.” You get a very big bucket of data, and we can talk about this in a few minutes. You get a very big bucket of data but they also have put the fees inside that. There’s no hidden fees on your bill, I think that’s actually really important because I think everyone needs to understand what’s happening on their bill. Even if you don’t think you can save any money, just understand where your money is going. These companies will take you for everything.

Oh yeah.

They do take you for everything.

Absolutely.

It makes me feel better to just know where the money is going. For instance, in this process I called Verizon or went into a Verizon store and found out about like three things I didn’t know Verizon was offering, because it’s such a mess in their app and everything like that. Just understand what’s going with your bill.

First thing is to look up what the coverage is like in your area. You can do that using, what was that you mentioned? RootMetrics.

Yeah, RootMetrics is a great way to do that.

Do that, find out who offers the best coverage where you are.

Exactly, ask people. For example, one of the reasons I stay with Verizon is because my parents just got a house upstate and I know that Verizon has good service there, because I’ve seen other people with T-Mobile where there is no good service. That’s not something that would’ve come up on RootMetrics. Just ask around, or when you go to those places, see if anybody has that type of service or that carrier and decide then what you’d feel comfortable with.

This is a real tech reviewer problem, by the way but I also am on Verizon and then you know we’re constantly cycling through these loaner phones or these new devices that come through, and a lot of times some of the brand new unlocked cool phones that I’m trying to test are only operating on a GSM network and not CDMA. I have to basically get a different SIM card and something that will operate on that network as well. It seems like it’s still a little bit easier to switch from device to device is you’re on GSM.

It does, but some of the phones have both of the radios in it, so iPhone you shouldn’t have that problem. Also the Pixel, the new Pixels have both the radios so you should be fine. Yeah, totally, AT&T and T-Mobile are going to be more compatible with more phones, especially if you travel internationally.

Right. What are some of the catches in these plans? I was reading through the Verizon fine print the other day after they announced they were bringing out this $80-per-month unlimited plan back. It seems there are some instances where throttling is going to come into play. Some people may not even understand what throttling really means: They’re going to limit your data speeds on hotspots and tethering, which I do all the time.

Yeah.

What are some things that people should definitely be aware of if they’re thinking of some of these newer plans?

Let me try to describe it this way: With all of these plans now, all four of the big networks in the U.S. offer unlimited plans. Let’s use “unlimited” in quotes, because there really is no such thing as an unlimited plan. Just like there’s no such thing as anything in life is free, right? Nothing is free, nothing is truly unlimited.

People didn’t know we were going to get so dire in this podcast. Nothing is free, people, nothing in life. There’s no free lunch.

Really, nothing in life is free. Especially the handouts they have at Costco, you will pay for them in some shape or form, right?

Yesterday I saw Mike Isaac tweet, our buddy Mike Isaac at the New York Times tweeted, “Somebody handed me free yogurt on the street corner this morning. I took it and I put it in my backpack.”

What?

Then at the end of the day he destroyed his backpack. Everyone’s like, “There’s no free yogurt in life, Mike.”

There’s no free yogurt in life.

There’s no free yogurt, okay?

I really mean that about the Costco thing, these things are not free. You will end up buying something ridiculous at Costco because you just had one free little piece of pretzel and hummus that wasn’t even that good.

Okay, so let’s picture it this way: They give you an unlimited plan, right? That means you should have as many gigabytes in the world to stream video all day long and all night long. And I don’t know, watch all of Lauren’s videos and all my videos and download millions of files and all of these things, right? You should have enough to do all of that all through the month. Except that’s not really true.

The best way to think of it is like you have a highway and you’re cruising down the highway and you can go as fast as you can on that highway. You’re going to get as fast speeds when you’ve got this unlimited data, but if you hit a cap when there’s a lot of people on the network — if you’re in a place where there’s a lot of people using their phones and you’ve used a lot of data that month — the carrier will deprioritize your phone.

They might say, “Oh in this one area,” — could be a concert, could be some place, I don’t know, a train station, lots of people are on their phone and are on our network right now — “Oh, Joanna over there, she used 50 gigabytes this month of data. We are going to take her down right now, because the network is so busy. We’re going to throttle her speeds down.” Her LTE speeds are not going to be as fast as Lauren over there who is one of our customers who doesn’t have unlimited data and she’s only used two gigabytes this month. When there are these times of heavy traffic on these networks, they take the people who have unlimited data and have used a lot of data and bring down their speeds. Does that make any sense?

It makes perfect sense. You can have no speed limit whatsoever on the highway, and you can have your fancy sports car and you’re going as fast as you want, but if there are lots of people on the road you’re not going to be able to go as fast.

Exactly.

Things get congested.

Exactly. You totally described that way better than I did.

No, no.

I tried to go with the highway metaphor and then I got off at the pit stop and went to a dirty bathroom and I got stuck in there, I don’t know.

Also you got sick from the food.

I got sick from the free food.

The yogurt in the bag.

The companies basically say, in the case of Verizon and AT&T, they have similar plans. If you hit 22 gigabytes of use on your unlimited plan that month, you are eligible. Not eligible, you could be one of the people who will be throttled down.

Okay.

On Sprint, that’s 23 gigabytes; on T-Mobile, that’s 28 gigabytes.

Which is a lot, by the way.

It is a lot.

Then in terms of using your phone as a hotspot or tethering, which I do all the time. I don’t have a separate hotspot like a lot of people do, but I just use my phone. That’s automatically going to be a slower speed than just your regular data on your phone? Do you know?

I think that depends on the carrier. I know Verizon has some stipulations there but T-Mobile doesn’t.

Okay, interesting. Is there anything else that people should be aware of when they’re starting to look into one of these new unlimited plans, aside from throttling?

Yeah, Verizon seems to have more stipulations than the others. One of the things that I’ve been reading about Verizon is interesting. This is something common to many of the carriers right now because they want to keep people paying their bills. They want to keep people consistently as customers. Verizon requires you actually to either autopay for this or that you pay with a debit card or you’ve hooked up your checking or savings account to pay for this. That’s a big catch. T-Mobile has similar sort of savings, T-Mobile and Sprint, I forget how much it is but it’s like $5 to $10 a month in savings if you use autopay.

Oh, okay, interesting. Where do products like Google Fi or a company like Republic Wireless fit into this landscape? We’ve spent a lot of time talking about the four big carriers so far.

Yeah, I think these are fascinating, and I think unfortunately there’s such a monopoly by these four big carriers and that’s what most people think to go to when they’re getting their service. Google Fi is really interesting for two reasons: It’s sort of the model that you pay what you use, and so here we’re buying like unlimited data or we’re buying eight gigs of data and you get 10 gigs because you get bonus data like who the hell knows what that means. There’s this model of you pay what you use that makes a lot of sense. If you know what one gigabyte costs a month or whatever and you paid that and then you just kept going and you paid for what you used, it would make sense. I think that’s a really interesting model, and Google doesn’t really have much to lose because they don’t have the major many years of what the other traditional carriers have offered.

I think there’s another interesting thing with wireless or Wi-Fi built into the plans. I think more and more obviously we have 5G on the horizon and other types of things. We are more and more around great and fast Wi-Fi, the handoff, making the handoff between Wi-Fi networks and mobile data makes a lot of sense. A lot of that engineering also has to happen in the phone. That’s what Republic Wireless is so good at. Also Wi-Fi calling, Wi-Fi phone calls can sound so much better than the traditional carrier phone calls. They have HD voice and things like that. I’ve thrown a lot in at this. I think they’re really interesting and you should look at them but also of course come back to where’s that coverage and does your device work with these companies?

Joanna Stern says, “Coverage first,” that’s your priority, then look very closely at pricing and deals that are being offered to you. Look at the fine print, make sure that they’re actually being transparent about where your money’s going. Then also look into options that maybe you’re doing some type of Wi-Fi handoff. You can tell, by the way, when call you somebody, even if you call somebody over Facetime audio compared with the standard cellular connection, you’re like, “Oh wow, it sounds super clear.”

Right.

There are times now when I traveled overseas and I haven’t even bothered to get a SIM card because in most cases Wi-Fi is pretty accessible and you can just use Wi-Fi calling for whatever you need.

Yeah, that’s happening in New York too, we have this great public Wi-Fi system that’s going in, and some of the technologies that have happened on the phone that you might not even be aware of. There’s this thing called Passpoint that allows you to sort of seamlessly go through Wi-Fi networks. You know, if you’re in one area and you go to another area, your phone might drop that Wi-Fi, that happens with the networks. You leave your home, then you go to your office, but if they have the same sort of network, they don’t have to drop the Wi-Fi connection. Lots of technology in the background that’s coming along that could really, really get us off of the dependence on the cellular networks.

We live in the future and the future is phone calls in the subway.

That’s true.

That’s just awesome. In a minute we’re going to answer some more questions that our readers and listeners sent in to Joanna. People were very excited to hear that she was coming back on the show. First we’re going to take a quick break and read our word from our sponsor. I wish Kara was here because she usually goes, “Ka-ching.” Then she does a little dance. She doesn’t actually dance, I just like to say that she does.

This week we’re answering your questions about wireless plans. I almost just said, “This week we’re going to answer questions about Joanna’s super cute dog.” I think that would be more fun, honestly, than talking about the wireless carriers again.

He is a famous columnist now.

He’s so cute.

He’s very famous, he’s very important.

He’s just the cutest, he just makes me happy on Instagram.

Oh.

Sometimes I take break from reading political news and just go look at people’s pets on Instagram. Yours is one of them. Okay, next time we’re going to talk about your dog.

The first question is from Utterly Random Techie on Twitter, “What’s the point of doing unlimited data plans if they’re going to throttle speeds after a limit? #tooembarrassed.”

We were just talking about this. I think these plans really only make sense for people who use a crapload of data. Right? The average person does not use that much data. In fact, when I did the piece a couple of weeks ago, Verizon, they didn’t have this unlimited data plan at the time, they actually told me, we’re going to go to this real quick. They told me that their average customer only uses 2.7 gigabytes every month. Okay, that’s the lowest tier.

Most people don’t need this much data, they’re probably at home using Wi-Fi or they’re at the office and they can use Wi-Fi there. Then when they use this data they’re out and about or whatever. I think it really only makes sense for people who are super worried that they’re going to go over the highest cap, which is 20, or maybe like 15, I don’t know what some of these are. Actually I think they have like 30 or 40 gigabyte plans.

Wow.

I really wonder how many people are actually using those. Like me and my family, me and my wife we share 12 gigabytes of data, I use it all, I don’t let her have any.

You worked that in ahead of just closing the deal. “Listen Michelle, I’m going to get all the data.”

Also I have said this in the past, the biggest step, in my marriage or in my relationship, was not getting married, it was going on a family plan together. I truly believe one of the toughest things in life, the biggest decision you make is not who you will spend the rest of your life with, but who you will be on a family plan with.

The person could be like, “Okay, we need to talk about my debt,” you’re like, “No, no, don’t worry about that, let’s sort out the family plan.”

I need to know how much data you use, I need to know how you use it. It’s a big decision, it’s a big, big decision. What was the question again?

Now I’m curious. What is the most data you’ve used in a single month? Have you ever gone over the 12 gigabytes?

I’ve gone over definitely, I think maybe now I’m on 16 because you have these bonus data things with Verizon. Let’s actually just back up for one second. This guy’s question is a great question, I really think only these unlimited plans are for really heavy users that exceed this 30 or 40 gigabyte caps that the networks have.

That’s just nuts, that’s just so much data.

It is a lot of data. I want to bring up something that many of these carriers have and you need to contact your carrier if you’re not aware of this. This is overage protection. This is something again that T-Mobile brought to the market. Now every single carrier has this, but they bury it and they might bury the setting.

Overage protection. Let’s say you have five gigabytes a month or six gigabytes a month and you share that with three other people on your plan. Or two other people on your plan. If you go over the six gigabytes a month, the companies will not charge you for data. They will let you keep using but they will make the speeds super slow. You go over six gigabytes of data, you need to keep using your phone for email or streaming music might not work so well, but email or some light web browsing or whatever. You can still use the data, it’s just going to be at 2G speeds.

Okay, and they’re not going to charge you.

They’re not going to charge you. If you want you can buy more high-speed data. You can buy another two gigabytes of high-speed data.

Which they’ll also try to get you to do, by the way.

Or you can just ride out the month and use the slower speeds.

I often get an SMS, text message that’ll say, “You’re at 75 percent and you can upgrade now for 415 more a month.” It happens all the time.

That’s right. You have Verizon?

Of course, they’re trying to get you to pay for more data. Yeah, but if you put this setting on.

I want to tell you something about Verizon.

Right.

Verizon has a no more surprise overages plan, and you can turn this on. You have to go into their app and turn it on. They don’t just have it enabled because they’re assholes.

They want you to pay more. They want to scare you with that text message.

I’m sorry to say because they’re assholes. Yes exactly. Today, Lauren, go into your Verizon app, you have to get the new app, it’s super fancy, it’s beautiful. It’s a beautiful app. Go in and enable safety mode, this will make sure that you will not [go over]. Again, they’ll still text you to buy more data, but if you decide not to buy more data you’re not going to get charged for going over, you’re just going to have slower speeds.

This is a true story, not too long ago I was going over a lot. I went over on my data for three months consecutively and my bill was getting out of control. I finally called Verizon and I said, “Listen, this is happening, and I really don’t think I’m using my phone or using data any differently than I have been for the past however many years that I’ve been on Verizon. For whatever reason I’m going over, maybe I’m using my hotspot a little more and I’m getting these crazy bills and I want to explore options. I want to explore other options, I’m looking at other carriers as well what can we do about this?”

Long story short, I end up paying I think $10 or $15 more a month just to up my data capacity. I ended on the phone like, “Great, I really didn’t accomplish what I wanted to, but maybe I won’t get slapped with these crazy bills going forward.” They did say, “You should turn on the safety feature,” that you were talking about. I said, “Okay, great, how do I do that?” They said, “You can just go on the website.” I wasn’t on the mobile app, I was actually on the website. They said, “Click this toggle,” and I said, “Okay great,” and I logged into Verizon online and I went to go hit the toggle and it said like, “This is not working right now.” Essentially it just wouldn’t do the thing I wanted it to do. I was like, “You’ve got to be kidding me,” so I just got back on the phone.

At least they told you.

Called them, and I said, “This is not working on your website, can you just do it? Can you just turn it on?” They said, “Sure.” Now I actually am using that. I haven’t noticed crazy slow data at any point.

Yeah, I’m sure you probably never hit that point.

I think I’m at 10 gigabytes a month, can it be eight? Actually 10.

I just logged into my account. I actually have 16 gigabytes a month; I thought I was at 12. Another thing Verizon has taken — well, now they don’t have this anymore, but something that they had taken from T-Mobile or AT&T is carryover data. If you don’t use all the data in that month it’s going to carry over to the next month. Then it only lasts for that month, you cannot take it to the month after.

The months after that. Right. Okay, let’s go on to the next question. This one’s from Margaret whose handle on Twitter is @NotEvenBigData, “Is it possible to use wireless data as a home Wi-Fi replacement, assuming you have a big data plan and not many users?”

It is possible.

It’s technically possible.

Actually, after I wrote the column, I had heard from somebody that they were doing that. You’re just going to run into that problem, if you are in those places of higher congestion, your speeds are going to be deprioritized, they could be slowed. If you’re really going above and beyond and you’re abusing this, I think there are things Verizon could do, but I think you could do it.

You could, I suppose.

You could.

I think about stuff like streaming video.

Right, and one of the things that they do on T-Mobile and I think they may have changed, this is how it’s all fluid. T-Mobile was saving data by down-resing to 480, on your phone they figure you don’t need an HD stream because the quality isn’t going to be as good on your phone screen, it is so small it’s not really going to matter. Why you need to stream 1080 or why you need to stream 4k. I wonder what happens then if you’re streaming on Apple TV and you’re using that connection?

Right.

It’s a good question.

I guess for Margaret the answer would be, assuming you have a big data plan. It would probably have less to do with how big your data plan is and more to do with just how much surfing and streaming and stuff you are doing at home. I know people that they have teenagers and their teenagers exceed these crazy monthly data limits just by watching videos on their phone all the time. If you’re nightly habit is to go home and stream internet video, maybe not so much. I don’t know.

Yeah.

Technically possible.

It would also just be way faster to get Wi-Fi.

Yes, yeah. Just pay more money, Margaret, that’s the answer. At the end of the day just give all the ISPs and wireless carriers all your money, that’s the road we’re headed down.

Yeah.

Next question is from Jeff Kushmerik who has written in before, thanks Jeff. “Are family plans worth it? What’s the best for getting multiple children access without blowing my data?”

Pretty much everything is a family plan now. Everything is fundamentally a shared data plan where the company gives you a bucket of data and when you put another phone or device on there, you pay an access fee for that phone or device. That’s how Verizon, AT&T and pretty much Sprint work. To answer this person’s question, pretty much anything is a family plan. You really can’t get anything other than a shared data plan these days unless you’re one person.

“What’s the best for getting multiple children access without blowing my data?" I think the best thing there, well, there’s a couple things you can do on the phone side to limit their data and to actually set alerts for each device, that would be the best thing you could do. You could go into the apps. I’m familiar with the Verizon app, but I know AT&T has a similar thing where you can go and see which devices are using the most data and you can limit it. You can know which one of your kids are using it the most, what they’re doing there. You can encourage them also to be on Wi-Fi more.

You could have another thing that I did, a quick little piece a couple weeks ago and a lot of people found it very helpful. Each of the social media networks in their apps have ways to limit data. Snapchat is one of them, it’s called a travel mode setting, that is buried in the settings but it doesn’t automatically load the videos when you’re on a mobile network on LTE. Facebook has something that will limit the auto playing, I have that turned off on mine. Those settings are good thing to play around with. Overall, I think you’ve just got to keep an eye on which family members are the biggest abusers of the data.

Mm-hmm. It sounds like it’s not a questions of whether or not family plans are worth it, it seems like they’re just inevitable.

Yeah.

You’re going to have some type of shared plan, if you have kids who aren’t old enough to have their own wireless account. Then it seems like it’s combination of doing a little bit of damage control in terms of the apps and devices your kids are using. Then just trying to keep an eye on it.

Yeah.

I guess you can’t really call, like the way you can call iTunes the first time around and say, “My kid bought $300 worth of in-app purchases,” and they give you that one-time pass. You can’t really call the wireless company, “My kid keeps using a bunch of data.”

You should be keeping an eye on it in the app.

Yeah.

I’m in the app right now and I can see which phone line, who’s been using more.

It’s your dog, isn’t it?

Yeah.

Dog’s using everything.

My dog’s using so much.

Puppy, puppy. Okay.

Actually I lied, I have 30 gigabytes of data now. Like I said, they make this very complicated.

Maybe Verizon is listening to this podcast right now they’re like, “Oh no, she called us assholes, we need to get into her account and add a bunch of data so by the end she’s like, ‘I love Verizon.’” “Man, I just inherited all this data.”

I am looking in this and I’ve used 20 percent of our data this month and Michelle has used 30 percent.

Michelle has used 30?

30 percent.

Oh, okay.

We’ve only used 50 percent.

Okay, that’s good. We’re about halfway through the month so that’s good.

Exactly.

I don’t know what billing cycle you’re on, but yeah. We have a couple more questions, this one from David Lindsley. We kind of already talked about some of the restrictions, but he said, “Isn’t Verizon shooting itself in the foot with all the silly restrictions they put on their new unlimited plan?” I’m guessing he’s referring to the throttling and stuff like that. Are they shooting themselves in the foot? Isn’t everyone doing some kind of variation on these — I don’t know if you’d call them restrictions or just catches that you should know about.

My feeling about Verizon doing this whole thing — and I did call them assholes before and I sort of feel bad about that, but not really. I think there were two things Verizon wanted to do here: One, they wanted to make sure that they had what everyone else was having, right? Which is, “We can say that we have unlimited data too. We can market that too. We can have a Superbowl or Oscar ad with unlimited data also. Look at us.” That’s one thing I think that they were trying to accomplish. The second thing is that Verizon already had an old unlimited data plan from many years back where a lot of people were grandfathered into that plan.

I was. I was so excited.

You held onto it right?

Yeah. Then it went away.

It ended up being a bad thing for Verizon, I think. That plan was pretty affordable and people were grandfathered in, they weren’t paying more money for data anymore. I think this is the way they get people to come into the new world of Verizon and get people in that way. Even though the restrictions are sort of annoying, this might end up helping Verizon in a lot of places. Then also, given the fact that most Verizon customers use like three gigabytes baseline, I don’t think the majority of their users are going to be using this bucket.

Okay, so you don’t think they’re shooting themselves in the foot?

I don’t think so.

Okay.

It’s annoying, these restrictions. Right? The throttling is annoying, having to use auto pay and use your debit card to pay. Even though, probably a lot of people do that already. Yeah and by the way, I did look into it, yes there’s that Wi-Fi hotspot restriction. Only 10 gigabytes you seem to be able to use at full speed with unlimited on a Wi-Fi hotspot. I think they’re just doing this for marketing value in a big way. Then if people are really serious about some of this stuff they’re probably going to switch to T-Mobile or something else where they think they can get away with more. This war isn’t going away.

Going away from level of coverage.

This war keeps happening, we’ve talked about how fluid things are here. This war is basically T-Mobile rolls out something great, then the rest of the traditional carriers respond.

Yeah, then we get emails the next day.

Yeah.

Excuse me, then we get emails the next day like, “T-Mobile destroying Verizon’s network edge.” We get these emails all the time, these press release emails from the companies. They’re just constantly firing back at each other.

Yeah, to T-Mobile’s credit, their CEO, he’s an interesting character. He set out two or three years ago to change the industry and they certainly have done that. Whether it was just lip service, he certainly got the customers, but they have flipped the industry on it’s head, when it comes to all of this stuff. Each of the carriers all correspond with carryover data, or no overages, now in this case unlimited data. I think we’ll probably be here in three years still probably talking about all the same stuff.

I think you’re probably right. The last question comes from an email from RJ Sichacky, I think it is, sorry about that. He says he’s a huge fan of the show, thank you so much for listening, RJ. He wrote a lengthy email so I’m not going to read all of it. There were a lot of questions, but one of his questions stood out to me. He did say — he used to work in sales by the way, for one of the big wireless companies back when buckets of minutes were a thing. Back then, the average monthly plan he sold was $50 for a single line, he talked about all the upsell stuff. Trying to sell customers into ringtones — call tones, remember those? — text message buckets, things like that. Obviously the industry has changed quite a bit. One of his questions jumped out at me, he said, “Do you think 5G will mark the next proverbial carrot to make us give up our ‘cheap rate’ plans for the next cool service?”

Yeah, definitely.

5G, we didn’t really talk about that. 5G, it’s being tested now by a couple of the big carriers, but when is it something we can expect to see, become a more widespread thing? How do you think that’s going to change our wireless plans?

I haven’t followed it that closely. Basically the ISPs are going to be using 5G for both home broadband and also for mobile. I know the mobile broadband test, I think they’ve started, but I think it’s going to be a couple more ... I think of things in CESes when it comes to this stuff. I think it’s going to be a couple more CESes before we see devices with 5G capability. At least that’s the understanding I was getting by talking to some of the people back in January at CES this year.

Okay, so we still have a little ways to go.

Mm-hmm, but that’s the next big race for these carriers for sure. Building out the most comprehensive 5G networks. One thing that’s interesting that RJ says, that he remembers this time of these customer upsells. The ringtones, the call tones, he says, “Remember those?” Yeah, actually my sister had one until like three days ago. There’s something like that going on that we should point out. The thing that they are now doing instead of those are device protection plans.

Warranties.

Exactly, exactly. When you go to buy a phone now, that’s what they try and get you to buy. A $10 or $20 monthly device protection plan so if something goes wrong with your phone, they’ll replace it. In most cases it’s never worth it.

We went from being upsold on Drake ringtones to, “Buy this useless warranty to protect your device.” You don’t think anyone really needs that?

In most cases no, they don’t need that.

Okay. Okay. That would be something that would be an addition.

I don’t want to tell the person who’s really klutzy and forgetful and who loses their phone tomorrow or drops their phone, even dropping your phone in the toilet anymore, if you have an iPhone 7, whatever. Your biggest problem is cleaning that thing.

If you go into an Apple store and you’re buying your phone and activating your wireless service, let’s say just through the Apple store, you can also get Apple Care there, right? These warranties that ...

Actually, almost in many cases, I don’t want to get into this conversation, but Apple Care is not worth it.

These would be, the ones from the wireless carriers would be on top of something that’s coming from the manufacturer.

Right, exactly. I mean, these are things that protect against accidental damage, right? Dropping it, smashing a screen, the toilet situation, the pool situation, etc. This a whole other podcast and column. The reason I say it’s not worth it is because — especially for iPhone owners and I’m most familiar with the iPhone — if you break a screen or even a battery goes bad or something else, it usually only costs $100 to $200 to fix that.

Right, in some cases it might even be like in the case of the bad batteries in the iPhone 6 and 6s, they’re replacing it for free because it’s their problem.

Right, exactly.

Yeah, you can definitely get a screen replaced for, as you said a couple 100 bucks.

Yeah.

Which is no small amount.

Yeah, but what you end up doing is paying a phone company over many, many years hundred of dollars, because if you think about it, if you’re paying a plan of $10 or $20 a month, you’re going to pay off the cost of that screen and you might not ever reuse it, right?

Right.

You’re basically throwing away money, which is most warranties. Right? It’s insurance, you’re paying against hopefully nothing that bad ever happens.

Right, okay. Cool, I think that’s all we have time for. This has been a really fun podcast.

Oh God, this was long.

I know, we went a full hour.

I feel so bad for everybody.

For anybody who has been listening for this long, you get a prize. Eric Johnson our producer just had a great idea. He said the prize for people who have lasted this long in this podcast, because the people who listen this long are probably people who are really suffering from major wireless carrier woes, so you deserve to have something good at the end of this podcast. Joanna is actually going to pretend to be Kara for our outro.

This has been another great episode of Too Embarrassed to Ask. Joanna thank you for joining us, you’re beautiful, brilliant, so attractive, just the best, Joanna.

Kara really would say that. Kara’d be like, “She’s fantastic, she’s fantastic.” She means it. Then I come in and I’m like, “Hi, if you all enjoyed the episode as much as we did, be sure to subscribe to the show and leave us a review at iTunes.com/tooembarrasedtoask.”

I love how you did an impression of yourself. You’re like, “Then I come in and I say ... “

Well, people say to us, “I love the dynamic between you and Kara,” and I think what they’re really trying to say is, “Kara’s such a grump and you’re just so effusive.” I don’t really feel like I’m a techno optimist, but I think it’s all relative to Kara.

Right.

We’ll be back next week to answer more of the questions you’ve been too embarrassed to ask, so tune in then. Thank you, Joanna, so much for joining us.

My Kara impression was all over the place. Need to get better. Thank you for having me and I’m so sorry for all of you.


This article originally appeared on Recode.net.

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