November 28, 2020

The 5G Phone Decision Matrix

6 min read
It’s that time of year when I weigh upgrading my smartphone. I’m not fooling myself:...

It’s that time of year when I weigh upgrading my smartphone. I’m not fooling myself: I am getting an iPhone 12 Pro, and this year I think I’m going to go big with the Max version. As they say, your best camera is the one that’s with you. Much as I would love to shoot all the time with a Nikon or Canon, I’m not going to lug a DSLR around the streets of Manhattan. So the camera on my phone needs to be the best it can be.

The biggest, baddest iPhone camera is on the most expensive model, of course, so, iPhone 12 Pro Max, here I come. I’ll have to pony up even more for a charger since Apple skipped that and earphones for the first time, claiming environmental responsibility. I’m for preserving the environment as much as the next guy, but it’s not like eliminating a charger from the box is going to obviate the need for a charger altogether. I’ll see how long my current one carries me.

In the past, choosing my iPhone model was my major quandary of the fall tech season. I’d dither over things like whether I should get the bigger model (not until this year), or the one with the most storage (not such a big deal anymore with cloud storage), or a cool new color (a non-issue since a case covers it anyway).

But with the phone model settled now, my big question is which carrier do I ride into the 5G era? This is where it gets tricky. Some might say confounding.

I have been a loyal Verizon customer since I first joined the iPhone cult in gen 4. Obviously, I’m happy with new generations of phones, and for the most part, I’ve been satisfied with my cellular service. I upgraded to unlimited service a few years ago to avoid the overage game. I’ve paid handsomely for it and have had few complaints.

Verizon isn’t as loyal to me as I’ve been to it. Last week I got a promo in the mail — a “special offer for mobile customers” — offering me a Fios Gigabit connection for $69.99 a month, $10 off the typical price, if I choose automatic payments. The offer Verizon is offering me is not actually available to me. I’m already a Fios customer, and the fine print tells me I’m not eligible.

I have two questions: 1) why doesn’t Verizon cross-check customer lists, and 2) am I being punished for being a Verizon customer?

I scoured my Fios bill, trying to sort out my real costs since I have internet, voice and TV service. While I’m anxiously counting the billing cycles until I can cancel my TV contract next summer, for now, I’m paying $214.68 for the three services. There’s a $10 discount for having both wireless and internet, so at least someone in Verizon knows I have both services. Glad to know I’m not being punished by $10 a month. I think we’re even.

I also inspected my wireless bill, which includes a “$10 Verizon Loyalty Discount” (as though they were reading my mind) that takes my monthly fee down to $96.18. Verizon tells me that my October bill was 6 cents higher than September, but instead of just fessing up about why, it directs me to another URL, where I see I was tariffed 4 cents for a federal universal service charge increase, a penny for a gross receipts surcharge bump and a penny for New York City sales tax-telco hike. How often do they do this nickel and pennying, I wonder….

The Beyond Unlimited plan I’m on is $85. Taxes and government fees ($2.77), $3.41 in surcharges, plus $15 for insurance take that up to $106.18. The loyalty discount takes it back down a sawbuck. A subscription to Apple Music is tossed in, and I got a free year of Disney+ in a promo that ended yesterday.

The iPhone Pro 12 Max isn’t on any of the three major carriers’ websites just yet so for now I’m shopping plans. Verizon has five flavors of Unlimited, which seems disingenuous: Start, Play More, Do More, Get More and Just Kids. It seems to me that an unlimited plan should have no limits. The entry-level unlimited plan, Mohamed the chat specialist, tells me, “is just slower” and doesn’t have hotspot data included. I call that a limit.

Beyond Unlimited isn’t listed so I asked Mohamed if it has been replaced by another plan. It has not but it [is] just not offered. We have newer plans. He tells me Get More is most comparable to Beyond. Hmm. That’s the most expensive plan, and it’s not like me to get the most expensive plan. I think someone was shining me on.

When I look closer, I see that the $55 Get More includes Disney+, Hulu and ESPN+, plus Apple Music, 600 GB of Verizon cloud storage, and half off connected device plans. The last two don’t matter to me since I have iCloud storage and no other cellular connected devices. The $45 Play More Unlimited plan also has the three free Disney channels but only a six-month teaser sub to Apple Music. The $45 Unlimited plan has 15 GB of “unlimited mobile hotspot data” vs. 30 GB of “unlimited mobile hotspot” data for $55. Clearly, Verizon and I have different ideas of what unlimited means.

Screeecchh! That’s not $55 for one line. That’s $55 if you have four lines on a plan. It’s really $70 for Starter and $90 for Get More for a single line To that, I say, “Get out!” That’s a trick all the carriers are playing by defaulting to the multiple-line price. Buyer beware.

I went to T-Mobile to see what they’ve got and clicked on “See exactly what you’ll pay.” Before you can get that critical information, they want address, phone number and last four digits of the social security number—TMI for me so I backed out.

T-Mobile’s freebies are Netflix, which is good, and Quibi, which isn’t good, because that service has been cancelled. Looking at the fine print, it’s only Netflix basic with standard-def video that’s included in the $60/month Magenta plan. HD on two screens costs you $4/month; 4K on four screens is a $7 add-on.

T-Mobile has a deal with GoGo for in-flight texting and an hour of Wi-Fi per flight, which goes up to unlimited on the $70/month Magenta Plus plan. That would be good if I wanted to fly anywhere right now. HD streaming is included, too. I appreciate that T-Mobile includes tax and fees in their monthly charges. Their included hotspot data is lower than Verizon’s at 5 GB for 4G LTE, before dwindling to 2G. T-Mobile gives away stuff on Tuesdays, a fun perk.

AT&T’s add-on streaming service is HBO Max, available only with its premium tier $85/month plan. When I first looked, the website showed that tier for an attractive $45/month for unlimited talk, text and data, with HD streaming and “premium data.” Like T-Mobile and Verizon, AT&T’s website defaults to a multiple-line plan so you think you’re getting a really good deal when that was really the five-line price. There’s a lot of detail to sift through in these cutthroat wireless wars. I’d appreciate more transparency.

I’m not sure if AT&T and T-Mobile offer enough to make me a switcher. I’ll have to see what the trade-in deals are when the 12 Pro Max goes on pre-order next week. I didn’t even touch on the games carriers are playing with 5G coverage. I know 5G won’t be a game changer for another year at the least, some say two. My phone may be ready for 5G, but the networks aren’t.

That’s okay. I may still be combing through the fine print by then.

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