Does your wireless company participate in the Affordable Connectivity Program?

Friday, March 18, 2022

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Round-Up for the Week of March 14-18, 2022

Grace Tepper

As 2021 turned into 2022, the Federal Communications Commission transformed the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program into the Affordable Connectivity Program. Congress created the Affordable Connectivity Program through the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act and provided the FCC $14.2 billion to subsidize broadband service for low-income households. Broadband providers will receive up to $30/month (or up to $75/month if the household is on Tribal Land) for providing service to low-income households. But since participation in the new program is voluntary, will broadband providers show up to offer service? This is the third in a series of articles looking at which providers are opting into the Affordable Connectivity Program.

According to wireless trade association CTIA, all three national providers and numerous regional providers support the Affordable Connectivity program—representing approximately 95% of existing wireless subscriptions and covering more than 99% of all Americans. Broadband providers participating in the Affordable Connectivity Program must allow low-income consumers to apply the program subsidy to any of their service plans, as mandated by the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

In our first article, we looked at which cable companies are offering plans that would end up costing Affordable Connectivity Program consumers no more than about $20/month (the upper limit of affordability for low-income households). Our second article covered participating major telephone companies. Here, we looked at the offerings of the largest wireless companies in the United States. Our research assesses wireless providers with over 5 million subscribers as well as their prepaid services. We also included nonprofit PCs for People, whose services center on getting low-cost computers and affordable broadband internet into the homes of low-income individuals.

All of the providers listed below are participating in the Affordable Connectivity Program. The speeds of 4G and 5G networks may vary by location but fall within the ranges provided. For many of these providers’ mobile plans, the price per phone line may decrease the more lines an account signs up for. All prices listed here are for one phone line if the price varies based on the number of phones per plan. Consumers can visit any of these providers’ websites for more specific pricing on multi-phone plans.

Big Three Wireless Companies Opt In

The vast majority of wireless broadband consumers—over 350 million—subscribe to either Verizon, T-Mobile or AT&T. These three companies dominate the US mobile market, and are all participating in the Affordable Connectivity Program. We examined the 4G and 5G network speeds and plan offerings for each. Also included here are the mobile virtual network operators (MVNOs)—providers that use the wireless network infrastructure of another mobile network operator instead of maintaining their own—that are owned by Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T.

Verizon remains the largest wireless provider in the United States, with over 148 million subscribers. The company offers four different tiers of service that have access to its 4G LTE and 5G networks. Verizon’s 4G LTE and “5G Nationwide” provide speeds within the 9-56 Mbps download and 2-13 Mbps upload range. Verizon also offers a premium 5G speed tier, “5G Ultra Wideband,” which offers 90-170 Mbps download and 15-30 Mbps upload for qualifying plans. The company’s 5G Start plan is priced at $80/month with unlimited data and can access 4G LTE and 5G networks where available. The 5G Play More, 5G Do More and 5G Get More plans—priced at $90, $90, and $100 per month, respectively—all have access to up to 5G Ultra Wideband speeds and unlimited data. 5G Play More and 5G Do More vary based on how much data they can use with Verizon’s 5G Ultra Wideband. Verizon does not offer the purchase of a low-cost device. The company is participating in the Affordable Connectivity program in all 50 states and in Washington, DC.

Verizon also has over 6 million subscribers in its various prepaid plans. Consumers can purchase one month of prepaid service with 5 Gigabits (GB) of data for $40 through Verizon. For 15 GB monthly data, consumers pay $50. Verizon offers its Unlimited Data and Unlimited Plus prepaid tiers for $65 and $75 a month, respectively. All four of its prepaid service tiers may access up to 5G Nationwide service, where available; the Unlimited Plus plan can access 5G Ultra Wideband.

TracFone was acquired by Verizon in November, 2021. The MVNO offers only prepaid, no-contract service plans and has many to choose from. The provider offers five different plans for smartphone customers who want to pay monthly. TracFone’s cheapest plan is priced at $15/month for 500 MB data. For $20/month, customers can get 1 GB data, and 2 GB of data for $25/month. The provider’s 3 GB monthly plan is $30/month. TracFone’s highest monthly prepaid plan is $40/month for 8 GB of data per month. Customers can visit TracFone’s site for more information on 60-day, 90-day and yearly prepaid promotions, as well as further information about the company’s talk and text options. Customers can purchase a low-cost device through TracFone, and the provider participates in the Affordable Connectivity Program in all 50 states, Washington, DC and Puerto Rico.

Straight Talk is an MVNO subsidiary of TracFone and is participating in the Affordable Connectivity Program with its own plans. The company offers its Basic Phone Plan for $30/month, which includes 100 MB of monthly data. Straight Talk also offers a variety of unlimited data tiers starting at $35/month and reaching $90/month for its highest unlimited plan. Straight Talk uses Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile networks. Consumers can purchase a low-cost device through Straight Talk and the provider participates in the Affordable Connectivity Program in all 50 states, Washington, DC and Puerto Rico.

T-Mobile is the second-largest wireless provider in the US and also offers a variety of standard and prepaid plans. T-Mobile’s 4G LTE network offers speeds in the 19-76 Mbps download and 4-20 Mbps upload range. For 5G, the company reports 43-143 Mbps download and 10-34 Mbps upload speeds. T-Mobile’s three standard plans all include unlimited 4G LTE and 5G service where available. The Essentials plan, priced at $60/month, includes 50 GB of premium data monthly. The Magenta plan offers 100 GB premium data for $70. T-Mobile’s Magenta MAX plan offers unlimited premium data for $85/month. Consumers cannot purchase a low-cost device through T-Mobile. T-Mobile is participating in the Affordable Connectivity Program in all 50 states, Washington, DC, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands.

T-Mobile has a variety of different prepaid plans. T-Mobile Connect is the company’s prepaid plan offering “priced to benefit low-income Americans who struggle to afford wireless,” according to its website. Under T-Mobile Connect, consumers can purchase 2.5 GB monthly data for $15/month or 5.5 GB data for $25/month.

Metro by T-Mobile is T-Mobile’s main prepaid service provider. Customers can pick from four different prepaid service tiers based on monthly data usage, and all plans have access to T-Mobile’s 5G network. On its plans page, Metro by T-Mobile also lists the price of each service tier for Affordable Connectivity Program subscribers. Metro by T-Mobile service starts at 5 GB per month for $30/month. For 10 GB, consumers pay $40/month. The provider offers unlimited monthly data for $50 and $60 per month, the difference in its plans is in hotspot capabilities and additional plan perks. Metro by T-Mobile does not offer consumers the option to purchase a low-cost device. It participated in the Affordable Connectivity Program in all 50 states, Washington, DC, Puerto Rico, and the US Virgin Islands.

AT&T is about equal to T-Mobile in its subscriber count. The company’s 4G LTE network has speeds in the range of 13-67 Mbps download and 2-12 Mbps upload. For 5G, AT&T offers 37-120 Mbps download and 5-23 upload speeds depending on a subscriber’s location in the network. AT&T offers five standard plan options. The Value Plus plan, which is only available for single phone line subscribers, is $50/month for unlimited data and includes 5G access. The 4GB data plan is priced at $50/month, and 5G access is not included. AT&T offers three 5G unlimited plans open to more than one phone line, whose prices differ based on the level of high-speed data they have access to: 1) the Unlimited Starter plan, priced at $65/month; the Unlimited Extra plan for $75/month; and the Unlimited Elite plan, which is $85/month. The company does not offer the option for consumers to purchase a low-cost device. AT&T participates in the Affordable Connectivity Program in all 50 states and Washington, DC.

AT&T’s prepaid plans range from 5GB data monthly and 4G LTE to unlimited 5G service. The 5GB prepaid plan is priced at $30/month, and its next highest monthly prepaid plan is for 15 GB service at $40/month. The company also offers different 8GB data plans for different rates depending on how many months the consumer pays for upfront. The AT&T unlimited plan, for $65/month, includes access to 5G and unlimited high-speed data.

Cricket Wireless is an MVNO owned and operated by AT&T. All of the provider’s plans are no-annual-contract plans and have access to 5G. For one line month-to-month service, Cricket’s cheapest plan is $30/month with 5 GB service. The 10 GB plan is priced at $40/month, followed by Cricket’s $55/month unlimited data plan. The provider’s premium prepaid plan is $60/month for unlimited data and 15 GB hotspot data.

Who Else is Participating in the Affordable Connectivity Program?

One of the key conditions of the 2019 merger of T-Mobile and Sprint was the formation of Dish Wireless. The New York Times reported that the companies sold significant portions of their businesses to Dish Network in an effort to prevent reduced competition in the wireless industry and create a new competitor. As a result, Dish Wireless was created from Sprint’s prepaid wireless businesses, most notably Boost Mobile. Boost is an MVNO owned by Dish and operating on T-Mobile and AT&T’s wireless networks (Dish is building its own 5G broadband network with the goal of serving 70% of the US population by 2023). Boost offers five different prepaid wireless services based on monthly data usage. For $15/month, customers can get 2GB data. For $25/month, Boost offers 5GB, and for $35/month Boost offers 10GB. The company offers two unlimited service plans for $50 and $60/month, the difference resting in each plan’s hotspot data allowances (12GB and 30GB, respectively). All Boost plans use 4G and 5G where available; for 4G LTE, Boost reports speeds in the range of 4-35 Mbps download and 1-5 Mbps upload. Boost does offer the option for consumers to purchase a low-cost device. The provider participates in the Affordable Connectivity Program in all 50 states, Washington, DC and Puerto Rico.

US Cellular offers both standard and prepaid service plans through its own 4G LTE mobile broadband network and roaming agreements with others. The provider’s 4G LTE network reports speeds in the range of 2-20 Mbps download and 2-15 Mbps upload. All US Cellular plans also include 5G where available and there are three standard plans and four prepaid plans to choose from. US Cellular’s three unlimited data service tiers vary based on plan-specific perks such as hotspots and streaming packages, but are priced at $60/month (Basic), $70/month (Everyday 2.0), and $75/month (Even Better 2.0). For prepaid, the provider offers a pay-as-you-go data plan for $30/month. For 15GB data, consumers pay $40/month. US Cellular also has two prepaid unlimited data options at $55 and $65/month, with the latter having access to a hotspot among other services. Consumers cannot purchase a low-cost device through US Cellular. The provider participates in the Affordable Connectivity Program in California, Idaho, Illinois, Iowa, Kansas, Maine, Missouri, Nebraska, New Hampshire, North Carolina, Oklahoma, Oregon, Tennessee, Virginia, Washington, West Virginia, and Wisconsin.

Nonprofit organization PCs for People helps to provide low-income consumers with low-cost, refurbished computers and affordable broadband via wireless hotspots. To receive technology from PCs for People, a potential recipient must be below the 200% poverty level or be currently enrolled in an income-based government assistance program according to its website. So far, PCs for People has connected 80,000 households to the internet and 35% of their subscribers are enrolled in the Affordable Connectivity Program. The organization’s 4G LTE internet speeds, through internet service provider Mobile Beacon, reach a range of 9-55 Mbps download and 1-6 Mbps upload. PCs for People subscribers must purchase a wireless internet modem for $80, and get unlimited data for $15/month. Through the Affordable Connectivity Program, consumers receive the modem for $65 and monthly internet for free. PCs for People participates in the Affordable Connectivity Program in all 50 states, Washington, DC and Puerto Rico.

How Easy is it for Low-Income Customers to Find Information about the Affordable Connectivity Program?

All of the wireless providers listed here (with the exception of Straight Talk) participate in both the Affordable Connectivity Program and the Lifeline Program for low-income consumers, the federal subsidy program for phone and broadband service administered through the Universal Service Administrative Company (USAC) and overseen by the Federal Communications Commission. While most of these companies have a dedicated page for the Affordable Connectivity Program on their websites, customers will find that information with varying levels of ease. 

Out of the big three wireless companies:

  • AT&T and its subsidiaries do their best to feature prominent information about the Affordable Connectivity Program for their consumers. Both AT&T and Cricket Wireless provide plenty of resources for their customers upfront and direct them to apply on both their home pages and their webpages dedicated to the Affordable Connectivity Program specifically.
  • T-Mobile and Metro by T-Mobile are the next best of the three when it comes to program information accessibility. Metro by T-Mobile includes prominent information on their home page and also has a dedicated Affordable Connectivity Program page of its own. T-Mobile itself, however, does not feature information on the program and instead includes a link to its Emergency Broadband Benefit page at the bottom of its website. Ultimately, the provider has the information but it may be harder to find for non-prepaid customers.
  • Verizon customers will have the hardest time out of the three providers; neither Verizon’s home page or any of its subsidiaries’ sites feature any information about the Affordable Connectivity Program. Verizon wireless customers will have to search for the program on the site to get to the provider’s program-specific page, or use an external search engine. For TracFone, users have to use a search engine to find the company’s page. Straight Talk does not have any information on the Affordable Connectivity Program anywhere on its site, and an external search brings up an outdated webpage on the Emergency Broadband Benefit Program.

Boost and PCs for People do well to provide information on the Affordable Connectivity Program for consumers. Boost’s participation in the program is prominently featured on its website homepage, as is a link to its program page and more information. PCs for People has a wealth of easily accessible information on the Affordable Connectivity Program, as the organization is dedicated to delivering low-cost devices and internet to low-income consumers. It is very easy for customers to find details about the program and how to apply. US Cellular offers information on the Affordable Connectivity Program, but not right away. Program participation is first seen on the company’s “Specialty Plans” page, which includes information on both the Affordable Connectivity Program and Lifeline.

Now we’ve looked at the plans and program participation of cable, telephone, and wireless companies. How do they compare? When it comes to broadband speeds, cable providers still offer the fastest internet out of the three. Telephone companies are generally far behind in comparison, with costly plans for much slower DSL speeds. While fiber offerings by telephone companies provide high-speed symmetrical internet, it is still more expensive than cable options. Wireless broadband speeds, unless customers are using newer phones with the fastest parts of their providers’ 5G networks, do not reach the same speeds as fiber or cable. Wireless internet plans have the added complication of data caps as well; most of the unlimited wireless plans listed are either pushing the upper limit of affordability for low-income consumers or are far above it. However, the average American consumer can still get high-speed internet through cable for the price of one phone line or less. Given this, the most cost-effective high-speed internet choice for Affordable Connectivity Program consumers out of the largest US cable, telephone and wireless providers is cable.

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