I’ve been on the cheap prepaid phone plan bandwagon for the past few years. Unfortunately, my move from a small/medium city to a much larger one, and my new job in a particularly congested area, have me bumping into the wireless carriers’ latest trick to get you to spend more money with them: data deprioritization.

In the never-ending quest to come up with new and different ways to nickel and dime customers, all the wireless carriers have moved toward “unlimited” data plans that aren’t really unlimited anyway, and have assorted restrictions on how much data you can use before you’re throttled within an inch of your life, or video quality, or hotspot access, or whatever. None of the options are good.

Me, I use my phone a lot, but generally I’ve never used a ton of mobile data. I’d be on wifi at home, at work, and at the gym, and those are the places where I spend the majority of my time. For a couple years, it was better for me to get a plan with a specific data cap rather than an “unlimited” plan, as long as there were less speed/priority restrictions on the data until hitting the cap.

Unfortunately, the party couldn’t last, because:

  1. The wireless carriers are increasingly closing the throttling-free loopholes of data capped in-house prepaid or MVNO plans, and instead, your data traffic is given lower priority on their networks. Usually this happens, “in times of congestion.”
  2. I moved from Madison, WI to the Washington, DC area, my new job is in a permanently congested area, and because of the industry I’m in, my company is subject to assorted audits and other stuff where I at least try to do my personal internet usage to my phone’s data plan, not the company wifi.

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The two speed tests you see above were done two minutes apart, both sitting at my desk. The 2.17 Mbps result on the left is my Samsung Galaxy S7 Edge on Verizon in-house prepaid. The 16.4 Mbps result on the right is my work-issued iPhone 6S, on Verizon post-paid (I don’t even really know what plan my company has on this thing) connected to the same Verizon tower, and the same Speedtest.net server.

Sometimes on prepaid I’ll get higher speeds than this, but it can also easily be even worse. Because my office is in a busy area, there’s no rhyme nor reason to if and when I’ll be throttled. Here’s what Verizon says about this:

On certain plans, we may prioritize your data behind other traffic. If the cell site you are connected to begins experiencing high demand during the duration of your session, your data speeds may be slower than the other traffic’s. Once the demand on the site lessens, or if you connect to a different site not experiencing high demand, your speed will return to normal.

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The demand is never going to lessen. It’s only going to get worse because there are like 5 more office buildings being built down the street from my mine. Even my work phone on Verizon post-paid has garbage upload speeds, but also since it’s my work phone I’m not doing any personal stuff on it anyway and leave it connected to the work wifi, except to use it as a point of comparison for crappy prepaid service quality.

When I first started this job, I was on T-Mobile prepaid, which generally T-Mobile doesn’t throttle much, if at all. If you want a cheaper in-house T-Mobile prepaid option, they own MetroPCS, which does get deprioritized vs. T-Mobile prepaid. But the T-Mobile signal just couldn’t reliably get in to this building. I’d be texting with my wife, then go to the break room to get coffee, and the break room is a T-Mobile dead spot. Even at my desk which is pretty close to an exterior wall, the T-Mobile signal would go in and out periodically, and the phone would get hot trying to maintain a good connection.

I took an informal poll of folks at my office and Verizon appeared to have the best coverage in the building. Plus, my work phone was on Verizon so I figured it’d work fine. First I switched to Boom Mobile, which is a newer Verizon MVNO. The reason I went with them was they’re one of the few Verizon MVNOs that do VoLTE calling for simultaneous voice & data. They also have nice, generally pretty decent, US-based customer service. It’s not 24 hour coverage but their customer service reps are generally good.

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I know Boom customer service is good, because I spent a bunch of time trying to figure out why I was only able to make VoLTE calls in and around my office about 25% of the time. They went through a couple different rounds of trying to fix it, but long story short, there was no technical issue with the account that they could fix. Being an MVNO, Boom data traffic is deprioritized by Verizon to an extreme amount, where the phone sees such low data speeds that it falls back to a CDMA call with no data available.

While the Verizon versions of some older phones like the LG G2 had a trick where they could do CDMA voice and LTE data at the same, most current phones only do simultaneous voice & data on Verizon when making a VoLTE call. Since I have a long-ass commute home thanks to DC traffic, I would often use the time to catch up on whatever phone calls I need to make to family, customer service with companies, etc. My phone stays in a dash mount in my car and I’d do little stuff with it while crawling through traffic like find an email with an order number, or put something on my calendar for my grandma’s birthday while my crazy aunt talks herself in circles about when that birthday might be celebrated.

After that, I switched to Verizon in-house prepaid because they’re running a double data cap deal on prepaid plans. But, the situation hasn’t really improved. VoLTE, while not perfect, seems to be at least somewhat more reliable than on Boom. But my data is still being throttled on a regular basis.

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All I want is to quickly flick through Instagram or other non-work-related internet things on my phone and have those things load in a reasonable amount of time. But it looks like the only way for me to achieve that is to either hop on to the wifi at work, or pay a bunch more money for a post-paid plan.

Stupid wireless carriers, you done got me good with this congestion throttling! If only there were some regulatory organization that could prevent this sort of thing. Oh well.