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  (Source: CNN Money)
Plans offer a generous bucket of data and a lot of options, but also hidden costs

With Dan Hesse out and Marcelo Claure in as CEO, Sprint Corp. (S) unveiled its first major revision to its plans -- the phase out of unlimited data.  The beginning of the end for Sprint's "unlimited" data days was hinted at with the arrival of the Sprint Family Share Pack, which ditches the unlimited data option of previous "Framily" plans.

I. The (Long-Coming) Death of Unlimited Data

For Sprint customers saddened by the beginning of the end of your unlimited data, the writing has been on the wall for some time now.  

A half decade ago T-Mobile U.S., Inc. (TMUS), Verizon Communications Inc.'s (VZ) Verizon Wireless, and AT&T, Inc. (T) offered unlimited data options, just like Sprint.  AT&T was the first to turn its back on unlimited data, moving to a capped alternative in mid-2010.  Verizon and T-Mobile followed in suit in May 2011.  This capping followed both networks starting to throttle their heaviest users' data speeds in the waning days of their "unlimited" data offerings.

Both Verizon and T-Mobile softened the blow with (at the time) competitive family plans.  Sound familiar?

To be fair, Sprint promised its customers that its unlimited data would last forever.  When T-Mobile pulled the plug in mid-2011, former CEO Dan Hesse admitted at a telecom conference that Sprint might eventually follow in suit.  But Sprint held off the longest, leveraging its bucket free plan as an advertising gimmick.

Sprint unlimited data
Sprint long used its defense of "unlimited" data plans as an adveritsing gimmick.  Now it's ditched unlimited and joined the pack, offering data buckets and caps.

But in the end Sprint has followed a nearly identical trajectory, although it's taken the longest to pull the plug on unlimited data.  Much like T-Mobile, it announced in May that it would begin throttling its heaviest "unlimited" plan users in June.  Now with the arrival of family plans and nary a mention of "unlimited data", this all too familiar transformation is complete.

Much like T-Mobile, Verizon, and AT&T, Sprint will presumably continue to honor the unlimited terms of its so called "grandfathered" contracts -- users who have yet to sign a new contract and cling to their carrier who contractually promised them "unlimited" data when they signed up.  But the days of unlimited data are at an end for new subscribers.

II. A Complicated Family

So the natural next question is -- "If free data is dead, are the family plans a good deal, at least?"

That's an interesting question.  Sprint is advertising its plan in a pretty sneaky/disingenuous way, comparing its plan to the family plan rates of its rivals, including 4-line, 10 GB plans from T-Mobile ($100 USD/month) and AT&T ($160 USD/month).  But Sprint's plan is rather complicated and a rather costly catch soon becomes apparent.

But first, let's examine what Sprint appears to be offering, before digging into what it's really offering

Sprint appears to be offering 20 GB for $100 USD/month, plus is tossing in an additional 2 GB per non-tablet device (line) per month.  So a family of 4 would pay $100 USD/month and get 28 GB, and a family of 10 would pay $100 USD/month and get 40 GB.

Sounds great, right?

Critics say Sprint's family deals are kind of like the personal relations of the Sprint framily -- complicated.

Well, T-Mobile's outspoken CEO John Legere had a choice word or two about Sprint's pitch. He took to Twitter (as usual), writing: Is he right?

III. The Joy of Access Fees -- Forcing You to Pay More for Less Data

The short answer is yes.  The good part of Sprint's plan is that it is seemingly pretty generous with its data buckets:
Sprint buckets
There's a very big catch to Sprint's rates that you discover as you read on.  You'll notice the magic words in the figure above -- "access fee".  Where T-Mobile and AT&T include the price of the lines in their plan, Sprint doesn't.  Sprint charges $15 USD per line.

What's more, in a bizarre move, for buckets 12 GB and below it charges $25 USD per line.  What does this mean?  It basically means you either have to switch to an extremely small shared bucket, or switch to a more expensive plan.

Let's say you have a family of 4 and you decide you don't really need 28 GB.  Well Sprint offers an 8 GB bucket for $70 USD and a 12 GB bucket for $80 USD.  You'd just switch, right?

Sprint family plan

Well, not so fast.  If you opt for a bucket below 20 GB, not only does the additional 2 GB/line temporary promotion drop away, you also are forced to pay a higher access fee of $25.  So a family of 4 pays:
  • $160 USD/month ($100 data + $60 access fees) for 28 GB (20 GB bucket + 8 GB promotion)
  • $180 USD/month ($80 data + $100 access fees) for 12 GB
  • $170 USD/month ($70 data + $100 access fees) for 10 GB
In other words, Sprint uses a sneaky bump to its access fees to basically force everyone to buy a larger data bucket and be on the hook for higher monthly rates.  Decline, and you'll be stuck paying more for a smaller bucket.

All that said, Sprint's deal is still pretty competitive -- for now.

For a family with 8 lines, for example, you'll be paying $220 USD/month, but will get a 36 GB pool with the promotion.  With T-Mobile you would have a more straightforward billing scheme -- 2 x 4-line, 10 GB, $100 USD/month plans -- for a grand total of $200 USD/month for 20 GB.  So on Sprint's plan you're paying more, but also getting more data.

III. For Now There's a Good Deal Hidden in The Mess

Now you have to factor in the state of Sprint's network.  To its credit Sprint reaches more customers with LTE coverage than T-Mobile.  At last count it covers 254 million Americans in 488 markets.  While behind Verizon and AT&T, this is a little ahead of budget rival T-Mobile, who currently covers 233 million Americans in 325 markets.

But where Sprint wins marginally over T-Mobile in coverage (and loses to Verizon/AT&T), it loses badly in LTE speeds, according to recent tests.  In the handful of markets where its advanced-LTE bid, Project Spark, is available it's faster than T-Mobile, potentially even the fastest carrier overall.  

Sprint Spark
Sprint's Spark program is bringing advanced LTE technology to select U.S. markets.

But in most markets it trails T-Mobile and Verizon in speeds anywhere from moderately to severely.  Suffice it to say Sprint's speeds are highly dependent on where you live and visit in the country, making it much like Sprint's new plans -- complicated.
For many, though, the lure of Sprint's 2 GB per line promotion will be too great to resist.  Admittedly, while the promotion lasts it is a better deal than T-Mobile offers on a per gigabyte basis, despite forcing customers into more expensive plans.  Sprint has followed in T-Mobile's line and is currently offering to pay up to $350 USD in early termination fees (ETFs) (via Visa Inc. (V) gift card of equivalent amount to your ETFs) for new subscribers.
For now the plan may be enough to convince some new customers to join the ranks, helping Sprint to try to hold off a surging T-Mobile.

Killing unlimited data may alienate Sprint holdouts, but it may lure some subscribers with its 20 GB bucket deal.  In the long run, though, T-Mobile is threatening to bump it to fourth.
[Image Source: Reuters]

But upon closer examination only one part of the new Family Plans -- the 20 GB bucket -- is truly competitive with T-Mobile's Family Plans, and it's only competitive thanks to its extra 2 GB per line promotion.  Move to other buckets and you lose that promotion and quickly Sprint's offerings appear much more overpriced.

That brings us to a final point.  While these plans may indeed pull in some new subscribers, the question is what Sprint will do in the long term.  It's billing the 2 GB extra for new subscribers as a "Limited Promotion".  Currently Sprint's plan is onerously complex and rather sneaky in terms of its fees.  But hidden in there is a good deal, if you go the route it's leading you (the 20 GB bucket w/ +2 GB per line).

However, if at some point Sprint cancels its +2 GB per line promotion, this good deal will be gone and customers will be left with a truly unappealing family (or "framily"?) plan.

Sources: Sprint [press release], John Legere on Twitter [1], [2]

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Why so complicated
By BRB29 on 8/19/2014 9:34:05 AM , Rating: 2
I understand how the Sprint's new plans work but I am 100% certain there will be a ton of people who will be lost. Why did they make it so complicated? to tack on extra charges without people knowing until it's too late?

RE: Why so complicated
By quiksilvr on 8/19/2014 10:03:24 AM , Rating: 3
I agree. T-Mobile did it right by letting you pick and choose how many lines and how much data per line that clearly shows the total on the right. No need to add to cart, choose phones, etc. in order to see the complete price.

RE: Why so complicated
By euclidean on 8/20/2014 9:04:53 AM , Rating: 2
I guess I'm confused...the new pricing plan (not counting promotions...just the plan) seems really straight forward to me.

Step 1. Cost for your Shared Data Bucket
Step 2. Cost per smartphone accessing Data Bucket
Step 3. Cost per tablet accessing Data Bucket

All of the other carriers give you a flat feet for 4 phones...what's the cost per phone after that? What's the cost if you only want 2 phones?

This seems way more simple to me than the others. Here's your bucket, here's your cost per phone...If it's the promotional offers that's confusing people, sure. But the plan itself is pretty straightforward.

By blahblah00 on 8/19/2014 10:08:28 AM , Rating: 2
Sprint still has unlimited data for customers that want to have it. They may not offer it with this plan, but the plans that are in place now can still be accessed and used. Still the only carrier with unlimited data, now if they can only get the network up to standard maybe there is hope.

RE: :)
By coburn_c on 8/19/14, Rating: 0
RE: :)
By glowingghoul on 8/19/2014 12:12:10 PM , Rating: 3
Are you thick? You can STILL sign up for an unlimited voice data text plan. In fact, you can choose from two:

Unlimited My Way or My All In are both available.

By johned3 on 8/19/2014 1:26:27 PM , Rating: 5
Why does every article I read about this say that Sprint is the only carrier with unlimited? It's a somewhat pricey add on to the line at T-mo, but it is still there. Admittedly, this does not include unlimited tethering but Sprint's unlimited plan includes the same amount of tethering data as T-mobile. Each includes 5GB. (read the fine print at the bottom)

If you pay for t-mobile unlimited data you will never be throttled for legitimate use, despite recent reports. They're cracking down on unauthorized tethering over the 5GB limit and excessive peer-to-peer usage, that's it.

Not to mention that all T-mobile plans are sort of unlimited in that if you do not pay for the unlimited option you are never charged extra for going over, you're simply throttled. Edge is pretty pathetic by today's standards, but it is certainly better than paying huge overage fees.
I realize that there is no proof of this and other's experiences may be different but when I have exceeded my data limit on T-mo, I was throttled to 3G not 2G (Edge) and 3G is still usable.

I gave up unlimited at VZW to switch to T-mo a few months ago because it was so much cheaper on t-mo. It was completely a price decision because I was pretty happy with VZW overall, I just didn't want to pay the premium anymore. My current T-mo bill is the same price as VZW but I have 6 lines instead of 4. And now VZW is moving even more aggressively to eliminate the remain holdouts with unlimited so it looks like I may have gotten out just in time.

F access fees
By EasyC on 8/19/2014 12:45:34 PM , Rating: 4
Seriously, is there a bigger middle finger to your consumers than charging a per line fee ON TOP of your advertised price? Verizon has been doing this for years just to appear that they are competitive at first glance. Get's people in the doors, then they get their bill and ask why their 100$ plan is 200$ on the bill.

And I really love how carriers (other than T Mobile) have adopted the non subsidy options. Let's charge the same, and take out subsidies, then charge more if they want subsidies. If the number appears too big, move some value out of the advertised price and into a "line access fee". SMH...


Now you have to factor in the state of Sprint's network. To its credit Sprint reaches more customers with LTE coverage than T-Mobile. At last count it covers 254 million Americans in 488 markets. While behind Verizon and AT&T, this is a little ahead of budget rival T-Mobile, who currently covers 233 million Americans in 325 markets.

LTE, maybe, but have you ever heard of HSPA+? Yea, that widespread technology that T-Mobile uses that is usually faster than any 4G Sprint has to offer? It seriously sounds like you're omitting that information on purpose to make Sprint sound better than it is, or T-Mobile sound worse than it is. Whatever happened to journalistic integrity?

I are confuse
By TBlain on 8/19/2014 11:33:29 AM , Rating: 2
So I thought I was crazy at first, he said repeatedly in the article that T-Mo ceased their unlimited data. So I checked my data usage for last month and the month before... Lots of data used. I checked my bills... No overage charges. I checked their website... Unlimited data plan available.

Am I living in a fugue or could it be that some fact checking is in order? They clearly do offer unlimited LTE data plans (albeit its the top plan, but that is still cheaper than what Verizon was gouging me for). Yeah, their coverage at times leaves something to be desired, and their network seems to have connection issues, but so long as they have unlimited data as an option, I'm staying with them.

Oh yeah, F Sprint.

Not falling for this
By flyingpants1 on 8/20/2014 8:15:00 AM , Rating: 2
$80 Shared Data Bucket. Unlimited savings LTE family plan. Access to phone data $20 + talkplan phone $40 + $10 + $5 in savings. 2GB 4GB 6GB 8GB 12GB. Shared talkphone smartplan tethering access point.

No, no, no, no, no. I'm not even going to read all that stuff.

You can charge me $50 for 1GB, or $60 for 2GB, and unlimited data at throttled speeds.

Silently charging for overages is a borderline criminal practice that should be banished forever.

I pay $56 for unlimited/2GB, and I'm never, ever going to pay more than that.

Switch to Ting...
By Rott3nHIppi3 on 8/21/2014 10:20:46 AM , Rating: 2
... and don't worry about Sprint's plans. That's what I did. With all the free WIFI spots.. plus home network, I use so little 3G/4G data, my bill is like $35/month tops. Sprint phone, Sprint Towers... no Sprint 'hidden' costs.

No one cares
By corduroygt on 8/19/14, Rating: -1
RE: No one cares
By BRB29 on 8/19/2014 9:36:17 AM , Rating: 3
There is a reason to choose ATT. Amazon Fire Phone...ok..that's not a really good reason.

RE: No one cares
By Mitch101 on 8/19/2014 10:05:21 AM , Rating: 2
I actually get better coverage with AT&T in two areas where I vacation that Verizon doesn't seem to have any coverage. I also find AT&T is a little cheaper than what Verizon would change for 3 phones. $160.00 vs $130.00. The phone costs are different but it comes out cheaper on AT&T for me in the long run.

Sprint made the mistake of turning off cell towers before upgrading them and lost us. They used to be very good where we live and commuted every day. The two local Sprint stores closed up. Hard to convince people to use it when you have poor to no reception in the area.

RE: No one cares
By peanutgallery on 8/19/2014 10:12:48 AM , Rating: 2
I agree. But all things considered, the new Cricket Rateplans rock... And it's now AT&T service and coverage.

RE: No one cares
By coburn_c on 8/19/2014 9:52:21 AM , Rating: 2
Right, Sprint has the worst network in the nation and they took away their only selling point. This new CEO must be preparing for bankruptcy.

Verizon has the best coverage and T-mobile has the best stipulations. No reason to sign papers with anyone else.. unless you really have to have a ad bloated Amazon phone...

RE: No one cares
By Reclaimer77 on 8/19/14, Rating: -1
RE: No one cares
By Samus on 8/19/2014 3:14:39 PM , Rating: 2
The hate toward Sprint is shocking on this forum. My entire family has used Sprint in Chicago for a decade and we always get coverage when others don't. The LTE is also faster than anyone else in this market.

I guess nobody on this board is in the Chicago area...the 3rd most populated area in the country?

RE: No one cares
By therealnickdanger on 8/19/2014 3:41:28 PM , Rating: 2
I was a Sprint user from 1996 to 2012. I didn't leave because of coverage area. T-Mobile just offers more reliable service with more options and less BS for less money.

Sprint's coverage area was great as long as you were within five miles of a major freeway... and not indoors... I had family in Chicago and visited often. Never got a signal inside.

RE: No one cares
By Reclaimer77 on 8/19/2014 4:24:30 PM , Rating: 2
I guess nobody on this board is in the Chicago area...the 3rd most populated area in the country?

I tend to avoid cesspools of humanity and race-riot areas, thank you :)

For me the "hate" is well deserved. Sprint's service was just the worst. And the entire WiMax debacle and all those people caught in the middle...I mean seriously, can you blame them for their anger?

RE: No one cares
By NAVAIR on 8/19/2014 9:00:33 PM , Rating: 2
+1 Sprint sucks.

Tried to help someone with their phone on Sprint in google maps find what they were looking for and it did not have the bandwith to draw the map. I had Sprint years ago and they still suck today. Chicago is a cesspool...

RE: No one cares
By Samus on 8/19/2014 11:31:18 PM , Rating: 1
A cesspool of what? Quality drinking water, music festivals, culture, diverse world-class restaurants, museums and businesses?

RE: No one cares
By Reclaimer77 on 8/20/2014 10:33:52 AM , Rating: 2
Good luck enjoying any of that when you're being mugged then shot to death...

RE: No one cares
By lothar98 on 8/19/2014 10:14:58 PM , Rating: 2
I spent a week in the Chicago/Aurora area earlier this year and at the time had Sprint and found the LTE really good there. I was able to repeatedly get around 8-10 Mbps. This was much better than I could get near home in Northern CA (140 Kbps ). But that speed pocket just wasn't good enough for me to keep them when it doesn't effect me on a daily basis. I switched to T mobile and really appreciate their speeds around 30 Mbps on both their "4g" and LTE networks. And to top it off I can do voice and data while on GSM. This is surprising useful when taking calls and using the hotspot feature for VPN.

RE: No one cares
By inighthawki on 8/19/2014 11:28:27 AM , Rating: 2
Verizon has the best coverage and T-mobile has the best stipulations. No reason to sign papers with anyone else.. unless you really have to have a ad bloated Amazon phone...

You do realize that "best coverage" does not mean they are best *everywhere*, right? Cell coverage is not a game of numbers where Verizon is a strict superset of AT&T's network. There are a lot of places across the US where AT&T's network has better service than Verizon.

RE: No one cares
By Spuke on 8/19/2014 11:47:19 AM , Rating: 2
There are a lot of places across the US where AT&T's network has better service than Verizon.
Where is that? Within a 1000 sq miles of my house, Verizon has FAR better coverage than everyone else. I've used AT&T, Cingular, T-Mobile and currently on Verizon. I'd like to go back to TMo but their coverage is spotty pretty much everywhere I go.

RE: No one cares
By inighthawki on 8/19/2014 12:02:22 PM , Rating: 2
My home town back in northeast Ohio got better service from AT&T than Verizon.

But hey, nice anecdotal evidence. I'm sure you've also been to every single city within 1000 square miles of your house and specifically tested the cell coverage of all of those cities, right?

RE: No one cares
By Reclaimer77 on 8/19/2014 12:09:41 PM , Rating: 2
Does your "hometown" have a name? We can clear this up right now by pulling up Verizon's service coverage map for that area.

RE: No one cares
By Mitch101 on 8/19/2014 12:35:42 PM , Rating: 2
Two areas where the call will drop every time on Verizon.
Columbia, SC - Rt77
North Myrtle Beach, SC

Columbia, SC I can drive right through with AT&T and not drop. Verizon and Sprint will always drop on this one stretch of highway on Rt77 with no signal.

North Myrtle Beach is spotty for every carrier I can barely get a signal on AT&T but not at all on Verizon.

RE: No one cares
By inighthawki on 8/19/2014 1:02:10 PM , Rating: 2
I would but that doesn't prove anything. Coverage does not translate to good service. In the same spot I can get two bars of one service and 5 bars of another, and both will label that area on the map as area where they provide coverage.

I'm not trying to say that there are regions where Verizon just doesn't work at all, just that there are regions where AT&T gets better signals and service than Verizon. You'd absolutely be fooling yourself if you think that that's never going to be the case.

RE: No one cares
By EasyC on 8/19/2014 1:05:26 PM , Rating: 2
Verizon's map tends to....embellish quite a bit.

They supposedly had "Good" coverage at my apartment a few years ago, but had 0 bars for a good 1/2 mile in any direction. I guess that's within the margin of error so they can't be held accountable for it. Funny because that's not the only spot I've seen that at.

RE: No one cares
By CharonPDX on 8/19/2014 12:54:37 PM , Rating: 2
I think of it the other way around: As long as a carrier has coverage where you live/work, who cares about their coverage elsewhere?

I couldn't care less if my carrier has 20 Mbps+ LTE coverage in BFE, Montana, or Middle-of-nowhere, Nebraska. I care if they have 20+ LTE coverage IN MY NEIGHBORHOOD.

Verizon has "best coverage" - yet the service at my house is slow 3G. AT&T has "second best coverage" - yet the service at my house is completely nonexistent. T-Mobile may have crappy coverage throughout the US (I drop to EDGE speeds once I leave the city, so while music streaming is possible on the interstate, video streaming is lacking,) but I have a great LTE signal at my house. I don't know about Sprint, I haven't had them in over a decade. (And never at my current house.) They all get decent reception at my work, and all the places I commonly go in town.

If Sprint has good signal at my house, and is cheaper for the amount of data I use, I might consider switching. I'll have to see if they have a loaner-phone program.

RE: No one cares
By inighthawki on 8/19/2014 1:04:32 PM , Rating: 2
Exactly. The people here are acting like cell coverage means that each provider is some strict subset or superset of another. It's territorial. Multiple providers may provide coverage in the same area, but the service is not always the same.

RE: No one cares
By kmmatney on 8/19/2014 1:10:20 PM , Rating: 2
I use Ting, which uses the Sprint backbone, and it has been fine for our family in South Denver. For 4 phones, our typically bill is around $60, although it's gone up to $80 if we use a lot of data, and has been lower on other months. Ting is mainly good if you use less than 2 GB a month. As long as you don't stream video to your phone, it's pretty hard to use a lot of data. I use my phone everyday, with 4 email accounts, and find it hard to go past 500mb in a month. Let the video streamers pay more.

Ignore this article
By SocrPlyr on 8/19/14, Rating: -1
RE: Ignore this article
By SocrPlyr on 8/19/14, Rating: 0
RE: Ignore this article
By SocrPlyr on 8/19/14, Rating: 0
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