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We eliminated the $35 activation fee

Funny story. When we were getting ready to launch Ting, we were very concerned that people would be shocked by the prices of devices. We knew we were passing them along at or below our costs. But US consumers are accustomed to having their devices buried into their service bills for multiple years. So, very often, they have no idea how much devices actually cost.

At the same time, we looked around the industry and saw that $35 activation fees were standard among major carriers. We actually had no intention of burying an extra $35 into the total cost of Ting. But we thought, “OK, we’ll charge the same $35 the other guys are charging for activation and we’ll take another $35 off the price of each device.” That way the device price would be more palatable.

Since then, two things happened:

– We discovered that our customers are savvier than we thought about devices. They generally understand that paying for the device upfront ultimately saves money versus “financing it” with a two-year commitment to inflated monthly service bills. And once they accept that, they seem to recognize that our prices are quite reasonable.

– People were surprised and, rightfully, a bit annoyed to discover a $35 activation fee. It just didn’t feel like Ting. Our customers expect more transparency and fewer line items.

So, we listened. Starting today, we are dropping the $35 activation fee and putting that cost back where it belongs, on the device price. (If you recently paid a $35 activation fee, understand that you got your device for $35 less. If you just saw a device you wanted go up by $35, recognize that you will be saving yourself a $35 activation fee.)

To be clear, we cannot subsidize these devices any more than we already do. This is not an announcement that we are “slashing” anything. This is just an attempt to stay true to our promise of clarity, simplicity and honesty. Thank you for reminding us of that.



How and When Do I Get an Android Update?

Fragmentation in the Android camp is a fact of life. There are several versions of the Android operating system (OS) that are in active deployment. There are versions of the OS, modified to differing degrees, running on a host of devices including tablets, set top boxes, PCs and, of course, smartphones.

Android is open source which means anyone can grab the code and adapt it to fit their ends. That’s a good thing for a whole host of reasons which we won’t delve into right now. It also has its downsides.

Pie chart - Goole Android use by version

According to Google’s own data, the most popular version of its Android OS is Gingerbread, 2.3 at 62%. Froyo, Android 2.2, claims about 25% and the newest version, Ice Cream Sandwich, Android 4.0, is only really starting out at 1.6% penetration. This data was collected by Google over a 14-day period ending March 5, 2012. They simply tallied the number of devices that accessed the erstwhile Android Market (since re-badged Google Play) using these different Android versions.

Why Are There So Many Versions of Android Floating Around?

The list above is just the official versions of stock Android. There are other forks within these versions with things like HTC’s Sense skin, Motorola’s MotoBLUR and Samsung’s TouchWiz interfaces running atop Android. While these may add useful features — badge notifications on apps in Samsung’s TouchWiz for example — they also add another step between smartphones and the latest Android updates. Once Android receives an official update, it has to be tweaked and tested to run with the manufacturer’s hardware and modifications. Even devices running stock Android aren’t immune, though the update process is simpler in this case.

Once the phone manufacturer has released its modified build, it’s the carrier’s turn to begin tweaking and testing.

Stock Android supports all cellular bands. Carriers need to tweak Android to work best on their own wireless bands and to maximize battery life by cutting out unsupported bands. Often, they’ll use this opportunity to also pre-install their own apps and other tweaks as well.

This is another barrier between your phone and the latest Android update.

The update process — from initial release to a notification popping up on your phone letting you know a new update is available — can be looked at as a tree.

Android is the trunk. Different versions are forks. Manufacturers are branches. Carriers are twigs. The end result, the update that eventually comes your way via an over the air update to your phone, is an acorn. Your phone is a … squirrel or something. The latter part of this metaphor is clearly not going the way I had hoped. The larger point stands.

So… When Do I Get my Android Update?

It’s frustrating to us that we can’t offer a hard and fast answer to this completely reasonable question. Basically, updates are released when the phone manufacturer has adapted Android to run perfectly on the hardware. Then, Sprint updates its own build. After that’s all done, Sprint will later push an update out to MVNOs like Ting.

The only assurance we can make is that we won’t add another barrier between you and the latest Android updates.

When an update hits, you’ll receive a system notification. You can also check for Android system updates on your phone if you’re worried you’ve missed something.

Five Extreme Ways to Lower your Cell Phone Bill

Appolicious site logoRecently, Appolicious saw its way clear to include Ting in its Five extreme ways to lower your cell phone bill article. Aside from being fans of the site in general, we’re genuinely chuffed to have been included in the roundup.

When we first started talking about Ting, we worried whether the wireless-buying public would “get it;” the Ting idea is a unique one in that we don’t bundle services together into plans. Rather, we offer different buckets for voice minutes, text messages and megabytes that would-be users can choose from. Allowing an unlimited number of devices on an account with minutes, messages and megabytes pooled and shared between devices is also unique in the industry.

We (as in Ting) see this as a logical way to buy and use mobile service. That said, we (as in the mobile buying public) have been conditioned to expect bundled minutes, messages and megabytes along with penalties for using more than we expected. Likewise, we’ve been conditioned to accept two-year contracts that can’t be breached on pain of death. Well maybe not death… but grievous injury to the pocketbook.

Apparently, we needn’t have worried. This Appolicious article, and others we’ll link to at the end of this post, goes to show that people get it. Separating out minutes, messages and megabytes, eschewing contracts and generally giving customers the tools they need to control their usage and bills isn’t such an out-there concept. It’s also heartening to see other uniquely Ting concepts brought to light. Specifically, automatically bumping users up to the next bucket if they use more than they thought they would or dropping them down and crediting their next bill if they use less.

This article, and the many more column inches we’re grateful to have received, shows that we have some work to do yet. Specifically, we need to do a better job of explaining why asking users to buy their own device as opposed to offering a deeply discounted device by signing a contract is a strength as opposed to a weakness. That’s a subject for another post but the short version: You’re better off buying a device on a credit card than getting one from a mobile service provider. Even the high interest rates that plastic providers demand are better than the rates a mobile provider offers.

If we have any quibble with the article it’s with the headline. “Five extreme ways to lower your cell phone bill” could just as easily be “five varyingly logical ways to lower your cell phone bill” though in fairness, it has nowhere near the same cachet.

Ting Elsewhere in the News

TechCrunch: Tucows Officially Launches Ting, a More Thoughtful Wireless Carrier

CNET: New Ting Cell Phone Service Turns Contracts on Their Head

Gigaom: Look Out Big Telcos: Ting Shares Data Across Devices

Engadget: Tucows Launches a Contract-Free Mobile Service on Sprint's Network

Fox Business: New Mobile Carrier Ting Offers Truly Customizable Smartphone Plans

PC Mag: Tucows Launches Contract-Free Mobile Provider Ting

MobileBurn: Ting's No Contract, Pain-Free Wireless Services Now Available

Understanding Mobile Phone Taxes and Regulatory Fees

Taxes and regulatory fees on your mobile phone plan have the mark of government all over them. That is to say they’re a riddle, wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.

Cell phone regulatory fees vary from state to state, from county to county and in some cases, city to city. These taxes and regulatory fees are nigh on impossible to predict. It’s frustrating for you and it’s frustrating for us too.

First, let’s be as clear as possible on what taxes and regulatory fees you’ll pay with Ting. To quote the sign in a little shawarma shop near Ting HQ; we don’t charge tax, we collect it. Ting only collects what we are legally required to collect… and what we’re required to collect varies widely depending on a number of factors. Things like state, county and city factor in. So does overall usage. 911 access charges vary widely. Some states charge Telecommunication Relay Service (TRS) fees, some charge Public Utility Commission (PUC) fees. Some charge neither. Some both.

Contrary to the industry norm, Ting does not charge any recovery or administrative fees. We figure these taxes and fees are already high and complicated enough.

Current data on cell phone service taxes and fees is inexplicably hard to come by. The latest data is in KSE Partners LLP’s A Growing Burden: Taxes and Fees on Wireless Service, compiled by Scott Mackey.

The national weighted average tax burden is about 16.25 per cent. For ease of calculation, tack that much onto your usage estimates. To get a more accurate idea of what you’ll pay, take a look at the exhaustive tables that Mackey has compiled, detailing all the taxes and fees charged by each state, broken down by county where appropriate, in the Taxes and Fees on Wireless Service study.

The top-five most heavily taxed states for mobile service are:
(combined federal and state)

  • Nebraska at 23.69%
  • Washington at 23.00%
  • New York at 22.83%
  • Florida at 21.62%
  • Illinois at 20.90%

The five least heavily taxed states are:
(combined federal and state)

  • West Virginia at 11.28%
  • Montana at 11.08%
  • Idaho at 7.25%
  • Nevada at 7.13%
  • Oregon at 6.86%

To see where your state / municipality falls in the grand scheme of taxes and regulatory fees, see the list on Table 2 in A Growing Burden: Taxes and Fees on Wireless Service.

For a more detailed breakdown of each of the fees, levies, taxes, charges and other synonyms too numerous to mention, wade through table four of said document.

We’re sorry the answer isn’t simpler or more definitive, but we will keep trying (here and on everything else) to give you as much visibility as we can so your payments are as clear and predictable as possible.

Picking the Right Mobile Plan

Illustration: Comparing mobile phone plansDoing a reasonable cell phone plan comparison from the majors to the smaller players is exceedingly difficult. There’s no one language that all mobile service providers speak. Plans seem to have been designed by the engineering team, not the customer experience or customer service team.

Trying to find the best mobile service plan can go one of a few of ways, in our observation.

Option one: We create a comparison of mobile plans spreadsheet. We tabulate column upon column of data, weighting the things that are important to us, applying formulas to the spreadsheet and hoping that one of these calculations works out to the perfect plan.

Option two: After several hours (or weeks or months) of looking at different combinations of bundled voice, text messages and megabytes with different benefits and detriments, we give up on mobile plan comparisons and just play a game of pin the tail on the service provider.

Option three: A service provider is the only one that has that specific phone we’ve had our eyes on. We lock into a two-year contract and end up paying for the device many times over, long after it’s lost its lustre… perhaps even after it’s been lost.

Rather than present you with a wall of data comparing mobile phone plans’ mean cost per minute, megabyte or message, accrued cost of call display, vector of voicemail expense, aggregate cost per additional device or any number of other dry column headings, we’ll just invite you to try the Ting cost calculator. Grab a bill from any mobile service provider. Plug in your minute, message and megabyte use for a month or a couple of months and see if Ting can save you money on your mobile bill.

You can also just estimate your monthly use. Funny thing though: We, as in mobile service users, tend to over-estimate our monthly mobile usage. Grossly. In fact, that’s the biggest reason we generally over-pay for our mobile service.

I have to buy a device?

This has become the one obvious hurdle people need to clear before falling madly in love with Ting, so I want to address it as clearly and thoroughly as I possibly can.

Yes. You have to buy Ting-issued devices on our site before you can enjoy our monthly service plans.

Now, there tend to be two distinct responses to this.

I already have a device. Can’t I bring it over?

We wish you could. Believe me. We have made a very important business decision to view ourselves as a utility. We sell minutes, megabytes and texts. We see devices as vehicles that allow you to use our service. We do not make money on them. In fact, we are investing a bit to make them more affordable to you.

We actually would also love for people to be able take devices they bought at Ting elsewhere if they are not happy. Yes, we would lose money on a lot of these customers. But it would make our “no contract” claim that much more powerful and, we believe, ultimately engender a lot of loyalty. (“If you love someone, set them free!”)

Unfortunately, there are barriers that have been erected to prevent people from bringing devices from one provider to another, even providers on the same network. We will lobby, haggle, hack and do anything we can to try to change this. We expect you will do the same. But for now, we do not have a solution.

But I never buy a device! Why don’t you give me the device and I will make a commitment to the service?

And this is exactly what we mean by bringing clarity and control to mobile service!

When you get a subsidized or heavily subsidized device from one of the major providers and sign a long-term contract, you are absolutely paying for that device. The price, plus a significant premium, is buried in your monthly service. You are simply getting financing…at terrible rates. The only difference is that it is not being presented to you that way and you really have no idea exactly what sort of premium you are agreeing to. Please do not believe that any business (particularly one that has to offset huge marketing and network operating expenses) would ever give you a device for free.

At Ting, we want to deal with this in a much more straightforward manner. Look at the price of the device. Look at how much you will save each month on your service. Figure out for yourself if you like the whole deal. We are pretty sure your total spend after one or two years (typical contract lengths) will be much lower than what you would spend on the same device plus service elsewhere.

We know cash flow can be an issue. Paying as much as $545 upfront (for a sweet world phone, for example) can be tough, even to save $50+ a month going forward. But we don’t want to get into the business of financing, either covertly or transparently. It’s not what we do. And we urge you to consider smarter ways to finance your purchase (including your credit card, which is hardly a low cost lender) than financing it with a phone company.

We are challenging conventions here. And we are asking people to behave rationally, always a risky business move. But, again, we believe strongly that clarity and control will ultimately lead to better decision making, better value and a better overall experience.

EDIT: We’re offering regular device updates here on the Ting blog. Previously, we didn’t want to talk about our device lineup efforts before they bore fruit for fear of disappointing you. We’ve since realized that wasn’t very Ting of us. Please take these device update posts for what they are: an update on our efforts to get the latest and greatest devices. Not a set in stone device roadmap. With that said, please do take a look if you’d like to know what we’re working on on the device front.