Ever since Brutus killed Ceasar, the middle of March has been an ominous time of year.
Our Story of Bandwidth Betrayal
We love our Millenicom 20GB 3G/4G Hotspot Plan (which uses Verizon’s unrivaled LTE network), but at LTE speeds – 20GB can go pretty darned fast.
And this is the biggest downside of life with blazing fast 4G LTE wireless speeds – with great speed comes great responsibility. Without careful management, LTE makes it trivially easy to accidentally burn through way more data than you ever imagined possible.
Last October we discovered mid-month by writing to firstname.lastname@example.org that we had crossed over our 20GB data plan limit – hitting 21GB on October 17th. We knew that we had just had a heavy few weeks of usage, but we were still surprised by the total. Fortunately Millenicom does not charge for overages and they consider the 20GB limit a “soft cap” that can be occasionally crossed over. It was only through careful bandwidth rationing that we were able to get through the rest of the month by offloading much of our usage over to AT&T.
Ever since then we have been even more careful about limiting our LTE cellular usage. Recently we have been handling our big downloads over borrowed WiFi, such as at our park’s hotspot in the front office or at our parent’s places. This hasn’t been a hardship – we’ve been spending most days over with my folks lately anyway.
Just to be on the safe side – we still keep checking in occasionally with Millenicom to avoid any surprises. We dropped them a line this past Saturday (3/16) to check in and make sure we were pacing ourselves.
They responded later that afternoon, telling us we had already used 30.33GB for the month, and they were immediately suspending our account for excessive use until our next billing cycle on April 2.
Our account was disconnected and we were suddenly offline before we had even finished reading their e-mail!
Thanks Millenicom, stab us in the back.
Some thanks for being conscientious long time customers who proactively asked. No warning, no option to add overage data, no offer to investigate the matter further – just cut off and given a firm warning that the next punishment could be total termination.
To add insult to injury, our AT&T Mobile Share plan (for our iPhones) was already within 1GB of reaching our pre-paid bucket of 10GB of data. AT&T is our fallback Internet source, and through some complicated screw-ups on AT&T’s part – they had changed our billing cycle date without telling us. Thinking our bucket reset on the 5th of the month, as usual, we had favored using AT&T to burn though some big downloads (ya know, use it or lose it… will there ever be roll-over data??).
However, the new billing date was now the 25th of the month, so we had been using our allotment at the beginning of the cycle, not the end. GAH!!
Et tu, AT&T?
Thankfully there is no risk of AT&T cutting us off without warning, and AT&T’s overage charges are just $15/GB. Unpleasant, but we can work with that.
At least we could still get online to support our clients in a crisis.
We suddenly went from happily surfing, to being in extreme bandwidth conservation mode!
Chris went to work with the folks at WiFiRanger to troubleshoot why we couldn’t keep connected to the nearby WiFi hotspot (only barely reachable thanks to our roof-mounted WiFiRanger Sky, not directly by our laptops) – discovering some complicated routing glitches that made WiFi essentially unusable.
Meanwhile, I went about investigating the Millenicom situation further, using my unlimited grandfathered in AT&T data plan on my iPad (which no, does not offer a viable total solution as hotspotting/tethering was never included on that plan).
I discovered that Millenicom now (at last!) displays usage reports, updated weekly, on our online account management page. Just login, click ‘Products’ at the top and select your device. The last line should be your usage for the month so far, as calculated on the prior Monday from aggregated reports from Verizon that Millenicom downloads.
Ours read 7.88 GB as of 3/12.
So from 3/12 to mid-day on 3/16 (4 days!!!) they claim we had used 22.79GB of data.
That’s over 5GB per day, when our daily average until then was under 700MB – well under 1GB per day, and nicely on track to use just 20GB for the month.
To use that much data in such a short span of time, we’d have to be streaming HD content several hours a day. We don’t stream video content while using our Millenicom data (that’s what the unlimited iPad is for) and we seek out unlimited & fast internet sources for our big downloads. We’re vigilant about that.
We also weren’t home much in those four days. My dad had nursing and social worker visits from hospice, and out of town family friends visiting. We took part in all of that, and were spending 8-10 hours a day away from the bus with family, with most of our tech devices off or with us.
Unless Kiki was at home watching some serious HD kitty-porn while we were out, or a neighbor cracked our password to the MiFi and ‘borrowed’ some internet, we can not conceive of having consumed 22GB of data in that 4 day time span.
The only potential bandwidth hog that we can imagine having hit us was syncing some large graphical files to our DropBox backups – but even then that wouldn’t total up to nearly 20GB of data.
We wrote to Millencom multiple times asking for more details, options for getting back online ASAP, and asking them to re-check our usage for some sort of explanation or accounting error that might explain the sudden strange increase.
But though it took them only hours to reply to our usage query by shutting us down, it took 48 hours to get any further reply from Millenicom – and then all they could offer was to encourage us to get the Millenicom “Unlimited” plan. They seemed to have no ability at all to reactivate our current MiFi modem – we even offered to pay! If it had been our only means of connectivity, we would have been in a real lurch.
BTW – though it sounds tempting, Millenicom’s “Unlimited” plan is actually soft-capped at 50GB, and instead of being run on Verizon it is on Sprint’s limited and now orphaned 4G WIMAX network. And in our current location, would have only been 3G speeds. The Sierra Wireless AirCard 250U modem that Millenicom is offering will NOT connect to Sprint’s new LTE network, and there will be no further increases in WIMAX coverage area.
In other words, we had little interest in switching back to that plan.
Our app “Coverage?” is a great tool for tracking what works where.
Thinking Outside our Mobile Box
As frustrated as we were with Millenicom, by the time we heard back from them we already had another solution in the works.
We’re currently parked in a mobile home park that just happens to have RV spots, and we’ll (hopefully) be here a while. We couldn’t help but notice all these black cables strung over our heads.
Oh, wait… cable!
That’s how our stationary neighbors get online. Duh!
Sometimes us mobile folks just have to think outside our normal limitations.
We asked around with our neighbors and at the office, and yes indeed – we can get cable service! A quick call to Bright House, and we had a work order to turn on ‘Turbo Internet’ the very next day. 30Mbps down and 2Mbps up with no data caps, no contract, no cancellation fees, only a small $20 install fee, no equipment to purchase and the internet only price was much cheaper than we were paying Millenicom monthly too!
The highly professional internet gods arrived right on time, updated our bus’ pre-wired coax and bandwidth is now flowing out our ears again!
It is ironic that it took nearly 7 years of us being on the road for mobile internet speeds to reach the equivalent of what is available for wired options. And here we are, total digital nomads, plugging in again.
While we could have just gotten the Internet package, we opted to also kill two birds with one cable. We had been bemoaning just finishing watching Season 2 of Game of Thrones and HBO would soon be premiering Season 3. There is no way for a non-HBO customer to legally obtain the episodes until the entire series is released to disc. We didn’t want to wait a year! So, we splurged and got basic cable and HBO too.
What the heck, right?
Our focus in on family and business right now. And being able to swim in the abundance of internet without worrying about frustrating caps, and also enjoying some mind numbing media distractions – well, we think it’s worthwhile.
It just feels awfully darn ‘stationary’ to be cable subscribers again! Until we next need mobile internet, we have put our Millenicom account on vacation and our AT&T will remain our stand-by.
So the soothsayer has warned.. what’s this mean to you?
Ever since we started sharing our whole Millenicom suspending us saga, we had four typical responses that we’ll address:
1) Other folks have also been suspended this week too.
We have been amazed by how many others are replying that they too got suspension notifications from Millenicom within the past week, all with no prior warning. It seems that Millenicom is definitely starting to enforce their caps, have changed their policies, or are accounting for usage differently all of the sudden.
We have heard from others who have talked directly to Millenicom support that the magic number for getting suspended is now 25GB. At one time in the distant past, we had a support person assure us that they allowed a 50% overage before you were even on their radar. This has obviously changed. (At least there remains some leeway for occasional overage…)
We should also disclose that Millenicom had given us our device (and a couple months of service) for evaluation and review on this blog last summer. Not that we ever expect, or even asked for, special exemption from their new policies because we’re bloggers. But, when we were communicating with them to prepare our blog review last summer and inquired how overages are handled these days, Millenicom told us (and this is a quote from our e-mail exchange in August 2012):
“It is possible (though rare) that an account that goes over the 20 gig limit may be throttled to 3G speeds for 30 days.”
This is clearly no longer the case, and they are now suspending accounts rather than throttling back to slower 3G.
It would be nice (perhaps, required??) if Millenicom had done more to share the details about this change in policy.
Millenicom also claims they have an intention of sending out notification emails when you’re approaching your 20GB limit, however with them only reviewing usage once a week – it is very easy to get caught off guard if you have a sudden spike in usage.
Some of the suspended folks we’ve been in communication with also report that they can not account for the usage claimed. Some of them were even using their own usage tracking systems, reporting very different numbers than Millenicom/Verizon is reporting.
As we didn’t track our usage independently, we honestly don’t know if we actually somehow accidentally used a ton of bandwidth or if there’s some usage calculation error somewhere between Millenicom and Verizon.
But it does strike us a oddly curious how many people are getting cut off all of the sudden.
Beware – suspensions are happening. Gone are the days of not having to worry about your usage with Millenicom.
2) Advice on just how to track how much bandwidth you’re using
Ya know, we really haven’t looked into independently tracking our usage too seriously. This is the first time in our many years with Millenicom that we’ve been suspended. When we suspect that we’ve been piggish with our usage, we have dropped them a note to email@example.com and asked. Now they offer that info, once a week, online in your account under ‘Products’. (Some folks are reporting that theirs is reading zero, we don’t know what is up with that.)
However, obviously, a weekly report is not good enough. With LTE, you can very quickly burn through data without knowing. Stuff just loads faster. And things that would be annoyingly slow on 3G (like buffering streaming video) just go so smoothly on LTE that they can silently suck your data bucket dry.
What would be the most ideal is if Millenicom and/or Verizon officially allowed you to check your live usage anytime you wanted – and while there are hackish ways to do this, it’s not ‘recommended’. Even better would be if the Novatel 4620L MiFi device had an internal auto-reseting usage counter.
But lacking that, we now have official word from our contact at WiFiRanger that they are building usage tracking into their router. Coming in the next firmware update:
- Direct USB tethering to the MiFi device.
- WiFi Multimedia Bug Squashed – much better video streaming on WiFi.
- Plug-and-play WFRControl setup (no pairing process needed).
- Bandwidth tracking by input type – which means if you tether your Millenicom MiFi device via USB, you can track your actual usage yourself!
The release date is projected to be 4/15 – tax day, perfect time for enabling auditing, huh?
There are other ways to track usage, but it gets complicated the more devices that you use online. If you have any favorite tools or techniques, please share in the comments to help others finding this article.
3) Advice for how to minimize your LTE usage
LTE data goes quickly, here’s some tips for minimizing the chances of burning through your data limits:
- Unless you need the speed, you can force your MiFi to connect via 3G/CDMA instead. Here’s instructions on how to do so. For a lot of stuff 3G is fine, and the slower speeds will help you minimize your data usage.
- Be very careful when you load a page with video on it. If it autoplays, it’s very likely caching faster than you can watch it. And in many cases, even if you click ‘Pause’ or ‘Stop’ it still caches in the background. I avoid loading video pages while on capped bandwidth whenever possible.
- Make sure you have auto-downloads of system & software updates turned OFF. Save those for when you have unlimited Internet!
- Pause auto-sycning to your cloud based back-up services – like DropBox. (CrashPlan apparently has features to help with this – Lynne over at Winnie Views did an excellent recent review on it.)
- If you are subscribed to podcasts, TV series or any other periodical content through programs like iTunes, be extra vigilant that you are not auto-downloading new episodes in the background. iTunes has a habit of conveniently forgetting this setting on occasion (grrr). For best luck, just keep iTunes closed.
- Run an adblocker in your browser to avoid loading unneeded graphics and promotional video ads.
- And if you’re not using it, turn your MiFi OFF! Don’t let things connect to it without your conscious intent. Protect your precious bandwidth.
4) Would we still recommend Millenicom?
For getting 20GB of Verizon data (the most widespread network out there, making them ideal for us nomads), Millenicom is still the best deal going. Even Verizon’s own ‘grandfathered in unlimited’ plans out there now actually throttle speeds after using just 2GB (yes.. TWO!) of data in a month, hardly worth it at all.
If you need lots of bandwidth, the Millenicom 4G/3G Hotspot plan is still a great potential part of your arsenal. So no, we’re not withdrawing our recommendation of this service at this time – just updating you with what appears to be a change in policy.
Realize, that 20GB on LTE will not seem to be as much as 20GB on 3G used to feel like. It will be used quicker.. a lot quicker.
In our opinion, with increased speeds – the bandwidth caps also need to be increasing across the entire cellular industry. We’d love to see Millenicom offer a 50+GB data plan under Verizon. Those of us who need that sort of mobile bandwidth are happy to pay a fair price for it, we depend on it to enable our nomadic lifestyle. Right now you have to buy two different devices from them and load balance manually. Awkward and annoying.
We don’t bemoan Millenicom enforcing the limits we agreed to when we signed up - true data hogs do need to be throttled back to keep services operating smoothly for us all. However, if the policy is now going to be immediate suspension with no warning system and no process for extensions or appeal – all while offering no easy way for consumers to keep real-time tabs on their own usage… that’s just not right.
Our biggest disappointment with Millenicom is poor communication and customer service.
The icy pain of sudden net-death, without warning, inflicted from what we had thought of as a trusted friend. Betrayal. That’s what hurts.
March 29 Update: After a week of playing phone and e-mail tag, we had a very positive talk with the owner of Millenicom in response to this post. Here’s our full post with the details and internal staff retraining that this post generated.