Comcast on Thursday took the wraps off of its new mobile phone service, Xfinity Mobile.
The company first confirmed it would launch a wireless phone service to compete against the likes of Verizon and AT&T last September.
Xfinity Mobile won’t be a total rival to those, though: It’s an MVNO, or mobile virtual network operator, that will piggyback off of Verizon’s wireless towers. This is similar to services like Cricket Wireless, which uses AT&T’s network, or MetroPCS, which uses T-Mobile.
Comcast says it will bolster that network with 16 million WiFi hotspots around the country, similar to what Google does with its Project Fi service. You’ll be automatically connected to one of those by default, then get kicked onto Verizon’s network when you’re out of range. Comcast says it will authenticate connections to those hotspots automatically.
Comcast has been able to use parts of Verizon’s mobile network since 2011, when it sold bits of wireless spectrum to the mobile carrier. This puts Verizon in the driver’s seat, to an extent, since it could theoretically raise the rates for using its network if Xfinity Mobile ever eats into its mobile business. That’s part of why Comcast is emphasising this as a WiFi-first service.
In any case, the big wrinkle here is that you need to already be a Comcast subscriber to use Xfinity Mobile. Comcast openly says it wants to use the service to help drive cable subscriptions, and is only offering it to those who subscribe to its Xfinity internet service. The idea is to make it so, like Verizon, it can provide every internet connection you may use, and give you more incentive to stay locked into those subscriptions.
Here’s how the pricing breaks down:
- If you subscribe to one of Comcast’s higher-end X1 internet and cable packages, you can get an “unlimited” plan for $US45 a month per line. Comcast says roughly 25% of its X1 user base would be eligible for this today.
- If you subscribe to any Comcast internet service below that, you can get an “unlimited” plan for $US65 a month per line.
- If you think you or anyone else on your plan will only use a small amount of mobile data per month, you can pay “by the gig,” where each GB cost $US12. Comcast rounds this up, so if you use 4.2GB in a month, that counts as 5GB, and that line costs $US60 that month.
- All of these come with unlimited talk and text.
In any case, Comcast says the first five lines on an Xfinity Mobile plan will have no extra access fees, similar to what T-Mobile does today. The company says you can mix-and-match with multiple line plans, too: A less-data-hungry user could use the $US12/GB plan, while a heavier user could buy an unlimited plan.
Comcast also says you can switch from the $US12/GB plan to the unlimited plan midway through the month if you find yourself eating up too much data. It does not seem like you can do the inverse, however.
On their own, Comcast’s unlimited plans are less expensive than similar offerings from T-Mobile, Verizon, and AT&T, which range from $US70 a month to $US90 a month. You do need to pay for other Comcast services, though, and as with those other plans, it’s not really unlimited: Comcast says it will reduce speeds after you use more than 20GB of mobile data.
In terms of device support, Comcast mentioned that it will offer the latest iPhones (7, 7 Plus, 6S, 6S Plus, and SE), and Samsung phones (Galaxy S8/S8+, and Galaxy S7/S7 Edge), along with LG’s mid-range X Power phone.
You will not, however, be able to bring your own device to the service to start. Comcast says it will add that option sometime in the future.
Also of note: Comcast says it will exempt its own video services from taking up data over Xfinity Mobile. That practice, known as “zero-rating,” has been used by various other mobile carriers in recent years, and has raised concerns from net-neutrality advocates along the way.
Comcast did not give a specific date for when it will make Xfinity Mobile available to customers. We’ll have to actually test the service to see how well its mix-and-match of WiFi and Verizon LTE works, but Project Fi has had some success with that concept before. Either way, Comcast will be hoping the service can counter the ongoing decline of pay-TV, and keep more people locked into its business.