Visible is a digital-only wireless carrier that ditches brick and mortar stores for a smartphone app that lets you “order service from your couch.” Backed by Verizon Wireless, Visible isn’t an MVNO because it’s not buying network access from Verizon. Instead, Visible has direct access to Verizon’s network as if it were its own.
For $40 a month, Visible users get unlimited talk, text, data, and mobile hotspot. That price includes taxes and fees — it’s just $40 a month. There’s a small catch in that your data speeds are limited to just 5Mbps.
At launch, Visible only supported Apple’s iPhone, but starting Thursday, the company is launching Android support in beta with Samsung’s Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus.
Additionally, Visible will also begin selling devices directly to users who can take advantage of free overnight shipping, zero down, and familiar monthly payment plans on 11 iPhone models and the Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus. Lastly, Visible is launching Visible Protect, a device protection service that costs $10 a month in partnership with Assurant.
For the past few weeks, I’ve been using an iPhone 8 with a Visible SIM card. And, despite my reservations, I have to admit that the 5Mbps speed cap hasn’t been as big of an issue as I expected.
In fact, on one occasion I used the iPhone’s hotspot as my lone internet connection for a morning. I streamed music, watched YouTube videos, and went about a typical day’s worth of work and not once did I feel like I was using a slow connection. Granted, if I needed to manage large files stored in the cloud, the speed cap would have had more of an impact.
But for browsing the web, streaming video and music, and managing my email, the speed was a non-issue.
Prior to Thursday’s announcement, I had the chance to talk with Visible CEO Miguel Quiroga and learn more about why Visible exists, how the company plans to tackle customer service, and opening up the service to Android users. Below is the conversation, edited and condensed for clarity.
ZDNet: What was the thinking behind Visible?
Quiroga: Over 60 million customers in the US switch carriers on an annual basis. One of the questions the team came up with was, Why do customers do that? Is it is a store experience? Is it the price point? Is it coverage? Maybe it’s the complexity or perhaps the lack of transparency and the hidden costs?
I think that where we arrived was that there’s an opportunity and a premise that all the different complexities don’t have to exist in this particular category, there’s a different way to do business. What we landed on here was that if you have a simple, easy to use, easy to understand offering — something that’s a high-quality product experience, and great customer service — it’s ultimately going to bring a lot of value to a customer. The idea of Visible being an all-digital carrier, that’s easier and simpler and more accessible way to both sign up and manager service from the comfort of your couch, without having any of the kind of complexity that customers often struggle with, such as what exactly is on the bill, and what does it mean — we think that’s pretty compelling. We offer a $40 unlimited data, voice minutes, and hotspot on Verizon’s 4G LTE network.
ZDNet: Can explain why Visible started with iPhone first? Why not Android? It’s the opposite direction that most prepaid carriers go.
Quiroga: For us, it was really about how we were trying to launch the business and focus on the customer experience we wanted to have because the iPhone kind of category of products is much more kind of systemic as versus in the Android environment. While it’s a great ecosystem is also a little more fragmented, there are a lot more manufacturers in play. The iPhone allows us to really put much more attention on the experience. So the thinking was: focus on iOS, which allows us to do the things we need to do in parallel, we’ve been working on the Android experience as well, in addition to the type of testing and device range, and that’s required to do so. So that’s really why we focus on the iOS experience first.
ZDNet: One thing I noticed when reading about Visible is it’s almost as if you go out of your way to make sure to say you’re not an MVNO of Verizon. The exact wording is “Visible is backed by Verizon, but operates independently.” Why is it important for you to make that distinction?
Quiroga: I think a couple of things. So let’s talk about the MVNO topic real quick. From an MVNO perspective, MVNO has a very specific meaning in the industry. It’s really about the wholesale type of relationship that a company will use to buy network access in bulk. Our relationship is completely different. We’re a full facility carrier because we are directly using Verizon’s network. It’s a different offering, it allows us to prepare a type of offering that gives more value to consumers. So the fact we don’t have stores, the fact that we have that type of relationship, it allows us to essentially tap value directly to the consumer. So that’s why we make that distinction. And that’s why we’ve been really kind of focused on differentiating between what an MVNO is versus what we are.
The concept around why we talk about not being an MVNO and that Visible operates independently is because it’s a way that we look at the way we built this company and the business model. I know, it sounds like an obvious thing. But the culture that we’re building here, the types of employees, the fact that our headquarters is actually in Denver is something that’s unique, and we think it’s something that we want to make sure is clear, because the way we operate, the way we approach things with a customer-centric lens is something that’s uniquely Visible.
ZDNet: Visible’s data plans are truly unlimited, right? There’s not an arbitrary cap or slowdown at some point?
Quiroga: That’s correct, our data is unlimited.
ZDNet: Okay, but it’s capped at 5 megabits-per-second?
Quiroga: That’s right. The speed cap of 5MB was based on a lot of the research we did from a network analysis perspective around doing all the traditional things most consumers do, including streaming video, streaming of audio, as well as all the day to day activities from browsing and email. The thinking is that that gives the broad spectrum of customers that type of access they want.
ZDNet: Why launch with the Samsung Galaxy S9 and S9 Plus as the first devices in the Android beta?
Quiroga: With the focus on the S9 and S9 Plus, we wanted to make sure had the right type of device availability that was very popular in the US. The S9 is a very popular phone, it’s a high-quality build, and we felt that the two sizes gave customers the type of choices they’re looking for. It’s where we decided to start the Android offering, but we’ll quickly follow along with additional products that we’ll make available to customers. One of the things we didn’t want to do is wait until we had a vast catalog, then deploy to customers. We said, “You know what? Let’s get this in customers hands right away.”
ZDNet: If I was to take the SIM card and put it in a Note 9, would I be able to do change the API settings, or is there something on the network side that’s going to prevent other Android devices from working?
Quiroga: There is a concept of essentially having device certification against the network, as I’m sure you’re familiar with. So what we have currently have completed testing on for the Samsung family of products is the assignment of time. Plus. It’s not because we don’t want customers to do that. It’s just simply that we wanted to make sure the appropriate testing was done, and it would work seamlessly.
ZDNet How long do you expect the Android part of your service to be in beta? I know the iPhone beta wasn’t just a month or two, it was longer than that. How do you see the Android beta proceeding from here as you certify more devices?
Quiroga: I think it becomes a little bit of our mindset of leadership team here is that beta means different things to different industries. I often talk about the term beta, when it looks like it’s something like Google was taken to the extreme, I think of Google Maps, it was like 12 years or something crazy. We’re not gonna do that. That doesn’t work for us. Beta for us means that it’s consumer available and it works for the consumer. We’re just trying to get customer feedback to essentially improve the product line as we go. We don’t have the exact window of time, but I would say fairly quickly we would move beyond that. But for us, it’s really about focusing the beta as a way to explain to customers, please give us more feedback, because it allows us to continue to improve the product.
ZDNet: One of the biggest differences for Visible, when compared to traditional carriers, is that there’s not a place for me to go if I’m having issues with my phone and get help with it. Customer support is a big part of, I guess, a huge problem you have to solve as an online-only carrier. What kind of approaches are you taking to troubleshooting handset issues and customer support overall?
Quiroga: Our mindset here is just because we’re online doesn’t mean that there aren’t people to help and whether that’s through chat, or if we absolutely need to we can get on the phone and work through an issue. That’s one option. In addition, Visible Protect offers a type of live support, either in an Apple Care environment for iOS or from an Android perspective, there’s a network of stores which will also perform Apple Care-like support.
ZDNet: For the past few weeks I’ve been going back and forth with Google’s Fi service trying to get picture messaging to work on an iPhone XR. The customer service aspect of it has been horrible. It takes several days to get an answer through email and the entire experience just hasn’t been smooth. How does Visible get over this stigma that online-only carriers can’t provide customer support?
Quiroga: I would propose there are two scenarios. You have the online environment and you have the store environment. I’ve had similar issues with a physical store, and the downside of that is now you’re meeting the person — this is their fifth time in here and it’s still not working. To me, this is a standard customer service problem across the industry, and I’ll tell you with Visible what we’re trying to do to make it better.
What we’re trying to do is two things. One, operationally orient ourselves so that those kinds of issues with our ability to resolve, close, or at least address it, more specifically, we’re going to be in a better position. Two, there’s a mindset towards how we close these issues. Chat is one thing, but I’m a huge believer that whenever you have someone on the phone, then fix the problem. You do it, period.
ZDNet I didn’t mean to turn this into a personal thing. For me, it’s just I’ve seen this issue with Mint, and Republic — with all the other carriers that take a similar approach.
Quiroga: Here’s one other little nuance that might be interesting. All the examples you’ve provided are MVNOs, We actually own our own network and that allows us to have a type of level of network focus, intelligent insight, and trouble resolution that is unmatched in this category. That’s why we think we can ultimately solve those challenges for customers and make the type of experience you had be something that is not common.