We tried Visible’s $40 unlimited data plan for two weeks to see how it fares

Visibile Prepaid Unlimited
Steven Winkelman/Digital Trends

The mobile world is dominated by hyperbole. Each carrier makes a claim that, in some way, it offers the best coverage with the highest speeds. While coverage is important, a new service called Visible is questioning whether you need ultra-speedy internet service on your smartphone.

Visible is a new offshoot prepaid service from Verizon, and it only has one product — an unlimited plan (talk, text, and data) that caps data speeds at 5Mbps for $40 a month. That’s fast enough to surf the web, scroll through your Instagram feed with ease, and even stream movies in HD. It’s not for everyone, but Visible is betting the low price will entice people who really don’t feel like they need speedier internet service. It’s the least expensive unlimited plan on the market backed by a carrier with the most reliable LTE network in the U.S. 

But the $40 price tag and 5Mbps data speeds aren’t the only propositions Visible is making. It bills itself as an app-based carrier, meaning the entire mobile experience happens within an app. You set up your account through the app, you’ll get a SIM card shipped overnight, and you pay your bills through the app. You won’t find a Visible store or even an 1-800 number: Cutting these costs allow the carrier to save money and pass at least some of the savings on to its customers.

Visible is not the first app-based carrier, mind you. Other companies like Google’s Project Fi and Mint Mobile have been offering similar services for years. Its a nascent market, but it’s likely to grow in the coming years as more smartphone manufacturers start adding eSIMs to their handsets, making it easy to switch carriers. The upcoming iPhone is expected to have a built-in eSIM, and the Google Pixel 2 already has it embedded.

Testing the service

So is Visible a viable alternative to its full-throttled competitors? We decided to put it to the test to find out. We swapped our iPhone 8 Plus with a Verizon Unlimited plan for an iPhone 8 on Visible to give the service a try for a few weeks. You should know that Visible is a bring your own device service, which means you need to purchase your smartphone unlocked beforehand. The service is currently in early access, so there may be some kinks, and there’s only an iOS app at the moment. Android support is on the roadmap. 

During our two week test, we didn’t notice any slow downs, but the network is currently not open to the public either.

Since the Visible-powered iPhone was our only phone for the next two weeks, we downloaded our favorite apps, and instead of using Wi-Fi, we relied on the cellular connection. Downloading dozens of apps over a 5Mbps connection was painfully slow. What would usually take a few minutes over a Wi-Fi connection became a 13-plus minute situation on the Visible network.

That all said, most people are likely to install all their apps over Wi-FI, as more than 80 percent of mobile traffic happens over Wi-Fi.

Our experience improved drastically once we managed to download all our apps. For starters, we streamed Netflix for 25 hours over the two week period and didn’t run into a single issue in regards to internet performance. Quality-wise, videos are limited to 480p on cellular connectivity — a practice most carriers partake in; streams looked okay to us, but you may feel otherwise.

Visibile Prepaid Unlimited
Steven Winkelman/Digital Trends

Remember — video streams will be able to go as high quality as possible when you’re on Wi-Fi.

There was no noticeable difference when using apps like Instagram or Facebook — we were able to scroll and upload to our heart’s content. As for surfing the web, the difference in load times compared to our Verizon iPhone were marginal.

In addition to slower data speeds, Visible warns users they could see slower speeds when the network is congested. During our two week test, we didn’t notice any slow downs, but the network is currently not open to the public yet so this may change in the future.

Good data connection and excellent call quality are only a part of the equation.

We also found no problems with coverage reliability. During out test, we used the phone throughout Manhattan and Brooklyn without a single dropped call or lost signal. We even managed to get great signal on Fire Island, which is no small feat. Visible relies on Verizon’s network, which has long-claimed to have the best coverage of all the major U.S. carriers.

If you’re in an area with poor Verizon coverage, then you will run into problems with Visible. 

It’s all in the app

Good data connection and excellent call quality are only a part of the equation though. Since our Visible test unit was already activated when it arrived, we placed an order for a new service to check out the set up and tech support process, which is where we ran into some problems.

Visibile Prepaid Unlimited
Steven Winkelman/Digital Trends

When we were setting up our iPhone 8, we received a SIM with an accompanying SIM key and directions on how to activate our service. We connected to a Wi-FI network, downloaded the Visible app, and opened our iPhone Settings app expecting a carrier update — none came.

We contacted tech support via the Chat tab in the Visible app and were quickly acknowledged by a support representative. The representative initially said we would need to re-order service as our new phone number had been released, so we didn’t have a cell number anymore. When asked if we could just get a new number, we were told that’s not possible because we would need to go through the entire process of signing up for the service again. 

Though the setup process was arduous, we’re still thoroughly impressed with Visible’s service

We asked the representative to confirm there were no other options, and were then told the issue was actually due to an expired credit card, not a lost phone number. Our credit card had just expired, which we didn’t realize. Seems, like an easy enough fix right? It wasn’t.

We spent 45 minutes entering our credit card number repeatedly and authorizing charges, only to be told by the representative that the expired card was the only one they could see in their system. After being encouraged to continuously try the same technique over and over, we finally switched the default payment method, enabled auto payment, and closed out of the website. When we re-opened the site and authorized the payment, it finally processed-along with six other zero-dollar authorizations. 

Though the setup process was arduous, and our experience with tech support wasn’t as fast and easy as we’d have liked, we’re still thoroughly impressed with Visible’s service. Again, it’s in beta and there are bound to be some hiccups. Since the kinks we experienced were momentary — and specific — and were not related to overall call quality or data speeds, we’re confident Visible can have them ironed out by the time the service is available to the public.

Limitations

There are a few differences between Visible and it’s closest competitor, Project Fi. Visible doesn’t have any type of family or group plan, nor does it have international calling included — you’ll need to rely on Wi-Fi overseas, or grab a local SIM card.

Visibile Prepaid Unlimited
Steven Winkelman/Digital Trends

In our experience, Project Fi also has the upper hand when it comes to customer service, but Google’s mobile virtual network operator has been out for a longer period of time. Project Fi doesn’t have an unlimited data option — you pay $10 per gigabyte of data used at the end of the month, and $20 for unlimited calls and text. Unless you use 2GB of data or less a month, Visible will likely save you more money in the long run.

Currently, you need to have an access code to join the beta service (which you’ll still need to pay for). If you’d like to give Visible a try, the company provided us with an access code you can use. Just enter CFF48 in the access code field to register for the beta.

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