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Waking From the Nexus Dream [Opinion]

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Last week on the Droid Life Show I mentioned that I don’t think Nexus devices really matter anymore. With the Nexus 5’s release just around the corner, a lot of readers became very defensive of the Nexus program. Call me self-absorbed or too worried about what people think about me (I’m working on it), but I read through every comment on our site and YouTube regarding my statements. After reading through the comments and listening to our discussion on the show again I’ve decided to try to go into more detail about why I feel this way about the Nexus program. It’s not that I hate Android or Nexus phones, but rather that I believe they could mean so much more than they do today.

Why Nexus Devices Matter

One reason readers insisted that the Nexus program still matters is that Nexus devices are supposed to show manufacturers what Android hardware is capable of. While that was true of the Nexus One, the Nexus program has shifted from a manufacturer providing hardware that they differentiate to the opposite. The Nexus program started with the Nexus One, which featured the first 1 GHz processor and the latest major version of Android, Eclair.1 After the G1 (which was essentially a Nexus) and the Nexus One, the Nexus program shifted from manufacturers repackaging Nexus hardware to Google repackaging flagship devices from OEM partners.2 What this has meant is that Google’s Nexus devices are no longer pushing the envelope in terms of hardware specifications, but instead following closely behind their competitors/partners.

The obvious response to the problem of Nexus devices not excelling in hardware is to argue that devices like the Moto X prove that Android no longer needs top of the line hardware to run well. While it’s true that Android does not need top of the line hardware to run well, it did until very recently. The Nexus 5 appears to finally match current generation hardware (and even exceeds the latest flagships from Samsung and HTC), which is great, but doesn’t make it a spiritual successor to the Nexus One. Google is not showing manufacturers what Android hardware is capable of, but still following its partners’/competitors’ lead for hardware innovation.3

Another reason some readers believe Nexus devices still matter is that Nexus devices offer pure/stock/vanilla Android. While there was a dearth of devices offering vanilla Android following the original Droid,4 Google has changed the game by offering Google Play editions of the HTC One and Samsung Galaxy S4 with stock Android. If you want the latest version of Android faster than the carrier/skinned phones available in stores, GPE phones are a major option. If you’re not on a GSM carrier you could also consider the Moto X, which also runs near stock Android. In short, the Nexus program offers top tier devices with vanilla Android, but it is no longer the only way.

Some readers insisted that Google uses the Nexus program to offer and promote Google’s version of Android.5 There can be no denying that every major manufacturer has manipulated and altered nearly every part of Android on their phones to the point where the look and feel of each Android phone changes in varying degrees of subtlety and brazenness. The problem with this theory is that Google doesn’t need to show manufacturers what they think Android should look and act like; they know OEMs will just change it. Google also doesn’t need to show consumers what stock Android looks like because the vast majority of consumers don’t use stock Android.6

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What Nexus Means Now

Since the Nexus One Google has done very little to articulate why the Nexus program exists. We know why the Nexus program was started, but why does it continue today if not to demonstrate Android hardware, compete with features, or to push Google’s version of Android? I think the Nexus program exists for two reasons: so Google can develop Android on new hardware (which benefits both Google and its partners) and for developers to have cheap top of the line hardware. Google lets anyone purchase a Nexus device because it knows there is a small market for Android enthusiasts and developers, but it doesn’t push for Nexus devices to be heavily adopted instead of flagship devices from its partners.7

When I first started getting into Android I treated Google like my sports team. I liked stock Android most and I wanted Google’s version of Android to win in the market. I loved Google’s plan to essentially transform the American cell phone market into a sort of utopia where consumers chose a device separate from their carrier. It seems like Google’s efforts to keep the 700 MHz LTE spectrum open, their purchase of Motorola, and the continued release of Nexus devices are all indications that Google hasn’t completely given up on the original dream, but Google has done nothing since 2010 to show that they’re serious about disrupting the market as originally intended.

When I say that Nexus devices aren’t as relevant or exciting to me, it’s not because I’m an iPhone fanboy or because I’m out of touch with Android enthusiasts. I have a hard time getting excited about Nexus devices because I’m constantly reminded of what they could be. Google could compete directly with Samsung, LG, Sony, and HTC with Nexus devices made by Motorola running software that is customized for those devices. They could work to get Nexus devices on every carrier and ensure that they receive updates when Google releases them. Nexus devices could also come with software only found on Google’s phones to further differentiate and compete with the other OEMs, but instead Google uses Nexus to offer cheap devices to developers and off-contract enthusiasts. Google could own the Android market with stock Android, but instead they’ve let Samsung become the de facto representative of Android smartphones to the world and Samsung and Amazon the representative of Android tablets.8

Perhaps it’s time that I woke up from the Nexus dream. It seems unlikely that Google will ever be able to accomplish their goals, especially in America. The carriers continue to have the control of the relationship between consumers and manufacturers and the FCC seems content to let that oligarchy continue. I still want to see Google’s version of Android succeed over the versions supplied by Samsung, Amazon, HTC, but it does not appear that Google is interested in winning market share with Nexus devices.

The word “nexus” refers to a connection between two things. Google’s vision of the Nexus program was to make a connection between consumers and top of the line devices running software and hardware designed by Google without the carriers. The goal was to disrupt the phone market and bring power to consumers, but the program turned into a way for Google to get new development hardware from a manufacturing partner in exchange for early access to the next version of Android. Google was trying to democratize what Apple did with the iPhone and Google failed. Now, the Nexus program serves as little more than a way for Google to continue developing Android on top of the line hardware and selling the devices at a low cost for developers and enthusiasts. Google has continued to develop Android and add great new features and Google services, but this development isn’t accomplished to advance Google’s version of Android. In fact, vanilla Android’s features and services are almost always replaced or sidelined by the manufacturer’s services and features. I don’t think it’s bad that Google makes top of the line devices available to purchase at low prices for developers or enthusiasts who don’t need the phone to have service or who are on AT&T or T-Mobile,9 but it’s a far cry from what I think Nexus devices should be.

1 I can’t overemphasize how important the Nexus One was for Google and Android. This device set the standard for what Android devices should look and work like in a way that no Nexus device has done since (except for the Nexus 7).

2 HTC released the Desire, a slightly modified version of the Nexus One, a month after the original Nexus’ release. With the Nexus S, Google partnered with Samsung to release a redesigned Galaxy S. The Nexus S was released just six months after the Galaxy S first hit the shelves. The Galaxy Nexus followed suit as a redesigned Galaxy S2 with a larger battery and an inferior camera, again six months after Samsung released their flagship for the year. The Nexus 4 was a redesign of LG’s flagship phone of the year, the Optimus G, sans LTE support. This year, it appears as though Google is once again using a redesigned version of LG’s flagship device, the G2.

3 I’m not saying that it’s necessarily a bad thing that Nexus devices follow behind manufacturers, but just that the Nexus program is no longer about Google showing off the latest hardware. That said, Nexus devices have tended to not only be deviations from an OEM’s flagship, but deviations with major flaws (usually the camera and battery life).

4 There were exceptions like the LG G2x and the Xperia Play. Both devices had minor variations to stock Android. Also, Motorola’s previous generation of Droid devices lost a lot of the skinning that was present before the update to Jelly Bean.

5 I don’t like the phrasing “Google’s version of Android.” As far as I’m concerned stock Android with Google Play services is the canonical version of Android, but forks and skins have muddied up the terminology.

6 It’s possible that the Nexus 7 has introduced many more people to stock Android, but we’ll never know until Google starts to release device sales numbers.

7 Some readers (and journalists) have argued that Google can’t compete directly with its partners. Historically device and software manufacturers that try to compete with their partners (Palm is the classic example) fail to maintain those partnerships. Eventually partners are spurned and turn to another platform instead of unfairly competing with the license holder. While that has been true historically, it also appears that the smartphone market has matured and plateaued to a point where there will be no major platform disruptions. It appears as though Android will continue to be the number one used OS with iOS in second. Blackberry, webOS, and Symbian have fallen into obscurity while Windows Phone continues to insist it is the alternative to iOS and Android. Over the next few years I think we’ll continue to see OEMs fall and be purchased for parts until the next hardware disruption happens that changes the focus from smartphones to something else. For more on why I think Samsung (and Amazon) can’t fork and create a legitimate competitor to Android and iOS, click here.

8 Again, it’s possible that the Nexus 7 is a major player in the Android tablet space, but Samsung, Amazon, and Google all refuse to give actual numbers. Based on the latest usage studies Samsung and Amazon appear to still dominate the tablet market.

9 I know the Nexus 5 appears to be able to work on Sprint’s network, but nothing has been confirmed.

  • A. Norman

    Okay, so I’ve read a lot of the comments, saw the podcast, and like some of the rest of you am really surprised by all the haters who seem to enjoy stomping on Ron for simply having a different opinion. I, for one, agree with him. I had an iPhone 4s, and decided to give Android another try (had a Droid Eris back in the day). I went with the Galaxy Nexus and liked it a lot, but went back to the iPhone when I just got frustrated with the camera and battery. Now I’m back with Android with the GS4. I’m on Verizon, and really tired of seeing comments that beat up on us Verizon users. They have absolutely the best service where I am and where I go, and I don’t feel like I should be talked down to like a child for getting the best service provider I can get for me. This is where Ron’s argument comes in. What I want is the absolute best Google Android phone (not Samsung, HTC, LG), on the absolute best hardware, on the best service provider for me. I hear all the arguments for what Google seems to be doing with the Nexus brand, but that does not change from what some of us WANT from Google. And I thinking the frustration comes from seeing a company like Apple do this with the iPhone. They have the advantage of controlling the hardware, but outside of that, they muscled their way into the phone space and have been incredibly successful with the iPhone. What I see Ron talking about is Google could do the same thing with a partnering manufacturer (or with the one they bought), and dominate with pure Android. That’s what I’d like to see. For whatever reason, Google is not doing this, and its just frustrating to those of us who want an option like that, but it’s not actually available. Like what I think Ron saying, I think Google could absolutely dominate with just the Nexus brand alone, if only they would push it to use for the masses. For whatever reason, they’re not.

  • br_hermon

    Not sure if there’s still any traffic in the comments here but… I read this article yesterday and today I may have had an epiphany. What if the Nexus program has shifted in it’s goal? What if it no longer tries to push the latest greatest technologies as before (Nexus One) but instead is now focused on getting quality tech in as many hands as possible?

    Consider what Google stated with android, “It’s our goal with Android KitKat to make an amazing Android experience available for everybody.” That could be interpreted a number of ways but let’s consider some other projects Google is working on. What about the ‘Loon project? Google’s initiative to bring internet to the world, even those in 3rd world countries, because hey, everyone deserves the liberty of being on the internet (and consequently supplying their data to Google). Google Fiber? The same thing but here at home in the ol’ US of A. Also consider the Moto X. Google owned Motorola wants to create a device where specs aren’t king. Rather they want a solid, reliable user experience and make it available to the masses. We also know that with Google’s presence in other ecosystems that Google’s priority isn’t Android. They have but one simple bottom line, get user data, period. They’ll create as many opportunities as possible to get the information too. They give us Android phones, put apps in Apple’s app store, provide internet access and a slew of free services. They all result in the same thing, user data.

    Now let’s go back to what Google has stated with KitKat, “It’s our goal with Android KitKat to make an amazing Android experience available for everybody.” Maybe Nexus isn’t about upsetting the system anymore. Maybe it isn’t about breaking the bounds of cellular innovation. Maybe the Nexus program has gotten back to Google’s roots, a viable opportunity to acquire data all in the veiled name of liberty and freedom.

    • That is certainly what Google is able to accomplish outside the US, but here they are limited to T-Mobile customers and anyone using unlocked GSM providers. They’re missing out on the vast majority of people in contract on AT&T and Verizon. The reality is they can accomplish that goal with or without Nexus products. Any Android phone with Google services does the trick.

  • Alexander Garcia

    Haha! Wow! What’s with all the hate around here? I’m with Ron on this article. I’m glad he wrote it and I’m even more glad that Kel approved and posted it. =)

  • malik

    They Proberly saw the LG G flex and said damm ahhhh. Make the LG G flex a nexus device!!!!

  • Ali

    You know being an Mac user and coming from iOS before. One of the reasons that I switched to Android was mainly because of the Stock Android experience, after using it I think It’s probably the best mobile experience out there.

    I used to own a Samsung Galaxy Tab, and I’ll be honest I always thought it was just an attempt to be more like Apple because of TouchWiz UI, which for me was off putting, the stock experience has always been better in terms of performance, and overall experience.

    So for me I love Nexus devices, and Nexus 7 2013 is a dream tablet for me, I’m glad I didn’t opt for another Samsung tablet.

    But It’s not all perfect, I feel Google can do better in terms of design, because while the Nexus line up is pretty nice, It doesn’t compete so well with an HTC One for example, or the iPhone even. So I think they can definitely improve on hardware design, but otherwise it’s awesome..

    Not much to complain about at the price points though, so It’s understandable.. I still think the Nexus 7 looks great!

  • Nexus is a matured program by Google. Most of the people think about the high-end spec sheet while purchasing a smartphone. Galaxy S4 showing noticeable lag even though it got the Exynos 5 Octa or Snapdragon 600 SoC, is that good for anyone ? i’m a Nexus 4 user since couple of months, the UI is light weight and blazing fast even on 1yr old hardware so Nexus 5 would be mind blowingly fast. I think Nexus branded devices and GPE devices are the only smartphones, which can compete with iPhones super smooth UI. Coming to the features, do you use useless features like smart scroll ? Samsung playing gimmiks to sell its phones. If you talking about Samsung software, after updated to Android 4.2.2 on Galaxy Grand, the phone getting unresponsive while getting call, is that phone you want exactly ?? A phone should be like phone first, it should be fast and should perform loaded tasks smooth. I personally don’t want sluggish, over modified UIs and i don’t want to wait 4-5 months sometimes even 1yr to update latest Android version. If you want all these bloody features than just buy Samsung or other phones. I will prefer Nexus devices over other high-end smartphones and one more thing, Nexus devices are quite affordable smartphones, don’t forget this.

  • PROlific666

    Is it just me or does this seem like a disgruntled loyal Verizon customer beating around the bush? Just come out and say “I’m pissed about Verizon being ignored by the Nexus program”

    • NexusOnly

      He admits as much in comments.

    • NexusOnly

      Actually, once I think about it after all these comments. . . Ron’s argument goes something like this:

      “I’m pissed the Nexus isn’t going to be on Verizon, and by not being on all carriers in *America* it’s irrelevant, no longer matters, and is so much less than it could be, and it should be a much better device and marketed much much more. .. . .but somehow google has to keep the price low. .. .

      but I’m getting the next iPhone no matter what anyway.”


    • Jason Smith

      I’m pretty sure it’s the other way around — Verizon kicked the Nexus program in the balls with its handling of the Galaxy Nexus, and so now Google is once bitten, twice shy. Google doesn’t feel the need to deal with a tyrant that did everything it could to make sure the gnex was a failure in the marketplace. I am another one of those disgruntled Verizon customers, but regardless the blame can’t be fully placed on Google.

  • BL4Z3D247

    I see Ron’s point, but it’s a Nexus. I’m not sure if the GPE devices get OTA updates from Google(though one would assume so) but I know for sure Nexus devices(minus the Galaxy Nexus) get fast OTAs. They also usually come with the newest Android OS. To me the Nexus program works just fine. They make devices that developers can make better via custom ROMs, kernels, radios, ect. Nexus devices are a base for developers to transform into their own. This is the reason I like Nexus devices, not because they have the best hardware available. Sure, one could purchase a GPE device but GPE devices are like $600-$650, not worth it to me when the N4 sold for $349 for the 16GB version and the N5 will be most likely cost the same. Hardware is only a quarter of what a Nexus represents. The other three quarters are software, price and the fact that it is completely unlocked. Sure Google could make a Nexus to trump every other device out there but then we’d be looking at a $600 phone off contract rather than $350. In my opinion Google is doing it right, make a phone with hardware that stands up to the competition, make it unlocked, sell it for cheaper without a contract and slap the newest version of Android on it with first dibs on OTA updates. Maybe I’m wrong and I’ve lost sight of the Nexus dream but maybe that’s all it was, a dream. Nexus devices still have the edge on all the others IMO.

    • jahsoul

      IIRC, I think GPE devices get their updates from the manufacturer. I, at least, remember reading something like that.

  • Skittlez

    how can you say that google CAN compete with Samsung, LG, and HTC? they do. S4 and HTC, 1080p and Snapdragon 600, $600-650. Nexus 5, Snapdragon 800 and 1080p for $349-$399. Am i missing something? Nexus is about having the best android experience. I have a G2 now, and i would still much rather have a Nexus 4. Everything just worked on that thing and had such a great experience with no lag, no lack of features, and best of all, no gimmicks. i have Q-Slide, and i never use it. i have google wallet, and i can’t use it. i’m sorry, but your opinion on Nexus devices seems a little off. i’m sure that if Samsung offered a device running iOS, you’d still want to get the device that comes directly from Apple. While other Android devices aren’t bad, like the S4, One, and G2, IMO, they won’t give you the experience that the Nexus gives you. Fluidity and function with great performance at a great price.

  • Matt Hunter

    The nexus is exactly what it should be. Open bootloader, first to get updates, any one can make a ROM for magic. I can boot up my Linux, sync up with Google, and /lunch my way to a ROM that I can tweak and make myself. The fact that Google understands this and let’s us have it is awesome and the nexus always delivers.
    That said Google is smart by not competing with its android partners. Like it or not googles willingness to abstain from market domination is what makes android #1. Apple can try to spin the facts all they want but android absolutely dominates the smart phone world. Every android phone activated is a win for Google and in the end a win for us. Letting the OEM’s do the advertising, hardware development, and competing with each other keeps android unbeatable. Google has dethroned apple and created an advertising machine the likes of which the world has never seen all in one stroke and the ultimate beauty of it?…. Google doesn’t even have to advertise it! The OEM’s do all the work for them.
    Android is king now, we won! Best part is Google still recognizes us… The tech nerds that embraced it from the beginning! Now accept your gift and be free, the way it should be. No contracts, no carrier interference, no limits. We are the few but the knowledgeable. We are the free, the open minded, the open sourced. Thanks Google and LONG LIVE THE NEXUS!!!

  • Cameron Wallace

    I think the big point that was missed here is the price tag. I’m not sure what the Nexus 5 will come out as… but the Nexus 4’s price tag really pushed the boundaries. I think Google is using the Nexus program to make a great Android phone available to as many people as possible without all the costs of a contract. This results in more Google available to more people… which benefits Google. I doubt Google makes much if any $ per unit based on direct price, but that’s alright, because they get another convert to the Google ecosystem.

  • Zak Taccardi

    Why are we faulting Google for Verizon or AT&T (Sprint will likely offer the Nexus 5) for not offering the Nexus line? It’s because it’s a phone that has no carrier control at all. If Google compromised on that stance at all, they would be offered on Verizon or AT&T.

    But that’s why I love the Nexus line – it is free of carrier bloat. It is completely my phone to mold, and my carrier can’t say a damn thing about it.

    • The reason is that Apple was able to pull it off. If Apple can do it, Google should be able to do it too.

      • NexusOnly

        That is a faulty, very faulty argument!

        Steve Jobs did it! Not Apple! While I’m not a fan of Steve Jobs, I can fully admit that the man was a great salesman/negotiator.

        Furthermore, if Google does “it” then they will be where apple is, small market share! Not where Google wants to be!

        Once again you show how faulty your reasoning is.

        • How would getting the Nexus on more carriers result in less market share?

          • NexusOnly

            Your arguement is they should be like apple and treat the Nexus like the iphone which would put them in direct contention with their hardware partners. . . . which would lead those hardware partners to support other platforms over android. . . .

            Android is number one because of those hardware partners and their marketing power. . . . you don’t break that!

            And let’s just ignore how you consistently want Android/Google to be more apple/ios like. .. . . uhg.

            Now what’s really annoying is, you’ve had this pointed out many many times in these comments and have responded in consistently stupid ways, full well knowing the validity of the argument — don’t piss off your hardware partners.

            It’s like you’re drunk or have alzheimers’. . . .

          • I’ve replied to this argument both in the original article, in comments, and I wrote an entire article about it here: http://www.droid-life.com/2013/02/27/the-samsung-problem-opinion/

            Do me a favor – if you want to continue this discussion, can we do it on Twitter instead of through 30 different comment threads? I’m @ronoffringa. Hope to see you there.

  • Zak Taccardi

    I’m on T-Mobile. I pay for my phone and my service separately.

    The Nexus program is hugely important to me – buying a $650 GPE phone is not an option for me – I like being able to buy a $350 phone and get better hardware for nearly half the price.

  • Dconstable

    Android is important to me for a couple of reasons.

    1. It is a philosophical shift from Apple’s business model. It represents freedom of choice. This is what drove the PC platform to dominance. 30 years ago Apple insisted on locking up their software and hardware. You had to buy Apple memory for ridiculous prices. You could get it for the PC for much less. The same was true for add on cards. The PC was an open and free system, Apple was not. Business, which invests in IT for success, could not justify Apple products. Apple was expensive and more software development was occurring for the PC. I strongly dislike Apple’s view of the world (past and present) and I will not buy their products.

    2. I don’t want a smart phone. I want a really good PDA and a dumb phone. My pay-as-you-go dumb phone is cheap, maybe $7/mo. My last PDA was a Dell Axim and I’m still using it. With my recent upgrade to Win 7 and an SSD(which you must really do, amazing!), the Axim will no longer sync with my PC. Time for a change. Nexus 5 will be my new PDA. If the future changes for me and I need more cell phone, then it’s likely that my Nexus will work on a pay-as-you-go service for $45/mo, (I’m hoping). The Nexus program is an incredible thing for me. I get a really good product for a really good price and I support a business model that appeals to me

    I’m confident that Google will eventually dominate the market (not that it’s important!). Because of Apple’s head start, it will take time to accomplish. Google needs Motorola, HTC, Samsung and others to get there. I hope Google will not forget it’s roots and never depart from a free and open system.

    • Skittlez

      Google already does dominate the market. Look at OS market share and not manufacturer.

      • dconstable

        Thank you for mentioning that. I had no idea. Good! I’m not as ignorant as I was yesterday.

    • A.Y. Siu

      I get the gist of what you’re saying, but as a long-time Mac user, I’ve never bought RAM from Apple. You can easily purchase RAM from NewEgg or TigerDirect or Amazon, and then put it into a Mac yourself.

      • dconstable

        As I mentioned above, that was 30 years ago. That’s how Apple operated then and I have always disliked the way they operate. Newegg didn’t exist then. For people that owned PCs, there was a very thick catalog/magazine that was published regularly and memory and cards could be purchased from them. The name escapes me though. Maybe another old timer remembers that pub.

  • Chris

    this will get downvotes but the only ones who really care about stock are the nerds and geeks.

    • Jeff

      My mom cares about stock Android, because she has a carrier phone that performs like garbage, has bloatware and a skin over it and doesn’t get updates, and she also has a Nexus 7. She can tell the difference between the two and is looking forward to me helping her get a new phone with stock Android. She is neither a nerd nor a geek.

  • Fake Coffee Snob

    I think you underestimate the impact of price: as someone who ditched contracts several years ago (and I haven’t seem numbers, but between the growth of MVNOs like Simple Mobile and Straight Talk and plans like T-Mobile’s, I’m sure this is an increasingly popular option), having similarly great hardware, even if it’s not the absolute tippy top of the line, at half or less of the price of any other flagship phone is kind of huge. It’s not obvious, always, when one is buying subsidized phones, but the difference in dollars is enormous.

    And Nexus tablets exceed all other manufacturer’s android tablets, in my opinion. Doesn’t the Nexus 7 account for something like 10% of all android tablet sales?

    • Price is huge, but not everyone can leave Verizon and AT&T contracts. Also, we have no idea how much of the market the Nexus 7 actually accounts for because no one releases sales numbers, but most estimates put it under Samsung’s numbers still.

      • NexusOnly

        Everyone can leave any mobile carrier once their contract is up. . . not like the Nexus line hasn’t been around a few years for you to make that choice.

        Nexus sales are IRRELEVANT! All that is relevant is market share and the Nexus line has most certainly driven Android market share — to state otherwise would be total ignorance — as it was meant to do.

      • Fake Coffee Snob

        The 10% figure came from google (http://www.ibtimes.co.uk/articles/494395/20130724/half-tablets-run-android-google-play-million.htm).

        Theoretically, everyone could leave contracts within the next two years, and plenty have within the last two. Unless one is on a family plan where parents are paying, I fail to see why “not everyone can leave” – although I do see the reasons that not everyone will. But with the prices of prepaid providers where they are, I’m sure the number leaving is not insignificant.

        • There’s family plans, people who are stuck on business plans, people who don’t get good service on T-Mo and AT&T, etc.