T-Mobile has the biggest 5G footprint among the big 3 wireless carriers.
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For years, T-Mobile executives have been promising to disrupt cable TV in the same way the carrier upended the cellular phone industry. When he was both chief executive and the company’s brash public face, John Legere took a “we’re coming for you, cable guys!” stance that promised better service at cheaper prices.
Yet T-Mobile’s stabs at doing this so far have made few ripples in the cable pond. Earlier this month, the company announced a set of 5G initiatives that included opening its wireless home internet service, which had been in trials with 4G LTE only to existing mobile customers, to everyone via its 5G network. Could this finally be the disruptive arrow in T-Mobile’s quiver?
The problem is that “everyone.” While the LTE service was limited to existing mobile customers, the 5G version has no such limitation. What’s limited now is where you can get it, which turns out is a significant barrier. For now, it’s what could keep T-Mobile from becoming the aggressive disruptor it has marketed itself to be.
On paper, T-Mobile’s 5G home internet service looks intriguing. For $60 a month, customers get a wireless broadband connection that promises speeds averaging 100 Mbps, possibly higher. That pricing is competitive with promotional offers from many wired broadband providers, and significantly cheaper than when those promotional prices expire. There are no data caps, though T-Mobile says speeds may be slowed if the tower you’re connected to becomes congested. More on this later.
When it launched, T-Mobile said the service was available to 30 million people across the United States in hundreds of communities, both large and small. In a PDF posted to its website, T-Mobile lists cities as big as New York, Los Angeles, Boston, Chicago Houston, Atlanta, and as tiny as Borger, Texas; Heber City, Utah; or Bluefield, W. Va.
But not everyone in all those locales can get it, and that underscores a reality about 5G coverage and the concept of wireless home internet in general.
T-Mobile currently has the biggest 5G footprint in the United States because it uses the same spectrum frequencies its 4G LTE service, along with faster, mid-band spectrum it got in its merger with Sprint. But even with widespread coverage, it can still be spotty. And even where 5G signals are available, the physics of wireless service make it less reliable than a copper or fiber wire coming into your home.
For example, I am a T-Mobile customer and have a 5G-capable iPhone 12 Pro Max. In my living room, where I would keep the Nokia 5G router that T-Mobile is using, I can sometimes get download speeds in the 80-130-Mbps per second range – and that’s with just two bars, my typical signal strength here. But sometimes, particularly during daytime hours, I’ll get a test result that’s far less than that for downloads – 30 Mbps or less. Upload speeds are even more inconsistent.
Download speeds have the potential to be much higher, if you’re in the right location. The Nokia equipment can connect to the higher-frequency spectrum that T-Mobile got in its merger with Sprint. That means download speeds in the 200-300 Mbps range or more are possible, but the frequencies enabling that aren’t widespread yet.
Fill out this form, cross your fingers and click “Check availability”.
With this service, T-Mobile introduces another variable. Remember my earlier reference to T-Mobile’s practice of slowing down or throttling speeds if a tower is congested? That’s similar to what happens with any wireless carrier on an “unlimited” plan if you go over a certain threshold in a month. T-Mobile’s threshold is 50 gigabits in a month; other carriers may have lower amounts. With T-Mobile’s 5G home service, you are automatically placed into the category every month of being a “High Data User,” and marked for possible throttling.
Consistency is very important for a home broadband connection, more so than for mobile. Imagine watching “Godzilla vs. Kong” streamed in 4K on HBO Max and T-Mobile suddenly decides that the tower you’re using is too congested. Monstrous interruptus!
But Dow Draper, T-Mobile’s executive vice president of emerging markets, said in an interview that this should “never happen.”
“The only time a network management policy would kick in is when a tower is congested, but we are being very, very careful not to offer home internet in sectors that have even a slight chance of congestion,” Draper said. “We are being very conservative with this.”
Which helps explain why the service is unavailable to so many for now. A T-Mobile spokesperson told me that, even within neighborhoods where it’s available, whether you can subscribe to it can be on a house-by-house basis. I am not able to get it at my location not far from downtown Houston, but it is available at an address just a few blocks away. I tried about a dozen residential locations around town in T-Mobile’s availability tool, and availability was hit or miss.
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I then asked people on Twitter and Facebook to check, and got responses from all over the United States. About 60% of people were not eligible, though it’s a small sample and hardly scientific.
Draper said availability really depends on how much capacity is at a specific tower, and the population density of the area around you may not be a factor.
“We will have 5G home internet available in many urban and suburban areas. You can have an area that’s dense with a lot of people, but because we have such a great spectrum portfolio and what the network team has done with the network there, we may be offering lots and lots of home internet in very congested areas,” he said.
T-Mobile will be increasing capacity over time, and Draper recommends that, if your town is on the list where 5G home internet is available, you should check every two to three months to see if your home becomes eligible.
He said the response to T-Mobile’s offering has resulted in “a tremendous amount of demand” as people new options for internet access.
“I think it just shows how desperate people are for a choice or what I should say is a really good alternative,” he said.
Got questions about home internet service? I can help.
I write about personal technology, and have for more than 30 years. I have a newsletter – Release Notes – with a focus on Apple products, home and mobile connectivity,
I write about personal technology, and have for more than 30 years. I have a newsletter – Release Notes – with a focus on Apple products, home and mobile connectivity, cord-cutting, smartphones, tablets and wearables. I previously covered tech for the Houston Chronicle.