(note: This story originally appeared on my Release Notes newsletter. Get the good stuff first from recording. Make Release Notes every Tuesday morning.)
One of the highlights coming from evangelists for 5G is that it can provide broadband service to millions of people who do not have access, or enable those who do not have provider choices. While many claims to 5G are hype, a viable broadband alternative is proving to be real.
Two major telecommunications companies in the United States are selling 5G for home use. Verizon launched its service in late 2018 and earlier this year T-Mobile came to the table. Verizon’s service uses its super-fast, millimeter-wave frequencies, but the nature of this spectrum – it cannot travel far or penetrate buildings and even foliage – has limited its availability. T-Mobile, on the other hand, uses a combination of lower frequencies and mid-bands that travel farther and are better at going through walls and windows, though not as fast.
T-Mobile has aggressively launched its 5G Home Internet service nationwide, and it became available in my central Houston neighborhood about a month ago. I contacted T-Mobile for a test and I tested it for a few weeks. This shows a lot of promise, but I had issues that make it clear that the service still has a way to go.
T-Mobile has been selling a wireless product online at home for a while, even though it used the company’s older LTE service and was limited to existing mobile customers. But when the company launched the 5G version, that restriction was lifted. The only limit now is if there is an adequate signal at your location and if nearby towers have bandwidth.
T-Mobile promises customers download speeds of at least 25 Mbps (the minimum set by the FCC to be considered broadband) and that “some” customers may see speeds of 100 Mbps or better. On a page on its “Open Internet” page, the company says 5G customers are experiencing average downloads between 37 and 110 Mbps, and upload speeds between 8 and 24 Mbps. For the most part, I’m looking better than that.
The carrier is charging $ 60 a month if you use autopay, $ 65 if not. The website is currently showing me a “limited time offer” of $ 50 per month, as long as you maintain the service. You may or may not see the same offer at your location. Remarkably, the T-Mobile site promises “No price increases”. This is a pretty bold claim; we will see if it sticks.
There are no additional charges, such as renting a 5G port and no contract. And, there are also no data limits. Hoover as much data as you want.
T-Mobile 5G Home Internet uses a combined mobile receiver and Wi-Fi router. Manufactured by Nokia, it is an 8.5 inch tall gray cylinder with a small touch screen on top. It supports Wi-Fi 6, or 802.11ax protocol, and has two Gigabit Ethernet ports. There is also a telephone jack, apparently for a Voice Over IP telephone service, but it is currently inactive. There is a USB-C port and a place to connect an uninterruptible power supply, though T-Mobile is not making it available to it at the moment.
The gate has a built-in battery, but is not there to provide power if your lights go out. In fact, when you unplug the router or your power does not work, WiFi and Ethernet capabilities are disabled. Rather, the battery is there to allow you to move the device around the house without disturbing it while searching for the location with the best 5G signal.
The T-Mobile gateway seems like a work in progress, lacking many of the advanced – but common – features found in modern routers and ISP ports. There is no VPN, no detailed parental controls, no port transfer, no DMZ and no fixed visitor network. However, you can connect an external router and use it as your main gateway to the gateway, giving you the skills you need. (You can also rename up to four different SSIDs 2.4-GHz Wi-Fi and eight 5 GHz, creating a de facto guest network.) A T-Mobile spokesman says more features could be added in the future through updates of software.
Setting up the gate and servicing it is ridiculously easy. Connect the gateway, download and launch the app and use it to scan a QR code at the bottom of the gateway. Tap the touch screen at the top of the gateway as instructed in the app and you are running fast. Helps the app ask about your level of technical expertise, and then stick to the process to your skills.
However, there is a caveat. Due to the nature of mobile signals and especially 5G, the signal to your home will vary greatly depending on where you are. Spend time moving the gate from room to room, looking for the strongest signal. As with a smartphone, the touch screen shows you the signal strength using a series of tapes.
The best place in my house was at the top of a cat scratching tower in the living room, with a window on the right and a door with a window that went out to the left.
In that place, I found between 2-3 bars. For those who are used to LTE service on a phone, this measure would be disappointing. But not for 5G.
I’m one of those internet users who really does not have many choices for providers – at least if I want good speeds. In our condom complex, we have both Comcast and AT&T. But the building dates back to the early 1990s, and AT & T’s wiring is old. At best, it can provide 50 Mbps downloads. Fiber is not available here. So if I want faster speeds – and yes! – I’m stuck with Comcast.
I’m now paying a promotional fee for Comcast ‘s 1.2 gigabyte service, about $ 70 a month plus taxes and fees. I own my router and modem, both capable of handling gigabit speeds. The best I do is about 700 Mbps down and 40 Mbps up. When the promotional period ends in less than a year, I will pay more, so I am interested in the option offered by T-Mobile.
So what kind of speeds am I getting? On average, I see between 140-200 Mbps down. I’ve got speeds as fast as 320 Mbps down, which is amazing with just three signal strips. I have also seen speeds up to 35 Mbps, but this is as rare as 320. Loads are usually between 10-35 Mbps.
Speeds are best late at night and early in the morning. 5G Home Internet users share the tower band with mobile customers in the area, who take advantage of the network. I’m half a block from a busy road and at rush hour traffic, I see slower speeds. T-Mobile is clear that home internet customers will see slowdowns when the towers are overloaded.
I am able to stream 4K content quite well, even when speeds are slower. (Hulu + Live TV users are warned: The service is not working with that streaming platform, but companies are talking about a fix.)
However, T-Mobile service may not be great for online gamers. Latency is not as good as in a wired connection, with pings running in the 30-50 millisecond range, which can cause delays and stuttering. In comparison, pings run 11-14 ms on Comcast.
For the most part, T-Mobile’s offer is impressive – at least when it’s working.
I have had a problem in which the service dies for about one or two minutes at a time, twice a day. It turns out powerfully, but if it happens when I’m streaming a movie or trying to download software, it ‘s annoying.
I was working with T-Mobile on the problem, and initially they blamed a malfunction on the tower serving my gate. This later turned out to be not the cause and they sent me a new gate. After a promise of 24 hours without problems, I started to see the point again.
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I learned a lot about how T-Mobile 5G works from this experience, talking to engineers and a representative from the T-Mobile executive team, which is a transparent refresher of what is happening. For example, my gate is locked in a tower that is a good distance away, while there is one that is actually closer. But because I do not have a clear view of the sky outside my window – there is a four-story building across the street – that the nearby tower may not be there.
As of this writing, it has not yet been fixed; the cause of the problem is a mystery. But it is a reminder that T-Mobile 5G Home Internet is mobile service and anyone who has a smartphone for a long time knows that weakness occurs. Having mobile service in a fixed location removes some variables, but as my adventure shows, wireless will be wireless.
Because of this, I can not give a complete recommendation for the service, but it is definitely a case that your mileage may change. You may not have the same issues I have. Or you may have others.
If you are interested and the T-Mobile availability tool shows that you can get it where you are, take advantage of the fact that there is no contract – try it for a month while also keeping your current provider. Or, if you have a 5G smartphone that has an eSim feature that allows you to have more than one mobile operator account on your device, sign up for T-Mobile eSim Test Drive. Either way, you will get a sense of the 5G capabilities in your location without making a long-term commitment.
Update: This story has been corrected to show that Hulu + Live does not currently work with T-Mobile service. The standard Hulu platform works with 5G Home Internet.
Questions about T-Mobile service? Ask me!