Although 5G promises are often hyped, there is now a viable alternative to broadband.
Two major telcos in America are now selling 5G home services. T-Mobile and Verizon both launched their service in the latter half of 2018. Verizon’s service uses its superfast, millimeter-wave frequencies. However, the spectrum’s limitations – it cannot travel far, penetrate buildings, or even reach foliage – have limited its availability. T-Mobile uses a mixture of lower and middle-band frequencies. They travel further and can penetrate walls and windows better, but they are slower.
T-Mobile has been aggressively rolling its 5G Home Internet service throughout the country. It became available in my Houston neighborhood around a month ago. T-Mobile offered me a trial, and I have been using it for several weeks. Although it shows promise, I experienced some issues that made me realize the service has much to learn.
T-Mobile has sold a wireless home internet product for some time, but it was limited to existing customers and used an older LTE service. This restriction was lifted when T-Mobile launched the 5G version.
T-Mobile claims that customers will receive download speeds of 25 Mbps, which is the minimum required by the FCC to consider broadband. However, some customers might experience speeds up to 100 Mbps. According to T-Mobile’s “Open Internet” page, 5G customers experience average download speeds of between 37 and 110 Mb and upload speeds of 8 to 24 Mb. I see much better.
If you pay by autopay, the carrier charges $60 per month and $65 otherwise. I am currently being shown a $50 per month “limited-time deal” on the website, as long as I keep the service. The offer may vary depending on where you live. T-Mobile’s website promises “No price hikes” – that’s quite a bold claim. We’ll see how it holds up.
There are no additional charges, such as the rental of the 5G gateway or contracts. There are no data caps. You can sift as much data as possible.
T-Mobile 5G Home Internet is a combination WiFi router and cellular receiver. It’s a grey, 8.5-inch tall cylinder with a small touchscreen. It supports WiFi 6, the 802.11ax protocol, and two Gigabit Ethernet ports. It also has a phone jack that can be used to connect to Voice Over IP phones. However, it is currently inactive. T-Mobile doesn’t have a Universal Power Supply available now, but there’s a USB-C port.
Although the gateway comes with a built-in battery, it is not there to power your lights if they go out. The router’s WiFi and Ethernet capabilities will be disabled if you unplug it or the power goes out. The battery, however, is not there to allow you to move the device around your house while you search for the best 5G signal.
T-Mobile’s gateway is still a work-in-progress. It lacks many of the standards but advanced features found in modern routers or internet provider gateways. No VPN, no parental controls, port forwarding, no DMZ, and no designated guest network are available. However, you can connect an external router to your gateway and make it your primary portal, giving you all the capabilities you require. You can also change the names of up to four WiFi SSIDs (2.4-GHz) and eight 5-GHz ones (de facto guest network). T-Mobile spokesperson said that future software updates might add more features.
It is effortless to set up the gateway and service. Install the gateway, launch the app, and scan the QR code at the bottom of your gateway. The app will ask you about your technical knowledge and then tailor the process to suit your needs.
However, there is one caveat. The signal strength of 5G and cellular signals will differ depending on where you live. You can spend time moving the gateway around, searching for the strongest signal. The touchscreen displays signal strength in a series of bars, just like a smartphone.
My favorite spot was on top of a cat-scratching tower in my living room. There’s a window to the left and a door to the outside.
There, I received between 2 and 3 bars. This is a disappointment for those who are used to LTE on their phones. However, 5G is different.
I am one of those internet users that doesn’t have many options for providers, at least not if I need decent speeds. We have both Comcast as well as AT&T in our condo complex. However, the building was built in the 1990s, and AT&T’s wiring has been around for a while. It can only provide 50 Mbps downloads at best. Fiber is not available in this area. If I need faster speeds, I can get them! Comcast is the only company I can trust.
Comcast’s 1.2-gigabit service is currently on a promotional rate. It costs me $70 per month plus taxes, fees, and other charges. My router and modem are capable of handling gigabit speeds. My best speed is approximately 700 Mbps down and 40 Mbps upwards. If the promotional period expires in less than one year, I will be paying more. I am interested in T-Mobile’s option.
What speed am I seeing? On average, I get speeds between 140 and 200 Mbps down. With only three bars of signal, I’ve seen speeds as high as 320Mbps down. However, I have also seen speeds as low as 35 Mbps. This is not as common as the 320. Upload speeds range from 10-35Mbps.
Speeds are at their best in the early morning and late evening. 5G Home Internet users share tower bandwidth and mobile customers in the vicinity, prioritizing the network. T-Mobile has made it clear that home internet customers are likely to experience slowdowns when towers become congested.
Even at slower speeds, I can stream 4K content flawlessly. (Hulu + Live TV customers beware: The service does not work with this streaming platform. However, the companies are working on a solution.
T-Mobile’s service may not be ideal for online gamers. T-Mobile’s latency is not as high as that of a wired connection. Pings are in the 30–a 50-millisecond range, which can lead to delays and stuttering. Comcast pings average 11-14 milliseconds.
T-Mobile’s offer is, for the most part, impressive, at least when it works.
The service has been experiencing intermittent problems that cause it to stop working for a few minutes at a stretch, sometimes several times per day. Although it comes back, it can be unpleasant if it occurs while I stream a movie or try to download software.
T-Mobile initially blamed the problem on a tower malfunction that was not serving my gateway. I have been working with them to resolve it. They sent me a new gateway after discovering that that tower did not cause the problem. I began to see drops again after a promising 24 hour period without any issues.
Through my conversations with engineers and an executive from T-Mobile, I have learned a lot about 5G technology. My gateway locks in on a tower quite a distance away while another building is closed. Because I don’t see the sky from my window, the nearby tower might not be visible.
It’s not yet fixed as of writing; the reason for the problem remains a mystery. It’s important to remember that T-Mobile 5G home internet is a cellular service. Anyone who has owned a smartphone for any amount of time knows that flakiness can happen. Although cell service is not available in every location, it does remove some variables. However, my experience shows that wireless will always be wireless.
This is why I cannot give a recommendation, but it is worth considering. Your problems may be different from mine. You may also have other issues.
If you’re interested in the T-Mobile availability tool, and it indicates that you can get it there, you should take advantage of the fact it’s free. You can try it for a month and keep your current provider. If you own a 5G smartphone with an eSim function that allows you to have multiple carriers’ accounts on your device, you can sign up for T-Mobile’s eSim Test Drive. You’ll be able to get an idea of the 5G capabilities in your area without having to commit long-term.