I’ve been interested in T-Mobile’s home internet since the first time I heard about it: It’s $50 (the price includes the dedicated router), it’s free of contract and data, and it’s powered by 5G and LTE instead of phone lines or cable. As a lot of people in the US can relate, I’m not that fond of my traditional ISP – I often hit the 1.2 TB data cap, and $80 per month seems like a lot to pay for the supposedly 400Mbps service The second I get. So I wondered: Can I, as a remote worker and heavy internet user who loves to stream video, play multiplayer games and do cloud backups, be okay with internet delivered over the air instead of by cable?
After a few weeks of testing, it appears that TL; DR’s answer is no; Although the T-Mobile website tells me my address qualifies, the router always has a “poor” cellular signal, and there were so many drops and lags that my non-technical wife got tired of it after a few weeks. However, the thing about cellular internet is that my experience will not necessarily be the same as yours, even if you live far away from me. So take this review for what it is: one person’s experience with what service looks like in an unspecified small part of eastern Washington state.
Before we get into the details of my experience, let’s start with what will be universal to those using the service: the router and setup process. The router supports Wi-Fi 6, which is great, and has a small circular touch screen on top that you can use to see various stats like how many devices are connected to your network and how good their cellular connection is. On the back, there’s a place to plug in the (frankly huge) power unit, two ethernet ports, a power button, and a few screws that let you attach a spare battery.
Looking at that picture, you might be just as excited as you were when you saw that there was a USB-C port. I have no idea why the router manufacturer, Nokia Solutions & Networks, put it there, but the RJ-11 phone port is currently not working, according to the router manual (pdf). the problem!
After the router is plugged in and turned on, it will prompt you to download the T-Mobile app using the QR code displayed on its screen. I was very frustrated with the app at first, until I realized I had to connect to the router’s Wi-Fi network before hitting the Setup button. As far as I can tell, this step is not included in the quick setup guide, nor is it hinted at in the app itself. The setup process was easy after I figured it out, with the app asking me to choose a name for my network and set a password (the default name and password are printed on the bottom of the device if you prefer just leave it as is). Then, the app told me it was time to find a good place to put the router where it could pick up a strong signal.
It was actually very fun. The router has a battery, so you can walk around with it and test the signal strength in different places. (The battery doesn’t seem to act as a backup power source. If it’s not plugged in, you won’t get any Wi-Fi.) As I mentioned before, however, this feature didn’t help me much outside upstairs or downstairs, right next to a window or Right in the middle of my house I got two fixed service bars (out of five) – even taking them outside didn’t help me, and I couldn’t have left if there was a perfect signal.
The app doesn’t say if you’re using LTE or 5G, but by searching the router’s web GUI, you can see what cellular bands it uses. After Googling range assignments, I was able to determine that at the time of writing, the router was primarily connected to the LTE network and was using 5G as a secondary connection. Of course, as T-Mobile says on its site, this can change based on “signal strength and availability, time of day, and other factors.”
I ended up placing the router in what I felt would be the most useful place: on the windowsill upstairs, facing the city. From there, all that was left to do was unplug my existing access point (I didn’t want to talk through a T-Mobile router) and connect my switch to my new cell-powered router to get all my hard IoT devices connected to my home network new.
At first, everything seemed fine. I was getting download speeds anywhere from 73 to 135 Mbps, I’ve even seen upload speeds up to 20 Mbps. The first day or two, I didn’t really have any issues – when it came to actually using the internet, it seemed to be exactly the same experience as when it came through wires (and Siri can even play Apple Music on my HomePods, something that’s completely disabled in the normal setup for some reason). The router also performed great – the internet on my laptop was just as fast in my office next to the router as it was in my living room, which is downstairs and across the house.
Slowly, though, the hiccups started to build up. Web pages would sometimes struggle to load, or I switch channels in Slack and notice everyone’s profile pictures were gray boxes until their actual smiley faces loaded one by one (which I’ve learned Slack doesn’t seem to cache these pictures, for some reason). Once upon a time, the speeds were so bad that it took a minute for Twitter to load.
There were a few periods when the internet seemed to be gone for a few minutes at a time, where my web browser immediately told me it couldn’t connect when I tried to go to a site. The frequency of outages or slowdowns varied – some days I only had occasional glitches, and a few days, the internet was basically unusable. There weren’t many perfect days, but they did happen.
From what I can tell, this has always been an actual service issue and not the router (although there was an abnormally long outage that seemed to be a router issue, as it was fixed by simply restarting the device). I can send packets between devices in my house just fine – I’ve been disconnected from the outside world. I asked T-Mobile what could be causing these issues, and it told me that “while you might see slower speeds during certain times of the day, due to network congestion, 30 seconds to load a webpage doesn’t seem like a normal experience.” I asked for ideas on why this was so but didn’t get a response.
Since someone expected them to be ready to jump on breaking news at any moment, this clearly wasn’t ideal for my use case. I’m sure my boss and co-workers have been upset about the number of times I’ve said something along the lines of “Okay, I’ll take advantage of that once my internet starts working again.” Unreliability also caused problems in my personal life as well – when I tried to watch YouTube with my wife, she would sometimes comment on “potato accuracy”. (Keep in mind, this is ideally someone who watches DVDs.) I would also have problems trying to play online games, with the ping swinging like a pendulum from 30ms to 900ms unplayable. You can see the results of that in the video below.
What does this kind of in-game performance look like? As a warning, there is some violence in the clip, so you might not want to watch it if you’re sensitive to that kind of thing.
It’s not that T-Mobile Home Internet never worked. I would say most of the time, it was perfectly fine. I was able to play several hours of multiplayer cod During testing, and for the most part, I was shocked that the experience could be as good as it was over a cell phone. I was also able to make some perfectly acceptable video calls with friends and family. When my service was running, I honestly couldn’t tell the difference between it and my regular cable provider. It’s just that I can’t count on him well, and as someone who works from home, this is a huge problem.
I was hoping to switch to T-Mobile’s home internet if my tests went well – I’m not the type to need a fast 200Mbps connection plus I’m willing to take on a few spots if it means not having to pay $80 per month for Comcast and its max data. But the first time I got a notification on my computer telling me my phone was dead because I had been plugging it in all day, I knew those hopes were dashed. (It would have been awkward if my phone worked outside of T-Mobile, but I’m using a Verizon-powered Visible.)
That’s not to say that T-Mobile’s internet won’t work for anyone – I might have had a better experience if I could get more than two bars of service in my home (although the app usually showed it still had two bars of signal during outages ), and for some people, even the worst you’ve tried will be better than what they’re currently using.
When I used DSL a year ago, I’d still probably choose T-Mobile instead – the two connections were similarly reliable, but I got faster speeds over cellular when it was working than I’m used to by bypassing phone lines. For people who live in a rural environment more than I do and rely on the Internet to a lesser degree, T-Mobile Internet can be a huge upgrade from a very spotty dial-up or satellite Internet.
Speaking of satellite internet, there is a clear comparison between T-Mobile and SpaceX’s Starlink service; Both promise a home internet without the need for infrastructure coming into your home. edge Editor-in-chief Nilay Patel wasn’t thrilled when he tried out the Starlink beta version, and the service was much more expensive than T-Mobile: You have to pay $499 plus shipping for the satellite dish and $99 a month for the service. But Starlink promises faster speeds, saying that you can expect 100Mbps to 200Mbps downloads. While T-Mobile says that many users can expect “speeds over 100Mbps,” it says the average is “between 35-115Mbps.”
There are other pros and cons to each service. Installing a Starlink satellite dish is much more invasive than plugging in a T-Mobile router, and I doubt my apartment complex will be fine when I attach something to the roof (even with the new, smaller Starlink design). And T-Mobile uses cell towers that also provide service to our phones — Starlink wants to put 12,000 satellites into orbit to power its service, which could block our view of the universe. But if your home is in an area where there is no reliable cellular service, T-Mobile obviously wouldn’t be an option.
It is conceivable that T-Mobile’s home internet could improve over time – when compared to building traditional internet infrastructure, adding 5G capacity to cell towers requires much less physical labor. I want to disconnect from my ISP so bad that I give T-Mobile another chance every year or two to see if it’s so improved that I can use it. The company makes this easy – it’s a no-contract service, so it only cost me $50 for a full month to give it another shot. If you live at a qualified address and are curious about cellular internet, it may be worth at least photographing it. You may end up with a much better experience than you did.
For now, though, I’m unfortunately going back to Comcast. It looks like my dream of $50 unlimited internet would have been too good to come true in 2021. If you’re thinking of trying it yourself, be sure to read the list of considerations before you do so.