Thirty million US households just received another option for affordable, high-speed home broadband. T-Mobile Home Internet covers that many households, 10 million of which are in rural areas. The company promises an average of 100 Mbps in most areas via its 5G network. Service should average no less than 50 Mbps for any household, including those that are only within reach of T-Mobile’s 4G LTE towers.
T-Mobile Home Internet costs $60 per month for unlimited use, with no long-term commitment. There’s also no separate fee for the necessary hardware, which is designed for self-installation. For T-Mobile cellular customers who have a phone plan that includes taxes and other fees as part of the plan’s flat monthly rate, the broadband service adds just $60 per month. Potential customers can also switch to a qualifying plan to obtain that deal. However, no T-Mobile cellular service plan is required, and for those without an eligible plan, the price can be 20%–30% higher, depending on local taxes and surcharges. There’s also an extra $5-per-month fee if you don’t set up automatic billing.
T-Mobile began offering a 4G-only version of the service last year for $50 per month, and that test service had a footprint of 20 million households by November 2020. T-Mobile has neither published a coverage map nor revealed its future expansion plans in detail. You can use an availability checker to see if you can order the service in your area. (Not all people who signed up for the 4G-only service will be eligible to upgrade to 5G right now, T-Mobile noted in its FAQ.)
To use the service, you receive a sophisticated 4G/5G gateway that acts as the broadband modem and that you manage via a smartphone app. You can plug the device into an existing network—just like any broadband modem—or use it exclusively via its Wi-Fi 6 router.
The gateway lets you set up four virtual Wi-Fi networks for separation of devices, with an optional guest network. That could be useful for security for those working from home who want to keep corporate data separate from home traffic. It sports two LAN Ethernet ports, and its Wi-Fi access point has three separate radios—one for 2.4 GHz connections and separate radios for low- and high-band 5 GHz—to allow connections from up to 64 devices (for more on the bands, see “The iPhone Gets 5G, but What’s It Like in Real-World Use?,” 19 November 2020). For security, it supports WPA/WPA2 (for backward compatibility) through WPA3, the most up-to-date Wi-Fi security standard.
There’s no business flavor of T-Mobile Home Internet yet per se, but T-Mobile has bowed to the reality of home-based work by explicitly noting that a sole proprietorship at a home address can sign up for the service. Remote workers for a corporation paying for service in their own name and home won’t be screened out, either.
T-Mobile Home Internet is philosophically similar to the [email protected] cell extenders that T-Mobile pioneered back in 2007. [email protected] connected a tiny cell receiver to existing wired broadband connections to provide higher-quality indoor voice calls (and potentially convince customers to shed their landline service). Now, it’s the reverse: T-Mobile Home Internet lets devices connect via Wi-Fi to a cellular data hotspot for backhaul.
Unsurprisingly, T-Mobile has some restrictions on what it calls “unlimited,” but they’re seemingly well-defined and reasonable, and cover all the company’s unlimited services. You mostly can’t use T-Mobile Home Internet for server-like purposes or apps that “automatically consume unreasonable amounts of available network capacity.” I take that to include software that, for instance, continuously downloads massive video files to archive for personal use. “Unattended” uses are also disallowed, so I wonder if uploading gigabytes of data to hosted backup services each month would be banned?
T-Mobile used to be known for a limited coverage map that leaned on the compatible AT&T GSM network to flesh out missing parts. Over the last several years, T-Mobile has slashed prices and added services to its cell plans, which forced lower prices across the industry. To make its reach as big as its ambitions, the company also aggressively built out its 3G and 4G networks, and it was early in pushing the lower tier of 5G into service across the country. T-Mobile claims it covers nearly 300 million people with basic 5G and that 125 million people live in areas with its “Ultra Capacity” 5G that provides average speeds of 300 Mbps with peak rates up to 1 Gbps.
As I noted in “Understanding 5G, and Why It’s the Future (Not Present) for Mobile Communications” (11 November 2020), one of the touted benefits of 5G networks is that they are so much more efficient—and thus cost-effective—in delivering high data rates that rural areas might benefit from Internet service delivered via 5G. I was more bearish with regard to suburban and urban 5G Internet service:
I pay $85 per month for unlimited gigabit Internet in Seattle; it’s hard to imagine a wireless provider offering even 100 Mbps at that price for residential-scale video and other use in the US.
T-Mobile was apparently thinking along the same lines; hence the aggressive $60 pricing and the proportionately heavy rural footprint of its initial rollout—one-third of potential customers. The company obviously plans to pick up some gross revenue and higher margins from customers who also shift their cellular phone service to T-Mobile.
T-Mobile Home Internet isn’t a game-changer, but it’s a game-expander. Many people live in areas served by only one ISP that offers downstream rates of no more than 100 Mbps or so and upstream rates that might be as little as 5 Mbps. In suburbs and some cities, that “fast” broadband company is often the local cable provider, which charges a premium for unbundled Internet in an attempt to drive customers toward packages of high-margin voice, cable TV, premium channels, and Internet service. In rural areas, people may be dependent on a wireline company offering outdated or slow DSL, a satellite Internet company, or an existing cellular-based offering. In both rural and urban environments, the best option for Internet access may be slower, more expensive, or have more constraints (equipment fees or yearly contracts) than T-Mobile Home Internet.
T-Mobile likes to look like a maverick, but the company usually follows through on its claims. This new service could be an excellent option for millions of people either priced out of or left behind in the broadband revolution.