T-Mobile's new home internet service is here—literally. I ordered the wireless carrier's cable alternative last week and started testing it. Here are some of my first impressions.
We don't usually test ISPs ourselves here at PCMag. Instead, we do broad reader surveys like our Fastest ISPs feature. Home internet connections are hard to get installed and removed, limited in geographical scope, and let's face it: most people don't have much of a choice. But that's changing with new services like T-Mobile's 5G Home Internet, which can airdrop a 4G or 5G home connection into more than 600 different metro areas.
One interesting tidbit: You need to have 5G available in your area to get T-Mobile's new service, but the service works perfectly well on 4G. My modem, in my kitchen, started the day on 4G, although it picked up mid-band 5G after a few hours. T-Mobile really wants to get these into as many 5G locations as possible, because 5G is where all the unused capacity is.
T-Mobile promises speeds around 100Mbps, but they're really going to vary based on your local network. Verizon also has a 5G home-based service, which is much faster, but it has much less coverage. While T-Mobile's system uses city-spanning 4G and mid-band 5G, Verizon's 5G Home relies on millimeter-wave 5G, which I've so far only seen stretch 800 feet or so from each cell site in my testing. Verizon has a 5G panel near me that gets 3Gbps when you're right near it, but my house is 275 feet too far north for Verizon's 5G system. 275 feet!The router is a relatively stylish gray cylinder.
Both systems use the existing cell phone network; the difference is in the hardware and plans offered. Home internet hardware is bigger, so it tends to get better signal reception and support more devices than smaller hotspots or phones; it also comes with a truly unlimited service plan.
Other companies offer wireless home internet in various areas, sometimes using the cellular networks. But this article isn't an overview of the entire ISP industry; I just want to tell you my initial experiences with the T-Mobile router.
T-Mobile's service costs $60/month, taxes and fees included, with no contract. T-Mobile decides if you're eligible based on whether there's available network capacity in your area. So you could have perfectly good T-Mobile coverage, but if it's all being used by people's phones, or too many other people have already signed up for home internet, you won't get qualified.
I know there's a tremendous amount of available capacity in my neighborhood, so I signed up on a Friday and got the router on Tuesday. It's a gray plastic cylinder, made by Nokia, about as tall as your forearm. It plugs into the wall, captures a T-Mobile 4G or 5G connection, and retransmits it as Wi-Fi 6 to your home.
On the back, there are two LAN ports, which can be used in conjunction with the Wi-Fi; a USB-C port; a power jack; an odd specialized port for UPS devices; and an RJ-11 port for landline telephones. According to T-Mobile, the USB-C and RJ-11 ports don't work. The modem has a 5,000mAh battery that T-Mobile says can support the router for eight hours without power.Not all of these ports work, but at least the Ethernet ones do.
The device took less than 10 minutes to set up. It comes preconfigured, with an activated service plan and an embedded SIM card. I plugged the canister in, downloaded an app onto my Samsung Galaxy S21 Ultra, chose some passwords, and I was good to go.
The gadget is better at capturing signal than a top-notch phone. Where my Galaxy S21 reported -98dBm of 4G signal, the router reported -90dBm initially, and -83dBm later in the day, a significant difference. There's no clear way to add an external antenna if you want even better signal.
There's a tiny LCD touch screen on the top of the unit showing the connection strength, number of devices connected, and SMS messages received (after three hours online, I was already getting SMS spam). But you really want to configure it either through the companion smartphone app, or the roomy and easy-to-use web interface.The small LCD on the top of the router displays signal strength.
Router options are easy to configure, but extremely basic. The very simple web interface shows network status, data usage, signal strength, and some debugging info. You can play with the channels and channel bandwidth (up to 80MHz) on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz networks.
In the web interface, there's no port forwarding, MAC filtering, explicit VPN options, blacklists or whitelists, or parental controls. In the companion phone app, you can set times to disable specific devices (for instance, disconnecting your child's laptop at night). I would have liked to see a step further where I could disable both a child's T-Mobile cellular and Wi-Fi internet from the same interface, since the accounts are all linked.
In the "Devices" widget, there's an option for a "Mesh Wi-Fi 6 system," which is unexplained, with no reference to it in the manual. I'm curious about that.
I'm using T-Mobile as my primary work connection for the next month. I'm using it for video calls, downloading files, and watching new episodes of Invincible as they come out. I'm planning to use two different VPNs from time to time. I'm going to try the device in a different window, and also at a different address if I get the opportunity. You aren't supposed to use the unit at a different address or on the move, but I'd like to see if it's possible.
I've hooked up a small PC that will run speed tests every 20 minutes, all day. That will check the consistency of the connection and also make me a heavy user, making sure speeds don't get deprioritized.
I know you want test results, but you can't have them yet! Sorry, but I've only had this installed a few hours, and speeds have fluctuated between 30Mbps (without 5G) and 250Mbps (with 5G). So it's going to be at least a month until I have conclusions about the performance of this service. I'm mostly concerned about consistency, given those fluctuating speeds. Mobile network performance changes based on usage, and in a city neighborhood like mine, there are constantly people wandering in and out of the cell. So look for a full evaluation sometime in May or June. Meanwhile, tell me what to look out for.
Have questions or want me to test something specific? Tell me in the comments.
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