T-Mobile will be launching a marketing effort this month for a fixed LTE broadband product that it’s marketing as 5G. This launch was a requirement of the merger with Sprint. In November 2019 T-Mobile agreed that within three years it would provide fixed cellular broadband to cover 97% of the US population, with the goal increased to 99% within six years. T-Mobile’s announcement of the new product says the company plans to extend the product to 97% of US households by the end of 2022, mirroring the agreement it made with the FCC for the merger.
The latest announcement doesn’t mention broadband speeds. In the 2019 deal with the FCC, T-Mobile promised that it would provide 100 Mbps broadband for cellular speeds to 90% of households in the same three-year period, with the rest of T-Mobile’s commitment at 50 Mbps broadband.
That speed commitment is going to hard for T-Mobile to achieve. The 100 Mbps cellular speed is probably reachable in large cities. PC Magazine conducted its annual test of cellular speeds in summer 2020 in 26 cities and found the following average urban cellular speeds
- AT&T averaged 103/19 Mbps
- Verizon averaged 105/22 Mbps
- T-Mobile averaged 74/26 Mbps
The AT&T and Verizon average speeds were boosted by having a millimeter-wave service available in some downtowns. The average LTE speed for those carriers likely looks a lot more like T-Mobile after backing out this outdoor-only gimmick product that is not reachable by most people. The PC Magazine speed tests verified what has been widely reported – that 5G speeds are slower on average than 4G LTE speeds.
The above speeds are only in large metropolitan areas where the majority of cellular customers are within a mile of a cell site. It’s going to be a different speed story when measuring cellular speeds in rural America where the average customer is going to likely live several miles from a cellular tower.
There are still huge tracts of rural America that have little or no cellular coverage – and I guess the FCC counts them as the 3% that don’t have to be covered by T-Mobile. My experience in driving through rural America is that there are probably more than 3% of homes that have either no cellular, or extremely weak cellular, and who are not going to benefit from a cellular data product from any of the carriers.
My consulting firm has been conducting rural speeds tests in communities around the country and I rarely see a fixed-cellular customer on any of the three carriers with speeds over 20 Mbps – and speeds are often much slower. T-Mobile can make promises to the FCC about delivering 100 Mbps, but none of the cellular carriers are going to build a robust cellular network in rural America that can achieve the same speeds as in cities. They would be crazy to even think about it.
This doesn’t mean that rural homes shouldn’t start inquiring about the T-Mobile fixed cellular product – because it might be the fastest broadband in your neighborhood. T-Mobile has announced a $60 monthly price for customers willing to use autopay. The best news of the product is that data usage will be unlimited – a big relief to customers who have been paying a fortune for capped cellular broadband on a Verizon or AT&T hotspot.
T-Mobile says it currently has 100,000 customers nationwide on the fixed cellular product. It’s hoping to get 500,000 customers by the end of 2021, with a longer-term goal of 7 or 8 million customers within five years.
Theoretically, the broadband options for rural America should be getting better. We’re seeing beta trials with low-orbit satellite and announcements like this one from T-Mobile that promise something better than the telco DSL that barely works in rural places. I’d love to hear from folks about what is available where you live – because I’m not going to believe that T-Mobile will cover 97% of households without some proof. I hope my skepticism is misplaced.