T-Mobile has started to aggressively roll out its 5G Home Internet Service that provides home broadband from the company’s cellular towers. The 5G name is a misnomer because this still uses the company’s 4G LTE network – but all of the big cellular companies are mislabeling cellular broadband as 5G.
The product is being launched from an agreement with the FCC for allowing T-Mobile to purchase Sprint in November 2019. T-Mobile agreed at that time to make fixed broadband available to 97% of the households in the country by November 2022 and 99% of households by November 2025. The pandemic put T-Mobile behind schedule, but in a recent investor call the company says that the product is now available to 30 million households. The company says it still intends to meet the 97% coverage goal by the end of 2022.
This month, T-Mobile dropped the price to $50 per month. T-Mobile is advertising the product at speeds that average around 100 Mbps download. T-Mobile doesn’t make any claims about upload speeds, but in searching reviews from customers, upload speeds seem to range between 10 and 15 Mbps.
Bandwidth is unlimited, but the product has some unusual caveats. The company says, “Home Internet is not intended for unattended use, automatic data feeds, automated machine-to-machine connections, or uses that automatically consume unreasonable amounts of available network capacity.” This would seemingly block broadband usage for functions like backing up data in the cloud or automatically uploading files at night to an office server. The terms of service don’t say if this is prohibited or just throttled.
The product is not for the sports fan with a giant 4K television. T-Mobile automatically throttles all video to a lower resolution. This also might not be attractive to gamers, with average latency between 30 and 40 ms – a little more lag than most cable company connections.
The T-Mobile modem is placed inside the home, so the speed will be whatever signal can penetrate the outside walls. Customers report that coverage is best with the gateway placed close to a window facing a cellular tower. Like with all cellular coverage, this won’t work for every home. Cities tend to have a lot of small cellular dead zones caused by hilly streets or neighboring homes that can block the signal.
The broadband product uses the same network as T-Mobile cellphones, so data speeds will likely decrease in times of busy cellular usage – the terms of service state that cellphone usage gets priority over the fixed product.
It’s an interesting product and could be market disruptive. T-Mobile believes it will have 500,000 customers by the end of this year, which would make the company the 16th largest ISP. A year ago, T-Mobile said its goal was to have 7 million customers by the end of 2025, which would make it the fifth-largest ISP, just below Verizon.
It’s an interesting broadband product. In cities this is the product that should displace DSL, which is increasingly being used by households that care most about saving money. Homes with multiple users and big bandwidth demands are probably not going to like the restrictions – or the upload speeds, which are about the same as with a cable modem connection.
The FCC forced this commitment on T-Mobile in hopes of improving rural broadband. It’s going to do that, and rural homes should start paying attention to see when it comes to your local cell site. But the big issue in rural areas is going to be the distance that people live from a cell site. The broadband speeds will start dropping at about a mile from a cell site, will be weak after two miles, and non-existent at three miles. Even after T-Mobile puts this product on every cell site, it’s not going to reach 97% of homes. The FCC cellular coverage maps are even more of a joke than landline broadband maps. I’ve worked in a lot of rural counties in recent years where cellular voice coverage is weak or non-existent, and the coverage for the broadband product will be even smaller. But even a home two miles from a cell site might love this product if it can deliver 25 Mbps and replace a DSL connection delivering a fraction of that.
There are similar products being deployed by AT&T and Verizon, and one would assume eventually by Sprint. For now, T-Mobile is the most aggressive in deployment, probably due to the agreement with the FCC. But cellular data is poised to enter our markets as a significant competitor.