Updated, Nov. 7: T-Mobile says its nationwide 5G network launches on Dec. 6.
T-Mobile's 5G plans are coming into focus as 2019 draws to a close. But a lot still hinges on the carrier's proposed merger with Sprint, which looks like it's going to drag into next year.
T-Mobile plans to throw the switch on a nationwide 5G network in December. That would seemingly place T-Mobile behind the likes of AT&T (which has 5G service turned on in 20 cities, though service is limited to business customers) and Verizon, now up to 15 cities as well sections of select stadiums and arenas. But as far back as this spring, T-Mobile was insisting that's not the case.
"Claiming first was more important to [AT&T and Verizon] than providing a good experience," T-Mobile Chief Technology Officer Neville Ray said in an April blog post. "Why? Because both of their long-term spectrum strategies have severe limitations, so they're focused on bragging rights instead."
T-Mobile thinks its strategy will pay off in the long run, starting with December's big launch. Here's what the T-Mobile has planned for 5G, and what it means for the wireless carrier's customers.
T-Mobile 5G cities: Where you can get it first
T-Mobile actually has some 5G coverage right now, using the millimeter-wave technology. That service went live at the end of June in six cities — Atlanta, Cleveland, Dallas, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and New York — with Samsung's Galaxy S10 5G as the first phone that worked on T-Mobile's 5G network.
We tested the S10 5G on T-Mobile's network in New York City, and saw max download speeds of 579 Mbps downtown and an average of 369.9 Mbps. That's better than LTE, but not as impressive as the speeds we saw from Verizon's mmWave-based network in Chicago.
But that's not the end of the story. T-Mobile says it will launch a nationwide 5G network on Dec. 6 that covers 5,000 cities and 200 million people. That launch taps into T-Mobile's 600Mhz spectrum. That's not going to be as fast as millimeter-wave, but it's going to be more widespread.
The bigger change will occur once T-Mobile complete its long-simmering merger with Sprint. Then, T-Mobile will be able to use Sprint's mid-band 5G network to further build out its coverage. T-Mobile and Sprint have won the necessary regulatory approvals, but some states are suing to block the deal. That case goes to trial in December, meaning the T-Mobile/Sprint merger likely won't be completed until 2020.
How fast will T-Mobile's 5G be?
Predicting T-Mobile's 5G performance requires some background on what 5G is and the different technologies wireless carriers are using with their networks. T-Mobile is using a hybrid approach to building out its 5G coverage.
In an April conference call with Wall Street analysts, when T-Mobile announced quarterly earnings, Ray said T-Mobile's network speeds would increase "into the hundreds of megabits per second." That would be a big jump from the 32.8-Mbps average download speed we saw when we tested T-Mobile's LTE network last year. T-Mobile delivered on Ray's promise, at least in our early testing. We saw average speeds of 379.9 Mbps using the Galaxy S10 5G on T-Mobile's 5G network in New York City.
But those results came with millimeter wave towers, similar to the approach Verizon uses. Millimeter wave is good for high speeds and in dense cities, but it lacks range and can't really penetrate walls. Thus, T-Mobile is building out its network with low-band spectrum for a wider reach. The trade-off will be speeds that don't approach the peaks that millimeter wave can provide.
Still, the network T-Mobile launches in December should be faster than the LTE speeds you get now. For its part, T-Mobile is targeting a 10x improvement by 2024 when it plans to deliver 450 Mbps download speeds.
T-Mobile 5G phones and devices
As noted above, T-Mobile currently sells the Galaxy S10 5G, but that that was just when it was rolling out millimeter-waved-based coverage. With a nationwide network coming Dec. 6, T-Mobile is adding phones compatible with its new towers.
T-Mobile says it will offer Samsung's Galaxy Note 10 Plus 5G. (That phone is already available through Verizon, though the version that T-Mobile sells will feature a different modem — Qualcomm's X55 modem — capable of working on the Uncarrier's 600Mhz-based network.) T-Mobile hasn't announced a price for the Note 10 Plus 5G, but for context, Verizon sells that phone for $1,299 — a $200 premium over the regular Note 10 Plus.
The other 5G-ready phone coming to T-Mobile will be an exclusive model. The OnePlus 7T Pro 5G McLaren is essentially the same as the OnePlus 7T Pro, only with a 5G modem and design touches influenced by the McLaren racing team. We don't know how much that phone will cost.
What you'll pay for T-Mobile's 5G
Back in February, T-Mobile said its 5G data plans wouldn't cost any more than current unlimited-data plans, and that turned out to be true. The Galaxy S10 5G costs a pretty penny on its own ($1,299), but T-Mobile doesn't charge extra for a 5G data plan.
Instead, you simply get a T-Mobile Magenta plan, which costs $70 a month, taxes and fees included, for one line. More impressively, T-Mobile said it intends to keep those prices in place for three years as part of commitments it made to win approval for the Sprint merger.
That's a contrast from what we've seen from Verizon. Verizon gives you unlimited 5G data, but it costs $10 a month on top of your existing data plan. For the moment, Verizon waives that fee for three of its four unlimited plans — the $80/month Play More, $80/month Do More and $90/month Get More options — but that's a limited time offer. Subscribe to the cheapest Verizon unlimited plan, the $70 Start Unlimited option, and you're on the hook for that $10 monthly fee for 5G.
What about Sprint?
Even as T-Mobile's 5G plans come into better focus, so much of what the company wants to do depends on absorbing Sprint and emerging as the New T-Mobile, which the combined company plans to call itself. Regulatory approvals are in place, and now T-Mobile and Sprint just wave to prevail in a lawsuit filed by multiple state attorneys general who want to block the deal fearing decreased competition and higher prices for wireless service. With that case having in its day in court three days after T-Mobile's 5G network goes live, a resolution before the end of the year seems unlikely.
That's not stopping T-Mobile from touting what it plans to do with the expanded capacity it will have once Sprint is on board. Among the initiatives T-Mobile plans to pursue are providing first responders with free 5G connectivity and offering 100GB of high-speed broadband to underserved and low-income families. The carrier also plans to introduce a low-cost plan for $15 a month that includes 2GB of data — and you'll be able to use that plan on T-Mobile's 5G network if you have a compatible phone.
T-Mobile says that all of these plans are contingent on the Sprint merger going through, which surely ramps up pressure on opponents of the deal. "Together with Sprint, we're the only ones who can build 5G with breadth and depth," T-Mobile president and chief operating office Mike Sievert said at a November event detailing 5G initiatives under the new T-Mobile.
We've spent much of 2019 waiting to see what T-Mobile would deliver on the 5G front. The launch of its nationwide network in December is going to answer a lot of those questions — with more answers to come in 2020, when we find out the fate of T-Mobile's merger with Sprint.