T-Mobile is going about the launch of its next-generation 5G network the same way it handles most of its business — by blasting its rival carriers.
Both AT&T and Verizon are talking up the progress they've made with their 5G efforts; AT&T has 5G service in 19 cities (though no phones work on that network), and Verizon has turned on mobile service in two cities. This would seemingly put those companies ahead of the Uncarrier. But in an April blog post, T-Mobile insisted 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 the blog post. "Why? Because both of their long-term spectrum strategies have severe limitations, so they're focused on bragging rights instead."
So how is T-Mobile's 5G plan different from those of its competitors? And what will that mean for T-Mobile customers? Here's a look at what T-Mobile's done so far with 5G and what you can expect for the rest of this year.
T-Mobile 5G cities: Where you can get it first
T-Mobile flipped the switch on its millimeter-wave based 5G network on June 28 in six cities: Atlanta, Cleveland, Dallas, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and New York. Samsung's Galaxy S10 5G is the first phone that works 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.
The carrier has said that 5G will be available in 30 cities by the end of 2019, but we're not sure which other cities are on the docket.
We thought T-Mobile would launch its 5G network much later than its rivals. T-Mobile may have itself partly to blame for this confusion. At Mobile World Congress 2019, Ray seemingly pushed back the launch date to the second half of the year, though he later said that T-Mobile would be ready when 5G-capable phones became available. That turned out to be true.
However, it's safe to say that the bulk of T-Mobile's 5G efforts will take place later this year. The areas in the cities where 5G will launch June 28 are "extremely limited" — and those are T-Mobile's own words. The carrier is promising nationwide 5G coverage in 2020.
How fast will T-Mobile's 5G be?
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.
T-Mobile is taking a different approach to 5G than some of its rivals. Whereas Verizon is concentrating on mmWave (millimeter wave) technology in the launch of its network, T-Mobile plans to use a combination of mmWave and low-band spectrum, which the company contends will give its network a wider reach. For example, mmWave works best in dense cities, though it lacks the range of other 5G technologies. T-Mobile confirmed it is beginning with mmWave at launch, but we expect a more robust, widespread network later this year.
T-Mobile 5G phones and devices
So far, T-Mobile has committed to only one specific 5G phone, the Galaxy S10 5G. The Uncarrier announced back in February that it would offer that 5G device, also announcing plans to carry the rest of Samsung's S10 lineup. (At the time, T-Mobile also said it would offer the Galaxy Fold, and that foldable device is supposed to have a 5G option as well, but problems with the screen on the LTE version of the Fold have pushed back that device's launch indefinitely. Let's not count on the Galaxy Fold being in the first wave of 5G phones for now.)
What about other 5G phones? During MWC 2019, T-Mobile's Ray indicated to PCMag that the carrier's 5G efforts will begin in earnest once we see devices that use Qualcomm's X55 modem, a newer 5G modem that supports everything from 5G down to 2G while also working with a wider array of network operators. Qualcomm has told us to expect devices using the X55 in the latter part of 2019. (The Galaxy S10 5G uses the X50 5G modem, plus a separate modem to connect to LTE networks.)
We don't know which phones will use the X55 modem. But since we're expecting the Galaxy Note 10 to be among the flagship Android devices coming out later in 2019, that phone seems like a 5G device that might work with T-Mobile.
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 you won't have to pay more for a 5G data plan.
For context, a T-Mobile One unlimited-data plan costs you $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. And like its current plans for LTE, 5G plans will feature unlimited data.
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. With the Galaxy S10 5G, Verizon is limiting 5G data to customers with either Beyond Unlimited or Above Unlimited data plans. Those plans already cost $85 and $95 a month, respectively, before you tack on 5G service. (Verizon is currently waiving the $10 fee for 5G, though that's for a limited time.)
What about Sprint?
You may have noticed that T-Mobile has reserved its critiques of rivals 5G plans for AT&T and Verizon. That's because T-Mobile is attempting to merge with Sprint, and 5G is a big reason why. T-Mobile says that combining its low-band and mmWave spectrum with the 2.5-GHz midband spectrum that Sprint has acquired will provide the right mix of coverage and capacity.
There's just one thing standing in the way of this far-reaching network operated by the New T-Mobile, as the combined company intends to call itself. The merger, announced last year, still requires regulatory approval. And observers are beginning to wonder if that approval will come.
At a congressional hearing in February, some legislators expressed concern about the merger's impact on both jobs and coverage in rural areas. While Congress doesn't have a say in whether the merger goes through, those same questions could come from the Federal Communications Commission, which will decide the merger's fate.
Whether its plan to merge with Sprint gets the green light or not, T-Mobile has a strategy in place for 5G. Other carriers seem to be ahead of T-Mobile for now, but T-Mobile's launch proves the carrier isn't sitting out the race altogether.
Credit: Tom's Guide