Updated, Jan. 24: T-Mobile is expanding its millimeter wave-based 5G coverage in Miami in time for Super Bowl LIV.
T-Mobile's 5G plans are now a reality. But even with 5G coverage available throughout the country, a lot of what comes next hinges on the carrier finishing its merger with Sprint, which still faces on last legal hurdle.
At the start of December, T-Mobile switched on its nationwide 5G network. In contrast, rival carriers have launched 5G on a more limited basis, even if they beat T-Mobile top the punch. AT&T has high-speed 5G Plus service turned on in 21 cities, though service is limited to business customers, while Verizon finished the year with 31 cities as well sections of select stadiums and arenas.
"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, especially now that you get 5G coverage with a compatible phone. 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 had some 5G coverage before December's nationwide 5G launch, using millimeter-wave technology to bring service to a half-dozen cities. Atlanta, Cleveland, Dallas, Las Vegas, Los Angeles and New York have all had that 5G coverage from T-Mobile since the end of June 2019, and you could use Samsung's Galaxy S10 5G to connect to the 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 T-Mobile's efforts didn't end there. T-Mobile's nationwide 5G network went live in December; it covers 5,000 cities and 200 million people. (You can look at T-Mobile's map to find out if that includes your region.) That launch taps into T-Mobile's 600Mhz spectrum. That's not as fast as millimeter-wave, but it's certainly more widespread.
Just before this year's Super Bowl, T-Mobile announced that it was adding millimeter wave-based high-speed 5G in Miami, the site of the big game. Specifically, the high-speed service will be available around Bayfront Park and in the lower bowl, parking lot and main entrances of Hard Rock Stadium. That coverage augments the low-band 5G network that's already live in Miami.
Bigger changes will occur once T-Mobile completes 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 wrapped up this month, and we're awaiting the judge's decision. Should the court rule in T-Mobile's favor, the T-Mobile/Sprint merger would become a reality this year.
How fast will T-Mobile's 5G be?
Discussing 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, 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.
At launch, T-Mobile says its 5G network delivers a 20% boost on download speeds over its existing LTE coverage. We saw that kind of gain when we went hands-on with the OnePlus 7T Pro 5G McLaren, one of two phones that's currently compatible with T-Mobile's nationwide 5G. In a few instances, our speeds were even faster than T-Mobile's guidance on 5G, though in several test sites, 5G speeds dipped below their LTE counterparts.
Still, in real world testing, when you get a strong 5G signal, you can enjoy some impressive results. In a hotel room in Maui, we were able to download a 24-minute episode of She-Ra off Netflix in 32 seconds. The Irishman, which is more than 3 hours long, landed on our phone in less than 3 minutes on T-Mobile's 5G. That's a big improvement over LTE.
And T-Mobile would argue that the story of its network at this point isn't speeds, but coverage. Note that we were able to download those shows over 5G indoors — millimeter wave has trouble penetrating windows and walls, so its faster speeds wouldn't be much use in that instance.
T-Mobile has also made its 5G network available to Metro by T-Mobile customers. That discount carrier uses T-Mobile's network. Of course, to experience 5G, Metro customers will need a 5G-capable phone, which can be pretty pricey as we'll discuss below.
Expect faster speeds down the road. T-Mobile is targeting a 10x improvement by 2024 when it plans to deliver 450 Mbps download speeds.
T-Mobile 5G phones and devices
T-Mobile initially sold just the Galaxy S10 5G, but that that was when it was rolling out millimeter-waved-based coverage. The bigger network launch has brought two phones compatible with its new towers.
T-Mobile now offers Samsung's Galaxy Note 10 Plus 5G. (That phone was 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.) Like Verizon, T-Mobile's version costs $1,299 — a $200 premium over the regular Note 10 Plus. You can pay off the phone in 36 monthly installments of $36.12, and if you buy a second Note 10 Plus 5G and add a line, T-Mobile will give you the phone for free (in the form of monthly bill credits).
The other 5G-ready phone available through T-Mobile is 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. It costs $899, or $37.50 a month for 24 monthly payments.
What you'll pay for T-Mobile's 5G
Last 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 and Note 10 Plus 5G may both cost a pretty penny on their own, 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.
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 last year waiting to see what T-Mobile would deliver on the 5G front. The launch of its nationwide network has answered a lot of those questions — with more answers to come this year, when we find out the fate of T-Mobile's merger with Sprint.