T-Mobile 5G Home Internet: A Complete Failure [Part 1]

The headline already tells you where this is going, but come with me on an August 2021 journey that started with hope and ended in despair.

By way of background, I have two choices for home internet service where I live in a suburb of Renton, Washington: CenturyLink or Xfinity. Because I run a Plex server at home, and do a lot of video/photo uploads, having decent upload speeds and no data cap is important to me. Xfinity is off the table as even their fastest plan in my area (1200 mbps for $80/month) still has a 1.2TB data cap and the upload speeds are 35mbps (and Xfinity hides this fact). Plus, Comcast is the devil 👿 and I don’t want to give them my money.

So for 10 years I’ve stayed with CenturyLink’s DSL-based product. My community of 38 homes is too small for them to run fiber to, so I’m stuck with 80mbps down and 40mbps up. I long for more competition in the Internet provider space and it’s frustrating to me there isn’t more choice — though I often remind myself at least I have two options, many people in the USA have one or no access at all.

On the plus side, the CenturyLink connection is very stable, costs $50/month, and there’s no data cap. 80mbps is generally enough for my household, though I of course long for something better — and when I received an email from T-Mobile sharing that their 5G home Internet service was available in my ZIP code I signed up immediately…after I confirmed I could cancel if it didn’t work because I was hugely skeptical of their claims.

Why? People using TMO that come to my home get very weak signal. In early 2021 I tried a TMO mobile WiFi hotspot and had terrible signal and speeds. So it was with a large grain of salt I took TMO at their word their 5G signal was going to work great in my home. At the time, their speed claims were a minimum of 100mbps up and down, with the reps telling me verbally I should speeds around 300mbps. This was enough to lure me into testing it. It’s worth noting their web site now says typical speeds are 35-115mbps which is a dramatic downgrade to their initial marketing.

What the TMO site now says about speeds.

Their sign up process was incredibly invasive – at one point I wondered if I was being phished because they were asking for so many pieces of ID and information.

It took a few months for me to get the combo modem/ WiFi router (more demand than supply), but when it finally showed up I was excited to give it a try. Setup was fast and easy; after a couple of minutes I’d booted it up, applied a firmware update, and was ready to test it. I put it in the window of my main floor office and was immediately concerned, but not shocked, then I saw I only had two bars of signal.

Well this isn’t off to a good start…

Signal strength and speed are not linked though (despite what you might think), so I ran a speedtest on my phone connected to the TMO router. The results? 😩

This isn’t the 5G speed I was hoping for.

I read through the tips about optimized placement and took it upstairs to try it in three different windows, two on the front of my house, one on the back. There are no large trees around my home, so I was cautiously hopeful I’d see better results.

This doesn’t look weird at all, right? 🤨
Better, but still terrible.

In relative terms, the results were greatly improved, but 2.27 mbps down isn’t what I’d call usable. Having exhausted every placement in my home, I realized that TMO had once again overestimated their network strength in my home and I’d need to return this product.

Even if I’d seen speeds approaching what I get now with my DSL connection (80/40mbps) I’d still have returned it — the sheer awkwardness of placement combined with a lack of mesh networking options means this is a poor choice all around for a three story home (I have a walk-out basement). I’d have to have seen excellent speeds (200mbps+) to justify the hassle.

Although I’d given up on this working in my home, I remained deeply curious about TMO’s claims of great network speeds in my area. Was it just my home? Would it work better for my neighbours? I wanted to find out and I had some time to do so.

For all of TMO’s failings in network coverage, their customer service on Twitter is fantastic, so they assisted me in setting up a return and getting a full refund. I figured since I had the hardware for a few more weeks, there was an opportunity to have some fun…which I’ll talk about in part two. 🙃