After a busy 2020 for T-Mobile 5G, the Uncarrier begins the year with the largest 5G network albeit it with a little help from its one-time foe Sprint.
Other carriers were first out of the gate with their 5G network, while T-Mobile spent most of 2019 laying the groundwork to launch 5G coverage of its own. A little more than a year ago, though, T-Mobile had launched a 5G network that stretched across the country, and it’s only expanded coverage since then.
T-Mobile’s 5G plans were well underway before the Sprint-T-Mobile merger became official during 2020, but adding Sprint’s 5G to its own network has certainly aided T-Mobile’s effort to enhance 5G performance, as it uses Sprint’s mid-band spectrum to speed up its own 5G performance.
Here’s a closer look at what you can expect from T-Mobile 5G and what the carrier is planning going forward.
T-Mobile 5G bands: How they work
T-Mobile is using what it calls a “layer cake” approach to 5G, turning to different technologies to build out a far-reaching network with improved speeds and latency. Thus far, the focus has been on using sub-6GHz spectrum, which has an extensive reach, but only modestly faster speeds than LTE. This approach has formed the backbone of the nationwide 5G coverage T-Mobile launched late last year. (More on that below.)
After its long-delayed merger with Sprint finally closed this year, T-Mobile began repurposing Sprint’s mid-band spectrum into its own network. That’s improving 5G performance in some of the cities that T-Mobile covers. “Together with Sprint, we’re the only ones who can build 5G with breadth and depth,” T-Mobile president and chief operating officer Mike Sievert said at a November 2019 event detailing 5G initiatives under the new T-Mobile.
T-Mobile also is eyeing millimeter wave (mmWave) technology to build out its 5G network, with some coverage in a handful of cities. That’s a stark contrast to rival Verizon, which made mmWave-based 5G the center of its initial 5G rollout efforts. As a result, Verizon’s 5G speeds were much faster during the last, but its initial network didn’t reach as far as T-Mobile’s. (That’s changed somewhat, after Verizon launched nationwide 5G coverage of its own last fall._ As fast as mmWave is, it can’t penetrate obstacles like walls and windows — that means T-Mobile’s slower network can reach indoors while Verizon’s has a more difficult time.
It’s no surprise, then, that T-Mobile leads other carriers in 5G availability. As of January 2021, testing firm Opensignal says that T-Mobile’s 5G availability has reached 30.1%. That’s up from 22.5% in June 2020. More important, it’s ahead of T-Mobile’s rivals.
T-Mobile 5G coverage map
After flipping on some mmWave-based coverage in a half-dozen cities by mid-2019, T-Mobile turned its focus to using its sub-6 GHz spectrum to create a nationwide network. In early December 2019, that network launched covering 5,000 cities and 200 million people.
T-Mobile’s 5G coverage has only expanded since then, thanks in no small part to to its Sprint acquisition. These days, T-Mobile says its 5G signal reaches more than 7,500 cities and towns, covering more than 280 million people. That makes T-Mobile’s 5G network the largest, as Verizon says its nationwide coverage reaches 230 million people.
You can see if T-Mobile 5G extends to your part of the U.S. by checking out the carrier’s 5G coverage map.
Last spring, T-Mobile added Sprint’s mid-band spectrum to its 5G service in Philadelphia and New York, broadening coverage depth while also boosting speed in those two cities. The New York expansion is particularly significant because that city was already served by T-Mobile’s low-band and millimeter wave-based service. That means New York City is now served by all types of 5G through T-Mobile.
After those first two cities, T-Mobile added mid-band 5G coverage in Atlanta, Chicago, Dallas, Houston, Los Angeles and Washington D.C. By the end of September, T-Mobile said this Ultra Capacity 5G coverage was live in 210 cities and towns, giving them a 7.5x improvement over LTE speeds on average. By the end of 2020, T-Mobile said that Ultra Capacity 5G reached 106 million people, with plans to go nationwide by the time 2021 draws to a close.
T-Mobile 5G speed
When T-Mobile turned on its nationwide network, we had a chance to test the service in Maui. At the time, the Uncarrier was promising a 20% boost on download speeds over its existing LTE coverage, which is roughly what we saw when testing T-Mobile 5G with a OnePlus 7T Pro 5G McLaren. In some instances, 5G was much faster than T-Mobile LTE, though in a few spots, performance was actually worse.
One encouraging test we ran at time involved downloading The Irishman off of Netflix. That three-hour-plus movie took 3 minutes to download over 5G; we stopped trying after 10 minutes over LTE. Just as important as the time was the fact that we ran this test indoors, something you really can’t do over faster mmWave-based 5G.
Because of the coronavirus pandemic, we haven’t had the opportunity to go out and see how T-Mobile expansion in New York and other cities has improved its 5G performance. However, Ookla went out and did some testing, reporting a 25% jump in mean download speeds for New York between January and mid-May. As of the end of September, T-Mobile said the addition of Sprint’s midband spectrum had boosted its average 5G download speeds to 300 Mbps. These days, if you’re living in a place where T-Mobile has incorporated Sprint’s mid-band spectrum, your speeds can range between 300 Mbps and 1 Gbps, T-Mobile says.
For what it’s worth, OpenSignal’s January 2021 report says T-Mobile has the fastest 5G speed, though Ookla gives the 5G crown to AT&T currently.
T-Mobile 5G phones
All the major flagship phones with 5G connectivity — namely, the Galaxy S21 and Galaxy Note 20 phones — are available through T-Mobile, and the iPhone 12 models have landed at the Uncarrier, too.
Outside of Samsung and Apple, you’ll find 5G phones from the likes of Google, LG and OnePlus. Many of the 5G phones on sale at T-Mobile remain pretty pricey, but the arrival of the 5G versions of the Galaxy A51 and Galaxy A71 mean you can now find 5G phones that cost $600 and less at the carrier. The $599 LG Velvet and the carrier’s own $400 Revvl 5G round out the lower priced 5G options.
Here’s a round-up of T-Mobile’s featured 5G handsets:
T-Mobile 5G network plans and costs
If you’ve got a compatible phone that’s capable of connecting to 5G, any one of T-Mobile’s current data plans will include 5G coverage at no additional cost. That not only goes for T-Mobile’s $70-a-month Magenta and $85-a-month Magenta Plus unlimited plans, but also the $60-a-month T-Mobile Essentials Plan. Even T-Mobile prepaid plans, such as the $15-a-month T-Mobile Connect plan, can access 5G. (Just be aware that on a tiered data plan like T-Mobile connect, your 5G data usage counts the same as LTE data, and with just 2GB allocated to that plan, you can burn through your allotment very quickly.)
T-Mobile is something of a trailblazer when it comes to not charging extra for 5G support and making it available to all plans. AT&T originally limited 5G coverage to its most expensive unlimited data plans before extending that service to its cheapest unlimited plan in August. Verizon continues to charge $10 a month for its Start Unlimited plan on top of that plan’s regular monthly rate if customers want to access 5G, though 5G coverage is included with Verizon’s three other unlimited plans.
T-Mobile 5G home internet
T-Mobile has made no secret of its interest in using 5G to deliver home internet service. During the Sprint merger hearings, the carrier vowed to deliver high-speed wireless broadband to 90% of the country by 2024, and 5G figures heavily into that effort.
Right now, though, T-Mobile Home Internet is a pilot program that’s invite-only for existing customers at specific addresses. (The pilot program appears to be going on in Michigan.) T-Mobile is using LTE for that service, saying that it will “lay the foundation to disrupt home broadband” with 5G service. When T-Mobile announced its TVision streaming service at the end of October 2020, it suggested the move would lay the groundwork for expanded 5G home service.
T-Mobile 5G hotspot
T-Mobile’s unlimited plans include hotspot data, but it’s either at LTE speed (3GB for the Magenta plan, 20GB for Magenta Plus) or 3G. That could change now that the carrier sells a mobile hotspot — the Inseego 5G MiFi M2000. That hotspot can support up to 30 devices, and T-Mobile’s standalone hotspot plans start at $20 a month for 5GB of data.
You can see how the MiFi M2000 compares to other hotspot options at our best mobile hotspots page.
T-Mobile 5G network: What’s next
T-Mobile’s plans heading for 2021 — continue to build out its 5G network, leveraging Sprint’s spectrum and maintain its lead over other carriers. With the iPhone 12 now out, we can also expect the Uncarrier to add more 5G-ready devices. The carrier also has talked about adding voice over 5G services.
T-Mobile has done a good job bringing its 5G network to the most people in the last year. Its focus going forward will be to improve overall performance, as it looks to make the case that 5G is a leap forward over LTE.