T-Mobile Home Internet Review | PCMag
Table of Contents1 The New ISP in (Every) Town2 No-Nonsense Installation and Billing3 Very Basic
Table of Contents
T-Mobile’s Home Internet, which uses excess capacity on T-Mobile’s 4G and 5G networks, brings refreshing competition to the home internet service space, at $60 per month with no contract. We tested it for two months and found that it’s a fine alternative to any cable or DSL tier of 100Mbps or less. However, it can’t compete with high-speed fiber connections—at least not yet.
The New ISP in (Every) Town
We don’t normally review ISPs at PCMag, for various reasons. Internet services are hard to get installed and hard to cancel, new services are often not available at our testing locations (which is why we haven’t tested Starlink), and it takes months to review them properly. Instead, we rely on our readers in our annual Fastest ISPs story, as well as other statistics, for a broad picture of the ISP market.
But T-Mobile’s new home 5G offering is so new and important that we needed to make an exception. Rural 4G internet service has existed for years, and Verizon has sold 5G home service on a limited basis for two years now. T-Mobile’s ambitions are much bigger: near-nationwide, easy-to-install home internet for urban, suburban, and rural users alike.
The service is designed for people who don’t have easy fiber access but aren’t so far out in the woods that they’d have to rely on Starlink. That’s a wide swath of urban, suburban, and exurban America. This map shows the 634 metro areas where T-Mobile advertises that Home Internet is available. (Each metro area is represented by one point, even if it’s quite large.)
The company’s ISP offering isn’t formally segregated from its mobile network. It uses excess capacity, and the amount of excess varies a lot. T-Mobile may feel it has capacity for one person on your block, for instance, so if someone else signs up first, you’ll be put on a waiting list or told to try again later. Availability also changes with network upgrades, so punching your address into T-Mobile’s site will give you different results over time.
If the mobile network around you becomes congested, your home network will slow down, too. T-Mobile is promising average download speeds of at least 25Mbps, which isn’t a lot, but it’s the federal minimum for broadband. For most web browsing and asynchronous tasks, it’s absolutely fine. Streaming music is generally 1Mbps or less, a 1080p Zoom call will cost you about 4Mbps, and a 1080p Netflix stream will run you around 7Mbps. As long as your household doesn’t have multiple people doing all those things at once, 25Mbps will suffice.
On the other hand, 4K video streams can be 15Mbps each or more, and 4K cloud gaming with Google Stadia uses 35Mbps. If that’s your jam, T-Mobile’s service might fall short. It was plenty fast enough for those uses in our testing, but it may not be in regions with a weaker network.
It’s important to note that you can’t tote your T-Mobile Home Internet service from place to place. That is, you physically could, but eventually T-Mobile will catch you and stop your service. You’ve been sold your service because the tower serving your house has enough capacity. Other towers might not. T-Mobile wants to provide this service where it will work, and not where a pile-on of home internet users will bring the network to its knees.
Why get Home Internet and not a hotspot, which you can use anywhere that your service provider has a network? It’s ultimately about the service plan. Hotspot plans tend to be very limited. T-Mobile’s best current hotspot plan costs about the same as the Home Internet service, provides 100GB of data per month, and limits video streams to 480p. But its ISP plan is truly unlimited—I used 10 times that amount of data without any hint of speeds being throttled, and watched 4K video consistently.
No-Nonsense Installation and Billing
I subscribed on a retail basis, like any other customer, and soon received a box with everything I needed. Setting up the modem, which comes with its SIM already installed, is extremely easy: You download an app on your phone, turn the modem on, and use the display on the top of the modem to find a location with good signal. Then you’re pretty much ready to go.
Billing was similarly a breeze. $60 was tacked on to my monthly T-Mobile bill, taxes and fees included. There is no rental fee for the modem.
The modem needs to be in a spot with strong T-Mobile signal. I tested it alongside a Galaxy S21 Ultra (also on T-Mobile’s network) and found that the two devices saw equivalent signal strength on band 41 5G; on band 2 4G, the modem’s reception was slightly better than the phone’s. There are no obvious external antenna ports, but if you need better reception and you’re a little handy, it’s possible to open the modem and hook it up to a larger antenna from Waveform. A good one costs $219.99.
The router has ports, but many are disabled.
Very Basic Hardware
T-Mobile’s Nokia modem can operate as an 802.11ax, Wi-Fi 6 hotspot, but you’re probably going to want to hook up a separate Wi-Fi router. The modem is very stripped down and has few features or options.
There are two functional Ethernet ports, along with a USB-C port and an RJ-11 phone jack that are disabled. There’s also an odd-looking power port for UPS devices (I couldn’t find a UPS that would be compatible), and a built-in but non-operational battery. In other words, you need to keep the modem plugged into a wall outlet and connect to it over either Wi-Fi or Ethernet; there are no other options.
The status screen isn’t bad.
There’s a basic web-based management page that lets you see the status of your connection and configure the modem’s very few settings. Bizarrely, you can have up to 12 total SSIDs (wireless networks) on the 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi bands—I can’t think of any situation where you would need more than three or four—and you can set their power levels and channels, but you won’t find port forwarding, DMZ, VPN settings, or parental controls, all of which I’ve considered basic router functionalities for at least five years.
Many common Wi-Fi settings are missing.
There’s good news, though: You can attach a better router or a mesh system to one of the Ethernet ports for the range, flexibility, and controls you need. As the T-Mobile modem doesn’t have a bridge mode, look for a router that will avoid creating a double NAT situation, which can confuse some online services. Recent Wi-Fi 6 routers should be fine; I used a Netgear Nighthawk AX8 without a problem.
To be frank, I am concerned about the reliability of this hardware. I had to get my first modem replaced because it had so many problems, as detailed below. Unfortunately there’s no other modem that works with this service, so you just have to expect that at some point you’ll run into difficulties and need to ask T-Mobile for a replacement device.
A Rough Start, Then Smooth Sailing
I used T-Mobile as my primary work connection for two months. I also hooked up a small PC to the modem via Ethernet. The PC ran Ookla Speedtest every 20 minutes, along with pings to 220.127.116.11 and 18.104.22.168, Cloudflare and Google’s domain name servers, every minute. That gave me thousands of data points for an overall picture of each day. (Ookla is owned by PCMag’s parent company, Ziff Davis.)
I really struggled with my first month of T-Mobile service. Google and Yahoo web pages would stall out. Video calls kept being interrupted by latency spikes. Sometimes the network would drop out entirely for minutes at a time. When I went looking for more information online, I found many similar complaints from T-Mobile Home Internet customers on Reddit.
I spent a week talking to support techs as they made network-side adjustments that didn’t make any difference. Then T-Mobile swapped out my modem and everything got better, so I’m comfortable blaming the hardware rather than T-Mobile’s network.
With a new modem, all of the mysterious stalls, freezes, and lag disappeared. During the first month, I had 11 days where at least one test showed download speeds below 20Mbps. During the second month (with the new modem), there were only three days where the speed dropped below 20Mbps.
The chart below shows the distribution of download, upload, and ping speeds across all the tests I did once I had a functioning modem. You can see that download speeds were generally in the 150–300Mbps range, uploads were around 60–120Mbps, and pings were around 10–20ms.
Wireless broadband fluctuates—on June 3, for instance, my download speed varied from a low of 22.5Mbps to a high of 531Mbps—but I found I could rely on getting more than 50Mbps down and 20Mbps up almost all the time. About 42% of my slower results occurred between 4 and 9 PM, which makes sense (that’s peak time for T-Mobile’s customers to be using its 4G and 5G networks).
Your speeds may not look like mine. I live in a place with strong T-Mobile mid-band 5G signal and plenty of capacity. If you don’t, you won’t see performance that’s nearly as good. I’m especially concerned about people who will rely on T-Mobile’s low-band (band 71) 5G, which has much less capacity than its mid-band (band 41) 5G does. If you’re curious about what kind of connection you’re likely to get, go to Cellmapper and see whether there has been a band 41 sighting reported near you.
You don’t need to worry about data caps or prioritization on this service. I used more than a terabyte a month and did not encounter anything that looked consistently like deprioritization. Download all you want.
In practice, T-Mobile Home Internet is identical to service from a cable-based home ISP. Amazon Prime Video, Disney+, and Netflix all streamed to my Roku TV in crystal clear 4K with HDR. I was able to use Wi-Fi calling over the router with both T-Mobile and Verizon phones, but the modem doesn’t boost your cellular signal or affect your direct cellular calls.
Fiber is still far more consistent than this wireless connection. My primary internet link is Verizon Fios, and I pay for a 500Mbps tier. Over three days of testing Fios every 20 minutes, I never saw a speed lower than 486Mbps, with pings almost entirely between 3 and 5ms. Fiber is truly the gold standard, and even mid-band 5G can’t compete with its consistency and reliability.
Ping and VPNs: Some Concerns
If you need low, consistent pings, this service is not for you.
With the Google and Cloudflare domain name servers, every day I sent some pings that took over 100ms. Pings to 22.214.171.124 were generally around the 30ms range; pings to 126.96.36.199 varied more. Pings to the nearest Ookla server were between 10 and 20ms. (Ookla tends to select servers that are physically and logically close to you, while 188.8.131.52 and 184.108.40.206 may be farther away.)
The chart below shows my pings to 220.127.116.11 and 18.104.22.168 over a six-week period. You can see that most pings were below 30ms, but there were a number of pings specifically to 22.214.171.124 in the 120–180ms range.
The 20–30ms pings are what I expect from a network that combines 5G and 4G. This is as good as you’re going to get with this technology. My connection stood up to hours of Zoom and Google Meet video calling each day without noticeable lag or problems. However, if you rely on sub-10ms pings for gaming or high-frequency trading, no system with a 4G wireless element will be sufficient; you’ll need something more like my Verizon Fios connection. Future 5G networks should be able to get down to 3–5ms ping times using standalone 5G and network slicing, but those technologies aren’t available to the public yet.
If you’re a heavy VPN user, you should also be cautious. For all VPNs, you want to use TCP rather than UDP if possible. With the PIA VPN used against a Canadian endpoint, I saw download speeds drop to 20Mbps from 100Mbps. With PIA on a UK endpoint, download speed was more like 10Mbps. OpenVPN, on the other hand, had almost no effect on speeds. I did all my work over a corporate OpenVPN installation for a week without a problem.
Helpful, But Not Revolutionary
As far as our testing can determine, T-Mobile fulfills its promise of delivering at least 25Mbps internet connectivity for $60 per month with no contracts and easy setup. The US ISP market is so fragmented that whether this is a good buy depends very much on where you live. In most cases, assuming good signal on band 41, the data speed from T-Mobile Home Internet will likely be better than DSL and equivalent to cable. It won’t be as good as fiber, but if fiber isn’t in your area or in your budget, that comparison doesn’t matter.
The one big downside is that the Nokia modem T-Mobile uses isn’t great. It lacks many common router options, my first one was mysteriously defective, and many other customers have complained about it on forums.
Americans need broadband choice, and T-Mobile is bringing it. If you’re used to very stable wired ISP performance, the fluctuations of wireless will be a bit weird, but they never got in the way of my Zoom calling or Netflix streaming. Dedicated gamers and heavy VPN users should stick with fiber whenever possible, but if you just need to send emails, stream movies or TV, and make video calls, this is a highly viable option.
The Bottom Line
T-Mobile Home Internet, the first broadly available 5G home internet service, triumphs over DSL and can hold its own against cable, but it falls short of matching the speed and reliability of fiber.