Mobile carriers like Verizon and T-Mobile are expanding access to cellular home internet, including plans with 5G. Here's what to know before signing up.
Access to a reliable home internet connection is vital for most households, yet the US still faces a digital divide. A growing number of cellular providers are responding to that need by introducing residential internet plans.
Cellular internet uses a router or hotspot to connect to a provider's cellular network, just like your mobile phone. The speed you receive depends on how close you are to a network tower, network congestion, how many connected devices you have and other factors. Most of the time, those speeds will be a lot slower than what a faster fiber or cable connection could achieve -- but if your location lacks those alternatives, then a cellular internet setup might be just what you need.
Since many big telecommunications companies offer these plans -- and 5G technology promises to make some of them even better -- let's see how they compare in price, speed and other aspects.
Locating local internet providers
Verizon LTE is intended for households that don't have access to the provider's other home internet services, like Verizon Fios. You'll connect to Verizon's 4G LTE network, with download speeds of 25-50 megabits per second and upload speeds of up to 4Mbps. That's roughly on par with DSL speeds and fast enough for basic web usage, HD streaming and light online gaming. Like the rest of Verizon's home internet offerings, Verizon LTE has no data caps.
Pricing for Verizon's LTE service depends on whether you already have cellular service with Verizon. If you have eligible Verizon mobile plans (and enroll in autopay and paperless billing), then LTE residential internet service will cost you $25 monthly. That goes up to $50 per month if you don't have an existing Verizon mobile plan, which places Verizon LTE on par with what cable internet providers charge for service. If providers like that are available in your area, then the odds are good that they can offer you a faster connection for the price than Verizon's LTE network.
Verizon LTE is available in nearly 200 markets across 48 states, but you'll need to check with Verizon to see if coverage is available at your address.
Verizon 5G Home is the company's most recent home internet offering, and it promises a dramatic speed boost thanks to Verizon's 5G Ultra Wideband technology. After just starting in 2021, Verizon 5G Home has expanded to over 900 markets thus far. Verizon has announced that its 5G Home service is already available to over 30 million households and aims to reach 50 million by 2025.
As for speeds, 5G Home downloads top out at 1Gbps, or 1,000Mbps, with average speeds at around 300Mbps. Uploads remain more modest, topping out at 50Mbps. 5G Home is $50 per month (with a two-year price guarantee), or $70 per month for 5G Home Plus, which carries a three-year price guarantee and additional plan perks. Customers can get 50% off either tier if they subscribe to select 5G mobile plans. No annual contract is required, all equipment is included in the monthly price, and no data caps exist.
T-Mobile Home Internet touts simplicity as a benefit of its home broadband service. For $50 per month with AutoPay, you receive access to the fastest cellular speeds available at your address. Speeds will vary based on location, but most customers see download speeds ranging from 33-182Mbps and upload speeds around 6-23Mbps.
One of the best aspects of the service is that everything is included in the price. Your Wi-Fi equipment comes with no rental fees, data caps or annual service contracts, and you don't need to pick a plan.
T-Mobile has aggressively expanded to serve more rural communities, and its home internet service is available to over 40 million households using the company's 5G and 4G LTE networks. All told, the service is still fairly new, and T-Mobile aims to keep pushing its expansion in varied ways. CNET's own Eli Blumenthal tried T-Mobile Home Internet out for himself. The company is even encouraging such trials with its Worry-free Test Drive program, which allows customers 15 days to try it out without penalty.
Though some routers and hotspots can tap into AT&T's cellular network to translate the signal into a Wi-Fi network you can connect to, AT&T doesn't currently offer dedicated 5G home internet like Verizon and T-Mobile -- at least not yet. An AT&T spokesperson told us, "We're considering ways our fixed wireless services can fill in pockets as a catch product for our copper footprint and hard-to-reach areas for some customers, but fiber remains our focus."
That said, in addition to those fiber and DSL internet plans, AT&T offers fixed wireless internet service to rural communities. You set it up by installing an antenna outside your home with a clear view of the sky. It'll connect over the air with an AT&T access point somewhere near you and pipe the signal to your router, allowing you to receive download speeds of approximately 10Mbps, with upload speeds of around 1Mbps.
There are a few limitations to consider with AT&T's fixed wireless service. First, know that AT&T caps data at 350GB per month. That's unlike T-Mobile Home Internet and Verizon 5G Home, which feature unlimited data. Such a data cap might also prove tight for some, as OpenVault reports that the average US home uses over 586GB monthly. The company will charge $10 for every 50GB of data you use over the cap, up to $200 in additional fees.
If you live within the US Cellular coverage area, you could sign up for fixed wireless service with hardware that connects your router with the nearest cell tower to bring your home network online. The provider offers two high-speed internet plans starting at $50 per month. One (Unlimited Everywhere plan) features a data limit of 25GB, and the other (Unlimited Even Better plan) features unlimited data. With download speeds ranging from 25-100Mbps, it has faster offerings than the fixed wireless offering from AT&T.
Also, US Cellular doesn't impose data overage charges. That said, the company can throttle your connection to approximately 2Mbps speeds once you use up your data allotment. That means your network speeds could come crashing down in the middle of your billing cycle if your web activity consumes too much bandwidth.
Regardless of your chosen carrier, your router placement can be crucial in optimizing speeds. A former CNET writer discovered this when he tested T-Mobile Home Internet. You want to place it in a clear area, away from obstacles like bookcases, furniture and walls. If you have a home with multiple stories, you could also buy Wi-Fi extenders. These strengthen the signal in slower areas of your home.
It's also important to take your regular internet usage into account. Understanding how much speed you should be paying for and how much data you need allows you to choose the most appropriate plan and avoid additional fees.