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Cellular home internet: Who offers it and what you should know

Providers like Verizon and T-Mobile are expanding access to cellular home internet in 2021, including plans with 5G. Here's what to know before signing up.

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Access to a reliable home internet connection has become vital for many households, and a growing number of cellular providers are responding to that need by introducing residential internet plans

Cellular internet works by using a router or hotspot to connect to a provider's cellular network, just like your cell phone does. The speed you receive depends on how close you are to a network tower, along with network congestion, how many connected devices you have and other factors. Most of the time, those speeds will be a lot lower than what a faster fiber or cable connection would be capable of -- but if you lack alternatives like that, then a cellular internet setup might be just what you need.

Since many big telecommunication 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.

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Verizon is expanding its LTE and 5G home internet service in 2021.

Screenshot by Eli Blumenthal/CNET

Verizon LTE

Verizon LTE is intended for households that don't have access to the carrier's other internet services, like Verizon Fios. You'll connect to Verizon's 4G LTE network, with download speeds of up to 25Mbps and upload speeds up to 5Mbps. 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 comes with no data caps.

Pricing for Verizon's LTE service depends on whether you already have cellular service with Verizon or not. If you have a Verizon mobile plan of $30 or more (and if you're enrolled in autopay and paperless billing), then LTE residential internet service will cost you $40 per month. That goes up to $60 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 189 markets across 48 states, but you'll need to check with Verizon to see if coverage is available at your address.

What about 5G?

Verizon 5G Home is the company's latest home internet offering, and it promises a dramatic speed boost thanks to ultrawideband 5G technology. It's just getting started in 2021, with availability currently limited to 28 markets, but we expect that footprint to grow. Verizon says that it expects 5G Home service to be available to 100 million Americans by the end of this year.

As for speeds, 5G Home downloads top out at 1Gbps, or 1,000Mbps, with average speeds sitting at around 300Mbps. Uploads remain more modest, topping out at 50Mbps. 5G Home is priced at $70 per month, or $50 per month for existing Verizon subscribers.

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T-Mobile's Home Internet gateway serves as modem and router, though you can also plug in an existing router or mesh network.

Rick Broida/CNET

T-Mobile Home Internet

T-Mobile touts simplicity as a benefit of its home internet service. For $60 per month with autopay, you receive access to the fastest cellular speeds available at your address. Speeds will vary based on your location, but most customers see top download speeds of at least 50Mbps and upload speeds of about 4Mbps. 

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 (Verizon charges you $10 per month per router), there are no data caps or annual service contracts and you don't even need to pick a plan. 

T-Mobile has undergone aggressive expansion to serve more rural communities, and its home internet service is currently available in 27 states using the company's 5G and 4G LTE networks. The service is still pretty new, and T-Mobile plans to continue expanding it, but the company hasn't shared specifics of those plans yet. CNET's Rick Broida recently tried T-Mobile Home Internet out for himself -- you can read those first impressions here.

AT&T Fixed Wireless 

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 cellular home internet plans like Verizon and T-Mobile -- at least not yet.

That said, in addition to fiber and DSL internet plans, AT&T offers fixed wireless internet service to rural communities, which is somewhat similar to cellular internet in that it brings your home online using a wireless signal. 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 up to 25Mbps, with upload speeds sitting at around 1Mbps. 

There are a few limitations to consider with AT&T fixed wireless. First, know that AT&T caps data at 350GB per month. The company will assess an overcharge of $10 for every 50GB of data you use after that, with a limit of up to $200 in additional fees. 

Moreover, AT&T requires a one-year service contract, with promotional pricing currently set at $60 per month. Unless you cancel service in the first 14 days, you'll have to pay an early termination fee to get out of the contract. These considerations aside, it is a workable internet service for those living in areas with few options. 

As for 5G, AT&T's executive vice president of technology operations, Chris Samba, told CNET in March that the company plans to roll out its own AT&T cellular broadband offering later in 2021 using a combination of LTE and 5G technology. We'll update this space when we learn more.

US Cellular

If you live in US Cellular's 4G LTE 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 a variety of high-speed internet plans starting from $50 per month, and with download speeds ranging from 25Mbps ($50) to 150Mbps ($155), it has more plans and faster speeds than other fixed wireless carriers like AT&T. 

Also, US Cellular doesn't impose data caps. That said, the company can throttle your connection to 2G speeds once you use up your data allotment, which varies by plan. That means that your network speeds could come crashing down in the middle of your billing cycle if your web activity is eating up too much bandwidth.

Optimizing your cellular internet connection

No matter which carrier you choose, your router placement can be crucial in optimizing speeds. 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 really be paying for and how much data you need allows you to choose the most appropriate plan and avoid additional fees.

Here are some more tips to keep your home internet connection going strong: 

Read more:

How can I improve the range on my Wi-Fi setup?

Working from home? Here's how to make sure your Wi-Fi is up to speed

Home networking explained, Part 2: Optimizing your Wi-Fi network