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T-Mobile's $60 Home Internet service: The Cheapskate review

I ditched Comcast in favor of this affordable, 5G-powered alternative. Was it the right decision?

t-mobile-home-internet-gateway-2

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

Rick Broida/CNET

Earlier this year I started testing T-Mobile Home Internet. At the time it was part of a pilot program that hadn't fully rolled out yet and it was priced at $50 a month. Now it's official, but not quite the same bargain: The monthly rate now is $60 (with autopay, otherwise it's $65). That's definitely less competitive and less appealing than before, but it's still exciting to see another player in the home-internet space.

In the interim, I cancelled my Comcast internet service, which had been billing at $106. Did I -- The Cheapskate -- make the right call? Have I encountered any major problems? What's the overall experience and would I recommend it to others?

Now playing: Watch this: Testing out T-Mobile's home internet service
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Here's everything you need to know about the service, including what I learned during my first several weeks. 

Editors' note: A version of this story first posted in February. It was updated in early April with additional impressions and new details on the service. For May, we've added a detailed video, too.

The rollout

When I first learned that this was available in my area, I was overjoyed. (Though limited initially, T-Mobile Home Internet is now available to some 30 million US residents, including 10 million in rural areas.) I've been with Comcast for years, angrily watching my bill tick up and up and up. My only other broadband option is AT&T, and there's some bad blood there. Not gonna happen.

T-Mobile's deal sounded almost too good to be true: unlimited high-speed service for a flat $50 -- equipment, taxes and fees included. The promise of "no rate hikes" has also proven true, after a fashion: I'm grandfathered in at that $50 rate, but newcomers will pay $60.

Obviously, I had concerns. Would it be fast enough for everyday computing? Could it handle 4K streaming video? Would it work with my mesh network and support the many, many connected devices in my house? Perhaps most important, was it truly unlimited, or would T-Mobile throttle data at a certain point?

Thankfully, there's no contract required to sign up for service, so I was able to get answers to these questions without risk. It's also a new bargaining chip, a way to potentially negotiate a lower rate from other ISPs. That's something worth considering if T-Mobile Home Internet is available in your area but you're not necessarily looking to make a change.

Read more: The best internet providers for 2021: Cable vs. DSL vs. satellite and more

Setting up T-Mobile Home Internet

After using T-Mobile's online tool to check availability, I agreed to let a customer service representative call me -- and that call arrived about a minute later. I spent just over 10 minutes on the phone with a pleasant operator who answered my questions, approved my credit and told me modem delivery would likely take two to three weeks due to a backorder. Total up-front cost: $0.

Sure enough, it took about three weeks to get the Nokia-made T-Mobile Home Internet Gateway -- a silver, cylindrical tower that's both modem and router. It creates 2.4GHz and 5GHz Wi-Fi networks in your home, though it also has a pair of Ethernet ports should you wish to connect, say, a mesh router.

Read more: The best mesh routers for 2021

The T-Mobile Home Internet app guides you through the setup process, which includes scanning a QR code on the bottom of the gateway, choosing a network name (aka SSID) and password and even changing the administrator password if you're so inclined -- all pretty standard router-setup stuff, all pretty simple and straightforward.

Previously I used my own cable modem (connected to Comcast) and an Eero mesh router. For the first days of testing I left the latter out of the equation, as I wanted to see how the gateway performed on its own.

Using the service

After the initial setup, everything seemed to be working. Having successfully connected my phone, my next stop was my Asus laptop. Curiously, the T-Mobile gateway didn't appear in the list of available networks. Suspecting a Windows hiccup, I rebooted; same result. Then I pulled out an Amazon Fire tablet; it found the network just fine. So did an upstairs Roku TV and an old basement laptop running Windows 7. Huh.

In the Home Internet app, there's a Support tab with a link to a T-Mobile FAQ page -- but that just took me to T-Mobile's home page, which added to my frustration. A link to the T-Mobile Community Forum stonewalled me as well, because I didn't have a working T-Mobile sign-in (which didn't arrive via email until two days after I received and set up the gateway).

Read more: T-Mobile announces widespread launch of consumer Home Internet service

Then I tried restarting the gateway, which proved a huge mistake: It seemed to lose all my previous setup settings, as though I'd done a hard reset. (This despite it having a battery backup; more on that later.) The app forced me to repeat the entire setup process, including choosing passwords. When I tried using the same ones as the first time, it wouldn't accept them. When I tweaked them slightly, I got a cryptic "installation failed" message.

Eventually everything seemed to sort itself out, and once I plugged my Eero base station into the gateway, my laptop had no trouble connecting. (For the record, the issue was an outdated Wi-Fi driver. Once I tracked down and installed a newer one, the laptop found the gateway.) Now I was ready for full-bore, whole-house testing.

T-Mobile Home Internet speed and reliability

Here's the good news: After six weeks of business as usual -- working online during the day, streaming video at night, FaceTime calls to parents and so on -- I've encountered scarcely a blip in connectivity. While I did conduct many a speed test (see below), mostly I just wanted to see if I'd notice a difference between T-Mobile's ISP and Comcast's. Because in the end, what matters is, can I reliably access the internet?

So far, so good. I'd even say very good.

But there are definitely some caveats to consider, starting with this: Although T-Mobile's marketing campaign trumpets this as a 5G service, there's actually no mention of 5G anywhere on the T-Mobile Home Internet signup page. I mention that because, six weeks in, I still have no idea if I'm getting 5G or not.

The gateway supports 5G where available but downshifts to 4G LTE where not. According to T-Mobile's coverage map, I should have 5G at my house. However, nowhere -- not on the web admin page, not in the T-Mobile Home Internet page, not on the gateway's status screen -- is there anything indicating "5G." (Or, for that matter, 4G LTE.) 

Does it matter? Not really, as long as I'm getting good performance. Which I am. I just wish there was some at-a-glance way to know if I'm getting the 5G I was promised. Certainly the test numbers don't tell the whole story:

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Over the course of six weeks, I discovered that T-Mobile Home Internet performance varies widely. The good news is it didn't really affect my day-to-day online experiences.

Rick Broida/CNET

These come from Speedtest, the service I've long used to gauge internet performance. As you can see, my upload and download numbers are all over the place. I've seen speeds as low as 6.8Mbps down and 9.4Mbps up and as high as 132.1 and 77.1. This despite the gateway's little touchscreen display consistently showing 4 to 5 bars (much like on a phone) and the app reporting "very good" or "excellent" connection quality. 

Let me pause to note that there are so many variables involved here -- local congestion, proximity to towers, signal interference within the house and so on -- that my experiences can't be considered typical. They're simply my experiences. Your mileage absolutely may vary.

I can say that after some pretty concerning slowdowns during week one, I experimented with moving the gateway to different areas of the house. To my surprise, relocating it to a second-story window yielded a huge performance bump. Those are the numbers you're mostly seeing in the chart above. Needless to say, gateway placement can make a big difference.

I also did a quick bit of side-testing at my mother-in-law's farmhouse (about seven miles due west of where I live), where cable internet isn't available. In fact, her only option until now has been a slow, expensive, data-capped satellite service.

After plugging in the gateway, I was chagrined to discover it showed only two bars -- "weak" connectivity, according to the Home Internet app. But then I ran Speedtest: Download performance was hitting 126Mbps, which seemed amazing, while uploads were only about 9Mbps.

Why the disparities? See above regarding variables. I'll simply say that she went ahead and subscribed to the service, and for the most part it's been working well. And that's really the key: The only way to know if T-Mobile Home Internet will be a good fit at your house is to try it.

T-Mobile Home Internet issues 

Although I've had good results overall with performance -- I've streamed hours of 4K video, participated in countless Zoom meetings, downloaded big games to install and so on -- not everything about the service is perfect.

  • In addition to the aforementioned laptop problem, my RemoBell S hard-wired smart doorbell stopped working properly. Video became highly pixelated and pretty much unusable. I can't say why, as the "front end" (meaning the doorbell's connectivity to my Eero-powered Wi-Fi network) was fundamentally unchanged. Interestingly, I have a Wyze Cam Outdoor installed about 15 feet from the doorbell, and it's still operating normally. I then swapped the RemoBell for a Wyze Doorbell; the latter works perfectly.
  • I also learned that, although the gateway includes a battery backup, it disables both Wi-Fi and Ethernet connectivity while running on battery power. That means it's of no use during a power outage. According to a T-Mobile representative, the battery is there so you can move the gateway around your house and see where it picks up the best signal.
  • My first bill arrived in the amount of $55, not $50. Turns out you need to activate autopay to get the lower rate -- easy enough to do online, but I was certain I'd already set this up when I first signed up for service. My mother-in-law had the exact same experience.
  • At this writing, there's a concerning bit of fine print on the sign-up page: "Not compatible with some live TV streaming services." Thankfully, that's specifically in reference to Hulu Plus Live TV, which is "not supported due to a technical requirement in delivering the service." According to a T-Mobile representative, the company is "working closely with Hulu to resolve this as quickly as possible." Although I don't have that service, I've tried "regular" Hulu and probably a dozen other streaming services; they've all worked normally.
  • Although the gateway has its own phone number, T-Mobile Tuesdays is not officially available to Home Internet subscribers. 
  • If you enjoy online gaming, this may not be the ISP for you. I've heard anecdotally and in the user forums (see below) that Home Internet produces too much lag, which can result in a poor gaming experience.

There's nothing here I consider a deal-breaker, but I definitely recommend perusing those forums to see what issues might be problematic for you.

T-Mobile Home Internet tips

Want to get the best experience? Here are some tips based on what I've learned in recent weeks.

  • Experiment with gateway placement. I tried four different spots in my house, eventually landing at a second-floor bedroom window. The performance differences were considerable from one spot to another.
  • Reboot the gateway regularly. Whenever I notice my Speedtest numbers dropping, I sign into the gateway admin portal and inevitably discover that the "Secondary signal" (the one connected to 5G) has disconnected. Rebooting the gateway reestablishes the connection. Unfortunately, there's no way to do this via the app; you have to sign into the web portal. I recommend doing this once a week.
  • Join the community forums. If you're encountering a problem, chances are good other users have encountered the same one. T-Mobile has an online forum devoted to Home Internet; it's a great place to share questions and search for answers.
  • Expect issues. This is a major rollout from T-Mobile, one that's based on relatively new 5G technology. There will likely be growing pains in the form of performance and/or reliability issues, overwhelmed customer-service departments and so on. If you have concerns about any of this, consider waiting a few months or even longer for T-Mo to shake things out.

If you have any tips of your own to share, drop them in the comments! (Crowdsourcing FTW.)

Is T-Mobile Home Internet ready for prime time?

So after nearly two months with T-Mobile Home Internet, what's the verdict? I'm keeping it, at least for now. There's no contract, so I can always go back to Comcast if things don't work out. And even if it's not perfect 100% of the time, well, neither is Comcast -- and imperfection is a lot more tolerable when you're paying less than half what you were before.

If this service is available in your area, I'd say it's definitely worth a try. If nothing else, as noted above, the presence of a new competitor gives you a bargaining chip; you might be able to negotiate a lower rate from your current provider.

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