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T-Mobile unveils its updated 5G vision: Here are the most important things to know

After Verizon's pitch to Wall Street on Wednesday, Thursday was T-Mobile's turn.

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Angela Lang/CNET

With the Federal Communications Commission's C-band auction now in the wireless industry's rearview, the US carriers are making their pitches to Wall Street about what benefits the newly acquired airwaves will provide their 5G networks. While the auction pulled in billions, the bulk of the bidding came from Verizon and AT&T, with T-Mobile a distant third. 

The "C-band" is midband spectrum that has been viewed by the wireless industry as a key technology for offering faster 5G performance than wider-ranging low-band networks while covering larger areas compared to faster millimeter-wave 5G.

After Verizon made its pitch on Wednesday, T-Mobile Thursday gave its own update on its network and some of its plans for the next few years. The big takeaway: it didn't bid as much because it already has a strong midband 5G presence thanks to its purchase of Sprint last year. Here are some of the highlights from the over three-hour event. 

Building on its 5G lead

Whereas T-Mobile found itself trailing for years in the 4G LTE race, when it comes to 5G it is actually well in the lead, thanks in large part to the Sprint purchase. It is "nice to be in the front of the pack this time around," CEO Mike Sievert noted during the virtual event. 

Unlike rivals Verizon and AT&T, which were much more desperate for this spectrum, thanks to that Sprint deal T-Mobile didn't have the same need for more midband spectrum and therefore didn't spend anywhere near as much to boost its portfolio. 

The carrier already has a large amount of 2.5GHz midband spectrum that it has been aggressively deploying over the last year. On Wednesday it announced that it currently covers 125 million people with these airwaves, which it says are capable of providing average download speeds of 300 megabits per second and peaks of 1 gigabit per second. 

T-Mobile's low-band network, which it first deployed at the end of 2019, now reaches 287 million people. This network offers the best 5G coverage, albeit with speeds that aren't as fast as what you would find on a midband connection. 

T-Mobile 5G deployment

T-Mobile's vision for 5G improvements over the next three years. 

T-Mobile

During Thursday's event, the carrier said that it plans to raise its average download speed to 400 Mbps this year as it works towards covering 200 million people with midband 5G. By the end of next year, it plans to cover over 250 million people, with 90% of Americans covered by the end of 2023. It plans to cover 97% of Americans with low-band 5G by the end of 2022. 

While it spent $9.3 billion on C-band, because of its existing 5G network the carrier didn't bid on the first chunks of spectrum that will become available at the end of this year. Instead, it will need to wait until the end of 2023 to start putting its new spectrum to use, with the goal of having it complement its already well-built out 5G network in urban areas.

And whereas Verizon is already talking about which devices will be able to tap into its C-band network later this year, T-Mobile is remaining a bit more mum. Neville Ray, T-Mobile's president of technology, wouldn't confirm if any current devices will be able to use the spectrum, telling CNET that the carrier has "more time" before they would need to worry about that. He does, however, say that the carrier would have phones on its network that support C-band, adding that "it's good for Verizon and AT&T to carry the water on this one," when it comes to bringing C-band support into devices. 

Preparing to take on cable providers

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The T-Mobile Home Internet router.

Rick Broida/CNET

One of the big new efforts for T-Mobile in 2021 will be the launch of a home internet product that competes with traditional cable providers like Comcast's Xfinity, Charter's Spectrum and Verizon's Fios. Although the carrier did not announce full details for the product, it did say that it will launch later this month and shared some insights it has gleaned from the pilot program it has been running over the last year. 

Available first as a 4G LTE solution, T-Mobile said Thursday that it ended last year with over 100,000 people taking part in its Home Internet pilot program. It has since switched over to a router capable of connecting to both its 4G LTE and 5G networks. 

The pilot program offered unlimited data for a flat $50 monthly rate (with automatic payments enabled) and had no contracts and no fees for equipment or taxes. While the company has since raised the pricing for new pilot customers to $60 per month, it remains to be seen if that will be the final or rate or if there will be differing plans. Sievert teased in his remarks that the company's launch plans will include "immediate, much wider availability" of the service and that it will be sharing "launch markets, service levels, price points, and a lot more" at the full reveal later this month. 

The company said it is planning to go after rural markets with limited or no broadband competition as well as urban areas that already have multiple providers, with the goal of having 500,000 Home Internet customers this year and 7-8 million customers by 2025. 

Read more: Trying out T-Mobile's $60 per month Home Internet

Reshaping public perception

While T-Mobile's network has greatly improved in recent years, it is still dogged by a perception that it is still a much lower class service compared to rivals Verizon and AT&T. The carrier acknowledged the challenge on Thursday, and it hopes to change that by not just continuing to improve its network but with expanding into areas it traditionally hasn't been before. This includes states like Vermont, Montana, North Dakota, South Dakota, Nebraska and Wyoming, adding new T-Mobile stores in rural communities as well as establishing itself in retail stores such as Walmart and Best Buy. 

T-Mobile is also hoping that its Home Internet play will get people to realize their area has strong coverage, leading them to then try its wireless service. 

Moving Sprint customers onto T-Mobile plans

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Angela Lang/CNET

With the company now almost a year past the merger with Sprint, T-Mobile revealed Thursday that it expects to migrate "100%" of older Sprint plans onto newer T-Mobile plans by the end of the second quarter. 

Matt Staneff, T-Mobile's chief marketing officer, tells CNET that the carrier is doing this by explaining to Sprint customers the "benefits that the T-Mobile customers have long been accustomed to" such as the bundling of taxes and fees into the monthly price and additional hotspot data. Those who switch over will also be using T-Mobile's improved network as their primary service, as opposed to using Sprint service first and falling back to T-Mobile when Sprint isn't available. 

The migration process is underway, though he says that those who want to keep their plans will still be able to do so.