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T-Mobile's 5G network upgrade means better indoor and rural coverage

T-Mobile is turning on its so-called standalone 5G network, which should overall better coverage and performance.

Eli Blumenthal Senior Editor
Eli Blumenthal is a senior editor at CNET with a particular focus on covering the latest in the ever-changing worlds of telecom, streaming and sports. He previously worked as a technology reporter at USA Today.
Expertise 5G, mobile networks, wireless carriers, phones, tablets, streaming devices, streaming platforms, mobile and console gaming,
Eli Blumenthal
3 min read

T-Mobile's 5G network is getting a boost. 

Angela Lang/CNET

T-Mobile's nationwide 5G network is getting a boost. On Tuesday, the self-proclaimed "un-carrier" announced that it has turned on a new version of its 5G network that should allow for better coverage and lower latency.  

Known as Standalone 5G (or SA 5G), this version of 5G does not need to be anchored to any existing 4G LTE service, enabling T-Mobile to offer better coverage and performance compared to its current 5G offering. 

Karri Kuoppamaki, T-Mobile's vice president of technology development and strategy, says the move will "allow 5G to reach its full potential" and not be limited by the shortcomings of the older, 4G LTE foundation that its initial 5G network relies on. Those in rural areas or who have trouble keeping a signal deep in buildings, in particular, should see better coverage as part of the move. 

Latency, or the responsiveness of the network, should also improve which will make data seem faster when connected to this 5G service. Kuoppamaki says that in its testing T-Mobile has seen latency improvements of up to 40%.

The coverage boost -- particularly indoors -- is a potential boon at a time when people are generally confined indoors in an attempt to halt the spread of the coronavirus. The new standalone network, meanwhile, represents the future for the carrier's 5G ambitions, although T-Mobile's existing 5G network will remain active and, for many, likely the main way they connect to the next-generation network. The standalone 5G will kick in when the traditional network (known as non-standalone or NSA) isn't available.

Given that this new deployment is still in its early stages, the existing NSA network and its midband LTE foundation is still more capable than the new standalone 600 Mhz low-band option. Because it can use more than one form of wireless spectrum, the existing NSA network will allow for faster speeds and better service compared just the single low-band that the standalone 5G network is currently using. 

T-Mobile plans to make its other spectrum, including the newly acquired midband 2.5 GHz airwaves it got through its merger with Sprint, available to the standalone 5G network over time. 

"This is all about having 5G available everywhere," Kuoppamaki says, "and us delivering on the promise of 5G for all." He adds that the SA 5G launch is nationwide, expanding T-Mobile's 5G footprint by 30% and allowing it to now cover 1.3 million square miles. 


To mark its 5G standalone network, T-Mobile flew hundreds of drones over Lisbon, North Dakota. 


The carrier says that as part of the upgrade it now has a 5G network that covers "nearly 250 million people," building on its early lead over rivals AT&T and Verizon

Last month, AT&T announced that it now offers a low-band 5G network that covers 205 million people, a milestone as it surpasses the Federal Communications Commission's definition of what qualifies as a "nationwide" network. 

Verizon currently only offers 5G over a higher-frequency millimeter-wave technology, though that is limited to just certain parts of 35 cities. It plans to launch its own nationwide low-band network later this year. 

Those with one of Samsung's Galaxy S20 devices or a OnePlus 8 5G, from either T-Mobile or Sprint , will be the first to be able to take advantage of the new standalone 5G service after downloading a recently released software update. You will need to make sure to have a T-Mobile SIM card , something Sprint users can get by heading into a T-Mobile store though those Sprint users would also need to switch their Sprint plan to one offered by T-Mobile. 

Other 2020 5G devices from both carriers will be able to take advantage of the new option, though they will need to wait until software updates are released. T-Mobile will also add support for the new network to the Galaxy Note 10 Plus 5G and OnePlus 7T Pro 5G McLaren that were released in 2019 via a software update, however no timeline has yet been given for when that update will arrive.