Home Internet service in the United States can often feel like a scam. You’re lucky if you have more than one or two Internet service provider choices. Installation can be a headache. Performance is sometimes mediocre, yet you might still pay a lot. Data overages and other gotchas could jack up your bill even further.
These ISPs tend to be of the wired variety. They include Xfinity, the Comcast-owned home broadband provider that works primarily via coaxial cable connections, and CenturyLink, which offers Internet access via a blend of old-style copper-cable DSL and fiber-optic connections. I use Xfinity here in St. Paul, Minnesota, and my service has been reliable for the most part, but I fret about the bang for my buck—am I paying too much for the Internet speeds I’m getting?
Helpfully, new broadband providers have lately emerged to offer additional high-speed Internet options—and these services are wireless. As cellular data has become faster with 5G (see “The iPhone Gets 5G, but What’s It Like in Real-World Use?,” 19 November 2020), cellular carriers have adapted it for affordable, convenient home Internet service, with performance often rivaling or exceeding that of wired Internet providers.
Both carriers deliver a 5G connection through the air, as they do to newer iPhones and cellular iPads, making the services easy to deploy. Customers receive a router that creates a local Wi-Fi network and harnesses cellular bandwidth for the backhaul link to the Internet, thereby enabling your Zoom calling and Netflix binging.
Cellular wireless services like this have been around for a while, albeit with slower connections and largely in areas where good wired broadband is hard to get. But in the 5G age, cellular Internet has started to make inroads as an urban alternative to traditional ISPs.
T-Mobile has been aggressively expanding its Home Internet footprint since it rolled out the service in April 2021. More recently, as Verizon has tapped into new spectrum that enabled high-speed connections in more areas (see “AT&T and Verizon Debut Faster, More Widely Available 5G Service,” 22 January 2022), its 5G Home Internet has grown from a niche offering to one that now rivals T-Mobile’s reach.
T-Mobile and Verizon loaned me equipment, so I was able to test their services under real-life conditions. I initially deployed them only for myself as my Internet connection for my day job, and separate from the Wi-Fi my family uses. I work entirely from home, so a dependable and speedy connection is a necessity. In the second phase of my testing, I made the Wi-Fi available throughout the home (with some help from my Eero mesh networking equipment) for my wife and son’s communal use.
I was struck by how similar the services are and, therefore, how difficult it is to recommend one over the other. They’re both pretty good, as I’ll explain.
Before you get too excited about these services, you have to determine if they’re available where you live. On the T-Mobile and Verizon sites, you enter your address to find out. (My St. Paul address qualifies for T-Mobile service, but not Verizon service; Verizon sent me hardware anyway, and it has worked well.)
Last I checked with T-Mobile, its Home Internet service was available to more than 30 million homes in 600 US cities and towns. The service has most recently expanded into Florida, Georgia, Indiana, Kentucky, North Carolina, Ohio, and South Carolina.
Verizon said in January 2022 that its 5G Home Internet was available in 900 US cities following the debut of its C-band spectrum, a major leap from last year when it was available only in small portions of several dozen (including Minneapolis and St. Paul). About 20 million homes are eligible for this service.
Once your address is approved and you’ve signed up, the carriers ship the necessary hardware to you. Between the popularity of the services and pandemic supply chain constraints, you might have to wait a bit for your equipment.
T-Mobile costs $50 per month (if you use autopay, $55 if you don’t) with unlimited data and no contract, fees, or equipment charges. A couple of goodies are included, including a free year of the Paramount+ streaming-video service and a discount on YouTube TV streaming.
Verizon’s pricing structure is a bit more complex, but the difference between the two plans boils down to how long your price guarantee lasts and a few perks:
- 5G Home: $50 per month with autopay, $60 without; $25 per month if you have a Verizon 5G Do More, Play More, or Get More mobile plan; $40 per month if combined with certain other Verizon mobile plans; 2-year price guarantee
- 5G Home Plus: $70 per month with autopay, $80 per month without; $35 per month if you have a Verizon 5G Do More, Play More, or Get More mobile plan; $50 if combined with certain other Verizon mobile plans; 3-year price guarantee
As with T-Mobile, Verizon provides unlimited data with no contract, fees, or equipment charges. Extra goodies include a free six months of a Disney+/Hulu/ESPN+ streaming bundle for 5G Home users and a year for 5G Home Plus users. Everyone gets a free streaming device for connecting to their TVs, plus 2 free months of the Sling TV streaming service.
The T-Mobile and Verizon routers couldn’t be simpler. Their only required physical connection is to an electrical outlet, which provides flexibility for in-home positioning.
The Verizon router is the more minimalist of the two—it’s a white cube with no physical controls other than reset and Wi-Fi Protected Setup buttons. When you plug it into power, the router connects to the Verizon network and installs firmware updates. It has two Ethernet ports suitable for plugging in a computer or other gear, along with a USB-C port not intended for customer use (it’s hidden under a silicone flap). A light on the front alternates red and white when the router is starting up, blinks white when updating firmware, shines a solid red if it can’t get a signal, and turns solid white when the Wi-Fi is ready to use.
(A disclaimer: the router Verizon sent me does not function exactly like the ones sent out to subscribers, lacking some features. As a result, I couldn’t test all the capabilities I describe in this article.)
T-Mobile’s router is available either as a light-gray cylinder or a dark-gray rectangular monolith. The company sent me the cylinder, an older model, which has an on/off switch, a couple of ports (RJ-11 and USB-C) that T-Mobile says don’t serve any user function right now, and a circular LCD screen on top that displays alerts (such as firmware updates in progress) and how many service bars you have. An internal battery keeps the router’s screen on if you unplug it from the wall, but the Wi-Fi network stops working. The router has two Ethernet ports for plugging in hardware.
T-Mobile says the newer model (shown below) is functionally equivalent to the older one, and that the two are being offered to users interchangeably. The rectangular router also has two Ethernet ports and an LCD screen.
Getting started with either service is a cinch. Find a spot for your router, plug it into power, and then log in to its Wi-Fi network using your iPhone, iPad, or Mac with an SSID and password conveniently emblazoned on the underside of the router.
If your Internet connection seems slow or unreliable, you may need to experiment with placement of the device so it can better communicate with the cellular towers nearest to your home. Putting the router near a window is a good idea.
Here’s where the T-Mobile and Verizon apps come in handy. You don’t need them for setup (and they might make the process more confusing), but they can coach you through positioning your router for optimal signal strength.
T-Mobile’s app displays a map of my block along with a magenta animation suggesting that I put its router on the west side of my house, by a window, and preferably on a top floor (my office is in the attic with a western window, so I’m golden).
Verizon’s app has a compass-like animation similar to the one the one used with Apple’s AirTag Precision Finding, including a spinning arrow that points you in the direction of the best 5G signal. I couldn’t test this feature because my loaner hardware lacked an associated user account, so I couldn’t log in to the app.
The routers have Web portals for fine control of hardware settings; to log in, type in your device’s IP address and admin password, both of which are also printed on the bottom. (As with other features, I couldn’t log in to Verizon’s Web portal with the password provided.) You can also configure and control the routers to a great degree via the apps.
I experienced decent Wi-Fi download speeds, though they weren’t always as good as I’d hoped. I need to provide a bit of background for context.
T-Mobile has offered speedy 5G mobile service for a couple of years via “mid-band” spectrum acquired in its 2018 merger with Sprint. During iPhone tests in late 2020, I experienced downloads as high as 400 megabits per second as I crisscrossed downtown St. Paul, but saw more modest results, around 100 Mbps, at home (see “The iPhone Gets 5G, but What’s It Like in Real-World Use?,” 19 November 2020). At the time, T-Mobile was alone in offering such high wireless speeds over sizable—but mainly urban—geographical areas.
AT&T and Verizon caught up this year with the deployment of C-band spectrum that gave them download performance roughly equivalent to T-Mobile’s spectrum along with a larger footprint. Using an Android phone on loan from Verizon, I never cracked 400 Mbps, but I consistently notched around 350 Mbps within my house.
With my Xfinity broadband, by comparison, my downloads hover consistently around 100 Mbps, which is what I’m promised. Comcast charges me $83 per month—which includes $25 for unlimited data so I don’t run afoul of the service’s infamous data overages.
So how did my T-Mobile and Verizon home Internet gear perform?
T-Mobile regularly hit 200 Mbps and sometimes peaked at 250 Mbps, which disappointed me a bit after those spectacular 400 Mbps downloads during my earlier T-Mobile testing. Still, it’s much better than what I get from Xfinity, and for much less money. It is definitely better than the 35–115 Mbps T-Mobile promises on its website.
Verizon regularly exceeded 250 Mbps in my testing, and occasionally topped 300 Mbps. Again, keep in mind that my address does not even officially qualify for Verizon’s service, so these are great results.
Verizon is capable of much higher speeds, in the neighborhood of 1–2 gigabits per second, but only in the nooks and crannies of certain cities where it provides “high band” or “millimeter wave” service. The company lumps its C-band and mmWave service into one category it calls Ultra-Wideband, which might confuse some.
With the speeds I experienced, either service would be a good fit in my professional life. My work as a newspaper Web editor largely involves non-stop monitoring of the news via audio and video Internet streams. Neither T-Mobile nor Verizon let me down, for the most part. (As with any other ISP I have ever used, I experienced a few momentary outages or other glitches that I consider par for the course.)
It’s important to note, however, that download speeds via cellular connections can be unpredictable. If you’ve regularly performed speed tests on your iPhone, you’ve surely noticed that the numbers can be all over the place. I also saw variable performance with the T-Mobile and Verizon routers at times, perhaps because their networks were overwhelmed then. I found this annoying—especially if I needed to download a huge file or play a high-resolution video without buffering or degradation—since my Xfinity performance is more predictable. That said, wired ISPs aren’t entirely free of performance problems either.
Keep in mind that T-Mobile Home Internet also uses its older 4G LTE network alongside 5G to extend its service over wider areas, so your speeds might vary depending on where you are. Those in a 4G area might see only 12 Mbps or less.
My biggest beef with Xfinity is its excruciatingly slow uploads—often under 10 Mbps. T-Mobile and Verizon uploads are speedier, usually greater than 10 Mbps and sometimes peaking at 30 to 40 Mbps. This was a relief since uploading high-resolution wire-service photos to my employer’s WordPress server is a major part of my job. I also upload lots of personal pictures to Google Photos, which has been an ongoing nightmare with Xfinity.
Fiber-optic connections via CenturyLink in my city are symmetrical—uploads are as fast as downloads. That’s great, but signing up for the service would involve stringing another data cable to the house and punching another hole in a wall. My wife has balked at this, which is why the wireless services seem so enticing, their slower upload speeds notwithstanding.
The T-Mobile and Verizon routers did a reasonably good job of bathing my residence in bandwidth—but wireless networking with any one device in a multistory home has limits. Mesh network systems with two or more Wi-Fi modules better distribute a Wi-Fi signal within a building.
I use Amazon’s Eero equipment (see “Eero Provides Good Wi-Fi Coverage in a Handsome Package,” 25 June 2016, and “Amazon Buys Mesh-Networking Company Eero,” 12 February 2019). For good Wi-Fi coverage in my three-story residence, I plug one Eero module into my Xfinity router via one of its Ethernet ports so that it can pass along its signal to the other modules scattered throughout the house.
Because the T-Mobile and Verizon routers have Ethernet ports, I tried swapping them in for the Xfinity router. This worked as expected, and my wife and son were not even aware that their precious Wi-Fi signal was coming from a different source.
It’s Not Mobile
When I first heard about cellular-based home Internet, the first thing that popped into my head was: “Hey, cool, that means I could use the service from more than one location.”
Turns out that’s a big no-no. Unlike phones, which obviously can be used anywhere there’s a signal, T-Mobile’s Home Internet and Verizon’s 5G Home Internet are assigned to the users’ postal addresses and are intended to be used only there. Nothing technically prevents users from unplugging their routers and taking them somewhere else, and the hardware will continue working if it has a signal, but doing so violates the terms of service, and users risk having their service canceled.
Such a rule “helps us assure that the place of use meets our network standards to provide you and others with a high quality of service,” T-Mobile says in a Web FAQ. (I think the company means “ensure” instead of “assure.”) Verizon suggests, “Just contact us and ask so we can let you know” if the equipment would work properly at a different location.
I tested T-Mobile’s Home Internet and Verizon’s 5G Home Internet with one question in mind: Could either replace my Xfinity service? The answer is a tentative yes, and if it’s yes for me, it could be a yes for you too.
I’m more confident about T-Mobile Home Internet, which I’ve used nonstop for several months and found to be quite reliable.
I’ve had less than two weeks with the Verizon gear, so I hesitate to render a definitive judgment, especially since I had non-standard hardware at a non-qualifying address with some features missing. Still, I was wowed by Verizon’s speeds, which were somewhat faster than T-Mobile’s, and often triple what Xfinity gives me.
As for the cost, both T-Mobile and Verizon services are a good bit less expensive than my Xfinity service. Neither has any data caps, hidden fees, or contracts.
I’m not quite ready to switch because my wife is more cautious than I am and takes her time with such decisions, but I see us making the move eventually.
Regardless of my marital negotiations, home Internet service from cellular providers seems to be hitting the big time, so if you’re not happy with your current wired broadband service, see if 5G Internet is an option for your address.