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CLEVELAND, Ohio — Few things are more infuriating than negotiating a bill with your cable provider. And what makes it even worse is that for many people, said cable provider is your only option for high-speed internet.
But in the past year or so, things have changed. Cell-phone networks like T-Mobile, Verizon and AT&T are using their 5G networks to introduce competition into the internet market. And it could save you money.
Are these options good? Companies are doing plenty of advertising, which has led to reader questions.
“We are investigating going with T-Mobile’s internet when it becomes available in our zip code, which is 44136. Do you know anything about T-Mobile’s internet?” – Dennis
“Got a flyer in the mail the other day advertising a new Internet service called AT&T Internet Air. … So, was wondering what you know about AT&T Internet Air?” – Richard
I currently have a promo deal with Breezeline, a cable provider formerly known as Wow! Cable, and get their 1000 Mbps (megabits per second) service for $29.99 a month. There are two problems. First, that promotion ends this summer. And second, the speeds are never even close to what’s advertised.
Using Breezeline’s 1000 Mbps service, I usually get a download speed of 80 Mbps on Wi-Fi. But when I used T-Mobile’s home internet, my download speeds were close to 130 Mbps.
And while Verizon’s home internet wasn’t available in my area, a friend who lives in Cleveland’s Flats neighborhood has used it for well over a year — and gets about 250 Mbps per second.
In short, for $50 a month, these are not bad options. Especially if you don’t have a fiber network in your area. But let’s dig into it.
What is going on?
To rehash one of my biggest pet peeves, internet options can be very limited depending on where you live. The reason is simple. A company usually must physically install wires in your town for you to buy their service.
Yes, there were always some other options, like dial-up internet. But in reality, you usually only get one real option.
But in recent years, companies traditionally known for cell-phone services like Verizon, T-Mobile and AT&T have been racing to build 5G networks.
Cell-phone companies have extra capacity on those new networks, and they’re fast enough that you can use them for an entire home’s internet — instead of just one phone. So… that’s what they’re doing.
And because they don’t need physical wires, it’s much easier for them to offer service to wide areas, explained Andrew Testa, a spokesman for Verizon.
Growing up in Parma, Cox Cable was the only option for internet and TV. Later Wow! Cable moved in (and was eventually bought by Breezeline). When I moved to Cuyahoga Falls I had access to the holy grail — fiber-optic internet.
Sadly, AT&T Fiber is not available where I live in Berea. And while I have more options than I did 20 years ago, it’s still not great.
T-Mobile let me try its home internet service for a few weeks back in December and January. Two people could work from home without noticing any issues. We streamed TV shows. Used our phones. And it was fine.
Once you get the device set up, it works pretty much like a normal Wi-Fi network. No wires come in or out of the house. You sign in, put in your password. Nothing out of the ordinary.
Verizon was not available at my home at the time (I didn’t even know AT&T Internet Air existed at the time). But my friend Mike has used it for awhile and says it’s “significantly better than the alternative.”
Being in an apartment building, like Mike, you’re basically limited to whichever company runs wires through the building. And his traditional cable company that was available could only get him 15 Mbps.
With Verizon, he just needs to put a device near his window. His service gets about 250 Mbps.
Truthfully, I don’t know anyone with AT&T Internet Air. But it seems like they have a specific customer in mind — people who want but can’t get AT&T Fiber. The fastest service AT&T can offer me is 50 Mbps.
“We’re currently offering it to a limited set of copper-based customers in places where we have wireless coverage and capacity to deliver a high-quality customer experience,” said Phil Hayes, a spokesman for AT&T. He said customers who are eligible should get something in the mail telling them how to sign up for the service.
Is T-Mobile or Verizon internet available in my area?
So, this is the infuriating part of the column. Because none of these companies could provide a clear answer like, “All customers in X city or zip code are eligible.”
Trust me, I pressed and pressed and pressed. And many of you will probably email me and ask, “Is this available where I live?” You’ll have to check yourself.
Part of this is because over-the-air networks don’t follow city borders. Part of it is that these networks are expanding. And I’m guessing part of it is the companies thinking “Well, we don’t want to limit the number of customers that visit our website. So be vague.”
Another wrinkle, at least with T-Mobile, is that they don’t want to oversell the network.
When thousands of people are using their cell phones at a Guardians game, the network slows down. And if every single home on your street had T-Mobile’s home internet — same issue.
T-Mobile is counteracting this by limiting availability. Once the company hits a certain number of customers in an area, they tell me they’ll stop selling the service.
Verizon and T-Mobile are both pretty widely available in the Cleveland-Metro area.
How fast are they?
Speeds will vary depending on how close you are to a cell tower. But…
Verizon advertises a download speed of 85 to 300 Mbps, and an upload speed of 10 to 20 Mbps.
T-Mobile advertises a download speed of 72 to 245 Mbps, and an upload speed of 15 to 31 Mbps.
AT&T advertises a download speed of 40 to 140 Mbps, and an upload speed of 5 to 25 Mbps.
The FCC puts out a “broadband speed guide” that details what speeds you need for different activities. You can find it at fcc.gov/consumers/guides/broadband-speed-guide.
How much do they cost?
T-Mobile Home Internet is $50 a month. The company advertises this as a flat rate — no taxes, fees or equipment rentals are added on. If T-Mobile is your cell service provider, it may be discounted to $30.
Verizon has two options, 5G Home and 5G Home Plus. The base option is $50, or $25 for Verizon’s cellular customers. Plus is $70, or $35 for cellular customers. Verizon also advertises as a flat rate, with no taxes or fees.
AT&T Internet Air is $55 a month, plus taxes.
To get these prices you’ll need to set up autopay and go with paperless billing.
If you’re stuck with a cable provider or another company for internet, both T-Mobile and Verizon say they’ll cover early termination fees up to a certain point. Verizon says they’ll lock in your price for two years. T-Mobile said they’ll lock it in “for life.”
How do I install them?
Each company said their internet is easy to install. I can only speak from experience with T-Mobile Home Internet.
You’ll want to find a space that is roughly in the center of your home, preferably where the device can sit near a window. There’s no need to connect it to a coax cable or any other wires — but it does need to be plugged into an outlet.
From there, the app you use to set it up your network is pretty self-explanatory.
Can I hide the router?
In most cases, no. These devices work best when positioned by windows and unblocked by furniture. The companies tried to make them look appealing so that you don’t need to hide them. But you can’t stick the device in your basement.
Any network issues, lag, etc?
In my short test run, I noticed little difference between T-Mobile Home Internet and the current service I get from Breezeline. And that’s about as good as you can hope for.
Wi-Fi is only something you think about when it’s bad. But my household made Teams calls, watched shows and did whatever we do normally, without issue.
The only issue was a bit of lag and higher ping than normal when playing video games.
Ping is essentially how many milliseconds it takes your device to share information with a server, or with another person’s device. I didn’t test this thoroughly — I only played one game and outside factors may have caused issues — but I noticed it a bit more than usual.
My understanding is that the hardwired connection you get from cable providers or a fiber-optic network has better latency (another fancy word for ping) than a cellular-based internet. In some cases.
Another thing to note. The gateway devices that T-Mobile and Verizon give you have fewer ethernet ports than a standard router. If you like to hard wire all of your devices, this may pose an issue. If you don’t know what “ethernet” is, this isn’t something to be concerned about.
So, should you try it?
If you’re in the market for home internet, and a cell-phone company is offering an option, I say go for it. T-Mobile also offers a 15-day test drive. Verizon has a “30-Day satisfaction guarantee.”
Interested in T-Mobile Home Internet? t-mobile.com/home-internet.
Interested in Verizon? Go to verizon.com/home.
Interested in AT&T Internet Air? Go to att.com/internetair.
Quite honestly, I’d go for fiber-optic internet if it was available. Or if Breezeline sees this — and wants to skip the three-hour phone call where I threaten to cancel — I’ll listen.
Saving You Money is cleveland.com and The Plain Dealer’s column about saving money. We want to know how we can help you save money. Send your questions and comments to [email protected].
Read past columns at cleveland.com/topic/saving-you-money/.