T-Mobile sticks it to ‘Big Internet’ in latest ‘un-carrier’ move

Just when AT&T is raising prices on some mobile plans and for certain fixed broadband subscribers, T-Mobile announced its latest “un-carrier” move to entice customers to its home broadband service – and it’s offering extra-special deals for businesses.

“AT&T came out this week with surprise price hikes for a bunch of their customers because of course they did, they’re AT&T,” said T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert during the Q&A portion of the operator’s big “un-carrier” livestreamed event on Wednesday.

“What we are is the ‘un-carrier,’ and today we not only didn’t do that, but we announced Price Lock,” a move it’s taking from its wireless playbook and applying to broadband. Price Lock applies to every broadband customer so that when they sign up with T-Mobile, they know the price won’t go up unexpectedly.

On Wednesday, T-Mobile said home and business internet users can expect to get its plan for $50 a month, and it won’t change for as long as they’re a customer. It’s part of T-Mobile’s fixed wireless access (FWA) service, which is separate from its mobile phone service. It’s also allowing customers to try Home Internet for free for 15 days to decide whether it’s for them.  

‘Big Internet’ targeted 

To be sure, it’s not just AT&T customers that it’s going after here. T-Mobile has made no secret of its desire to use FWA to go after customers traditionally served – unhappily – by cable. A year ago, the magenta carrier made a big show of going after “Big Cable” with the launch of its wireless Home Internet offering.

With its “Internet Freedom” theme this week, T-Mobile said it’s taking on “Big Internet” and bringing the “un-carrier’ movement to broadband. Broadband customers are the least satisfied in America due to all the fees, contracts, price hikes and terrible customer service, so it’s aim is to disrupt it for good.  

According to T-Mobile, families can save up to $900 per year by adding Home Internet to a Magenta Max family plan for $30 a month, so it’s treated like another line added to the plan. That’s a first, according to Jeff Moore, principal of Wave7 Research.

T-Mobile over the past year has worked hard to lift ARPU by pushing Magenta Max and this is a big step in that direction, according to Moore. In addition, “it seems like a competitive response to Verizon, which in January launched an offer of Verizon 5G Home Internet at $25/month assuming adoption of its top-end 5G Get More plan,” he said.

There’s a big focus on business in this announcement as well.

“T-Mobile is portraying itself as the only nationwide ISP. That’s a bit of a reach,” as T-Mobile 5G Home Internet is available to 40 million households, which is one-third of the U.S. “AT&T has landline broadband to 40+% of U.S. households, without even mentioning their wireless network or fixed wireless footprint. That said, I see the vision, that at some point, a company that has locations in Poughkeepsie, Pascagoula, Peoria, and Puyallup can all have the same Internet provider,” Moore added.

Avi Greengart, president of Techsponential, has been testing T-Mobile’s service and said set-up was “incredibly simple,” providing “much more flexibility in placement compared to the cable and fiber entry points in my home.”

Performance near the base station has been better than T-Mobile’s claimed average of 140 Mbps, though it does fluctuate significantly throughout the day and upload speeds are much slower than downloads, Greengart told Fierce, noting that “a minute ago I was getting 321 Mbps down and 39 Mbps up.”

Of course, capacity plays a role in all of this and T-Mobile is being very selective in where it serves Home Internet customers. During the company’s presentation, Sievert noted that when T-Mobile approves which homes it will go into with home broadband, it’s looking at total usage on the network.

Right now, a lot of traffic inside homes gets offloaded onto Wi-Fi networks, freeing up capacity on the cellular network. When it approves an applicant for home broadband service, it’s analyzing not just the cell towers but “every sector of every cell tower” for the available capacity, Sievert said.  

Coverage for the home broadband service is not apples-to-apples what a consumer would get using T-Mobile’s mobile phone service in a home. T-Mobile uses dedicated CPEs, or consumer premise equipment, for the home broadband service. The antenna structures in these CPEs are much more extensive than you’d get in a cell phone.

“People shouldn’t judge the signal that they’ll get in their house from their mobile phone experience because the antennas are much more extensive,” Sievert said.

Greengart said the nice thing about T-Mobile Home Internet is that it offers a new option for homes in areas without good alternatives, and this week’s announcement makes it easy to try it out and switch if it makes sense. T-Mobile is also pressuring competitors with much simpler terms and conditions – no fees, all taxes included, no price hikes – and the service really becomes cheap if you have a T-Mobile Magenta MAX plan, he said.

Upside for FWA

Overall, T-Mobile’s announcement is a positive for FWA, “as we've been talking about it for many years, but now we have the speed and capacity to have a viable offering, which is borne out by the uptick in subscriber numbers... and the marketing,” said analyst Mark Lowenstein, managing director at Mobile Ecosystem.

T-Mobile is being particularly aggressive because “they have this moment in time when they have a leadership position in 5G and a relatively empty mid-band network,” Lowenstein said. “As Verizon builds out their C-Band capacity, Verizon will be able to expand its FWA offerings. AT&T does not appear to be focused on FWA.

"It's also a good time to be picking off the “low hanging fruit,” which is those in underserved (i.e., DSL) areas, those in unserved areas (i.e., rural locations, where T-Mobile covers), and those dissatisfied with cable or other incumbent broadband provider, Lowenstein said.

“Fixed wireless is one of the only ways carriers have found to separately monetize 5G, and T-Mobile is moving to take full advantage,” Greengart said.

Don’t forget mmWave

Much of T-Mobile’s strategy is all about the 2.5 GHz spectrum that it acquired from Sprint, although it also uses 600 MHz for 5G and often cites the “layer cake” strategy of using low, mid-and high-band spectrum.

Everything outlined on Wednesday is predicated on its mid-band-centric spectrum strategy, Sievert said.

However, asked about millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum, he said the company has large holdings of that higher band spectrum and it’s open to using that for home broadband. It also may use its mmWave holdings for dedicated deployments, campuses, businesses or even reaching certain neighborhoods, but it hasn’t made those decisions yet, he said.

Still the scrappy underdog?

Some folks complain that T-Mobile lost a lot of its gumption when former CEO John Legere left, or that its more recent “un-carrier” moves are not all that spectacular – or that it’s getting downright carrier-ish.

But to the current leaders, it’s still as disruptive as ever. “We’re doing this right now because it’s time to address these pain points,” Sievert said. “This is a business we’re serious about. We’re going to do everything in our power to go get those 7 to 8 million or more users.”

T-Mobile came into wireless with the mindset that it’s a “stupid, broken, arrogant industry” that needs to have its “pain points smashed” as only the ‘un-carrier’ can do, Sievert noted. “That’s the tenacity that we’re coming into this market. We know we can solve problems for millions of consumers.”