T-Mobile: The Uncarrier Hard Stop

Dave Zatz —  June 5, 2014


My T-Mobile honeymoon has long since passed, with the day-to-day reality of life on a second-rate carrier having set in. Of course, your mileage may vary as cell coverage is highly dependent upon locale (or building composition). For me, T-Mobile has provided an extremely frustrating experience with perhaps, ironically, superior coverage roaming overseas partners versus native networks here at home — with the majority of my calls dropping. On the occasions I have coverage to initiate one.

My latest Uncarrier lesson, where marketing hype once again doesn’t square with my experience, comes via a tethering/hotspot cap I clearly wasn’t aware of. In T-Mobile’s favor, they are extremely generous in the pricing and quantity of data they provide compared to AT&T and Verizon. And, at those times when I’ve had LTE coverage, I’ve appreciated the seemingly unlimited 4G firehose via both smartphone and laptop. However, whereas I was once told I’d never be cut off, only throttled, there is some magic number where tethering/hotspot service is suspended… as you can see above. Officially, my plan indicates 3GB of hotspot data. Yet, having consumed over 9GB of combined phone/tethered data thus far this month, there is a generous but misleading line in the sand somewhere and knowing is half the battle. So now you know.

19 responses to T-Mobile: The Uncarrier Hard Stop

  1. A few notes… I’ve used way more data these last few weeks than I would in a typical month due to working out of a different office 1 day a week, where WiFi is barely usable and I have fairly good T-Mobile coverage (versus my normal office, where there’s little to no T-Mo). A nearly 2GB Apple software download that I probably can’t tell you about is what pushed me over the top. Also, as far as usage in general goes, I try to stay off public WiFi and tether when conditions permit – it’s a more secure solution.

  2. “where marketing hype once again doesn’t square with my experience”

    Your experience is obviously incorrect. Marketing hype is canonical.

  3. I gave up on T-Mobile last month and coughed up money to join the death star. I tried very hard for 7 years to deal with coverage, 1700 mhz battery drain and call quality issues. The fix would be repairing cells on unloved towers and having their rf engineers tune the 1700 MHz signal for a mix of speed and quality and not speed alone where it gets really attenuated.

    I’ve never gotten the death cutoff message when tethering too much. But ive been using android phones that don’t report hotspot usage. Only my friendly iPhone shares that data with carriers.

  4. “A nearly 2GB Apple software download that I probably can’t tell you about is what pushed me over the top.”

    A friendly note from Apple Legal:

    We understand that you, like many, may not take your NDA obligations with the full seriousness they deserve. Thus, we will be remotely disabling all of your Apple devices, and remotely destroying all your data. However, we want you to understand that we do have a heart here at Apple Legal, and we have decided to use our discretion not to take full advantage of the provisions in the EULA you accepted to immediately deport you to Guantanamo. We hope you appreciate our infinite mercy, and further hope you will purchase new Apple devices to replace the ones we will be disabling.

  5. Still love the $30/month plan for its 5GB/month of 4G data, at least here in the city.

    But I will be carrying a Page Plus phone as backup the end of the month as I travel through the middle of nowhere WV & OH on my way to: http://www.daytonairshow.com/

  6. I am confused about the “misleading line in the sand.” Is it that they gave you more than your plan said you were supposed to have? Or that they cut you off like the plan is supposed to? I just am not quite putting it together.
    Also, what kind of phone were you using? I think a greater than 50% call drop rate would have had me switching much sooner. There would have to be something very wrong to have that happen or just be on the fringe of the service area.

  7. Josh, I was pitched a service that would never be cut off and that data buckets are soft caps, at which point speeds are throttled. Pretty sure I got more than my allotted bucket but I was then abruptly cut off. Now I (and others) know, and will plan accordingly.

    Regarding calls, well over 50% fail for me and there are notable gaps in both voice and 4G data coverage. I was on a Galaxy Note 2, but am now on a iPhone 5s (as is my wife, and I also possess a Galaxy S4 on Sprint). I can’t tell you what percent of my wife’s calls drop, but it’s been an issue for her as well. We reside in the fairly populous DC metro region, spending the majority of my time in Fairfax and Loudoun Counties, whereas my wife spends significant time in Loudoun and Montgomery County. (And we had extremely poor coverage with many completely dead spots in New Mexico plus a whole lotta of Edge in Vegas.) After 3-4 months, it was clear we needed to flip back to Verizon or AT&T, but given the $600 ETF we paid to leave VZW and the investment in our current devices, we’ve decided to suck it up until the new fall phones come out to minimize the economic damage at the expense of service satisfaction.

    Other random data points… when I was cut off I attempted to hit the T-Mobile website via my laptop to find out what was going on and determine my upgrade options, but T-Mobile blocks even their own site. And T-Mobile’s iPhone app similarly prohibited me from upgrading in the not-quite-accurate “Change Service” category.

    I did unlock my iPhone and picked up an AT&T StraightTalk SIM. Had trouble activating the card/account before flying out of town a couple weeks back and never got back to it. Once I do, that’ll be my backup coverage.

  8. That is precisely why I would never consider T-Miserable unless things got really dire.

    Here in STL, I noticed decent LTE speeds on the 200MB I get for free each month on my iPad Air, but if I wander home to the burbs, it is useless. I actually can sit in my living room with literally no signal.

    Thank the maker I am on a grandfathered, unlimited plan with Big Red, because I would go insane if I had to deal with the speeds from these clowns. Shint isn’t any better either.

    I applaud what these two underdogs are trying to do, but they need to stop chasing customers with marketing, and invest in their networks. That will bring the customers. I guess their business model is to lure the clueless, and obviously that must be working for them to an extent, but a power user knows better. Far better.

  9. Just wait a few weeks. You’ll be part of the Sprint family and open up a whole new world of frequencies…and posaibilities…blah blah blah…

  10. Dave,
    Which plan do you have? Unlimited? Did it cut off both data to the phone and tethered data? I am just curious if the tethered data is supposed to be limited to the high speed allotment or should it go to 2G as well. Just trying to understand how it works for future reference. I don’t think I have ever hit 500MB as I don’t use my phone much on the go, but it would be nice to understand.
    If I were in your shoes, I would have dumped them long ago. The call drop rate would have had me running for the hills. I would have activated on some AT&T networked service even if I missed out on some LTE bands or what not. Now that I think about it, my phone isn’t LTE (HTC One S). I wonder if it has something to do with their LTE network in the area. Is there a way to disable LTE on any of your phones, just to try something out? Just a curiosity to me how we can have such different service experiences.

  11. Dave,
    I chatted up a T-Mobile rep because I didn’t find the website clear about the tethered data usage. I didn’t notice anything misleading, but nothing explicit. I asked what would happen if I went of 1GB with tethering (I don’t have any data add ons). I got the following response:
    “I see here that you got 1GB data and SMHS. You can avail unlimited data. 1GB at 4G then slow down to 2G. For tethering, its 1GB only and then it will just stopped or cut off.”
    So now my only question from before is does data still work on your phone?

    Just to let everyone know, I am not trying to defend anything T-Mobile has done. I am just trying to find out the limitations of the service and see other’s experience. Soon here I am either going to join my sister-in-law and her husband on AT&T or she is going to join my wife and me on T-Mobile. Just trying to figure out all the pros/cons as I want it to be a good experience if they join me.

  12. Michael Maggard June 5, 2014 at 11:03 pm

    Modern T-Mobile plans (Value ones) have two data buckets. The handset has 1GB/3GB/5GB/unlimited of 4G data before it is throttled. No cutting off, no overage costs. Tethering comes free with those and has a matching default of 1GB/3GB/5GB/5GB (with unlimited handset data) cap. No overage costs but it does cut off.

    Larger tethering plans are available, as well as one-time Speedboost packages for specified data/duration. I’m not certain of the specifics on those but I’m sure they’re listed somewhere online or available through phone support.

    To check data usage you can use the T-Mobile Account app or just “call” #web# from the handset for a reading.

  13. Thanks, Michael. That’s what it looks like after the fact. I suppose I should be thankful I probably received more than my allotted 3GB, but I wasn’t prepared to be unceremoniously cut off at work on Tuesday. Also what threw me is the nastygram only seems to show when connected via WiFi, not when tethered over USB – which is often how I do it. Now I know (and will pack my Verizon 4G card when visiting Arlington). I did read up on larger plans with 9-11GB of hotspot/tethering, but the price wasn’t disclosed and they are available only via phone given my research.

    Josh, my wife isn’t sure on her call drop frequency but feels it’s less in Montgomery County than Loudoun, which is less densely populated. Also, I’m more demanding in these things – because I’m obviously a power user when it comes to data and because I make so few calls I perhaps feel the drops more. My primary office (Herndon) is mostly a dead spot, not sure if this is related to location, building composition, or both. Therefore the bulk of my calls are made while driving – perhaps there are gaps on coverage on my routes or T-Mobile does a worse job handing off between towers? Regarding frequencies, it’s possible your phone has different/additional ones than the iPhone 5s but disabling LTE won’t help me as that’s only used for data and not voice. My plan is described as Unlimited smartphone data, with 3GB of hotspot/tethering. 4G remains intact on phone. So in the places where I do have voice and LTE (vs Edge) coverage, T-Mobile is a bargain. But the tradeoff has been coverage.

    At my current address and similar routing or travel, within the last two years, we’ve had an AT&T iPhone, a pair of VZW iPhones, a VZW aircard, two Sprint phones, and three smartphones on T-Mobile, Verizon has provided the best coverage. But Verizon costs the most, with offensive nickel and diming (Android visual voicemail, phone activation fees), and their store staff sucks, versus T-Mobile’s generous plans, helpful staff, but incomplete coverage. So, sadly, there’s no one perfect solution.

    Maybe T-Mo’s success in the last year picking up customers will help fund a network buildout. They got about 5-6 months to convince us to stay. Will be interesting to see if a Sprint merger happens and their timeframe for consolidating networks – hope the law of the land actually lets this one go thru.

  14. They won me over with the out of country service which I use 16-19 days of the month. Our coverage in south FL is good so we have not had any issues. FYI there is zero coverage in Orlando at Disney World.

  15. David, the out-of-country support is was the perk that originally got us to abandon Verizon in the first place. But for me, that’s generally only one or two weeks out of any given year. Given your travels, I can see how it’s a much more substantial benefit. Thanks for the Disney heads up – I’ll be in that region in later this summer.

  16. I have to say I didn’t realize Smartphone Hotspot data just cut off – I thought it was throttled too, like the data caps for phones on non-unlimited plans.

    Coverage area is definitely the trade off being made with T-Mo. I switched from AT&T in January. I live on the Louisiana north shore (opposite side of Lake Ponchartrain from New Orleans), where there are small cities surrounded by tiny towns and nothingness. To TMo’s credit, the cities all have either 4G (HSPA+) or LTE. The Interstate between my city, New Orleans, and Baton Rouge is covered with at least 4G. But outside the cities, it’s EDGE or roaming on AT&T. Luckily I never leave the cities but my girlfriend does and she isn’t pleased with the service at all.

    It’s a trade off I’m willing to make for better service in-city, HD Voice, cheaper rates, better customer care, free international roaming, etc. And EDGE will be mostly covered with LTE by the end of this year into next year, with low-band spectrum coming online next year (in certain areas – my area isn’t one but you should check).

  17. An…ethernet doohickey! Classic Zatz.

  18. Tamer Rashdan June 7, 2014 at 1:13 pm

    I have iPhone 5s with T-Mobile
    I use around 25 to 30 gigabytes a month but no thethering
    Never had a problem