T-Mobile has been disappointing this year for a number of reasons, mainly their big change to how they handled category 18 modems, but also with their acquisition of Sprint and other bumps in the road. There is a new plan that was just released that redeems some of that disappointment, and could be an excellent choice for those boaters looking to get T-Mobile on a hotspot or router.
T-Mobile Blocked CAT18
In the summer of 2020, T-Mobile decided to block access from category 18 modem devices for anyone using an older T-Mobile ONE or similar tablet or hotspot plan. These plans were available as early as 2016 and had fantastic features – unlimited LTE data, international roaming for free with 5GB of data included, as well as a few other things.
For me, the T-Mobile plan was excellent while cruising in the San Juan Islands given the investment in towers they had made in the last few years. The coverage and speeds were excellent. When cruising into Canada 🇨🇦 (when we could do that!), the roaming was even better, allowing me to stay connected and have full LTE data access for the 6-8 weeks I was up there.
The change this summer blocked access for the newer category 18 modems made by Telit and found in products like the Peplink MAX Transit CAT18, Peplink MAX HD1 Dome CAT18, and Cradlepoint IBR1700. It also turned people away from those products who were considering buying them to older technologies and also had them searching for data plans from other providers.
The New Plan
The new plan they've announced is available as both a post-paid (i.e. contract) and pre-paid Mobile Internet Plan. I was not able to sign up for it using my existing T-Mobile account (post-paid) due to the age and type of my account. T-Mobile is prioritizing pre-paid accounts anyhow, so I am recommending that option for most people.
Pre-paid has a big advantage in that if your router doesn't work with the plan, or if 6 months down the road something changes and it doesn't work for you, you simply stop paying, and there are no contractual obligations.
If you have a family or group plan, this may still show up for you as an additional line you can add. Make sure you read the fine print to understand any limitations.
Here are the highlights for the pre-paid option:
- Pre-paid – no contracts, easy to sign up
- $50 / month for 100GB – some fine print has said a voice line is required or you are charged $40 extra, but I wasn't for the two lines I purchased, and have not heard of anyone else seeing this – it would show up in checkout.
- 5GB 4G LTE roaming in Canada/Mexico – plus unlimited roaming (at 2G speeds) internationally
- Bring your own device – works in hotspot and router devices like Peplink or Cradlepoint, or you can get a hotspot from them. No special setup required – just plug it in to your router/hotspot and go.
- Unlimited music streaming – a nice feature – I stream almost all of my music
The existing or previous plans that T-Mobile offered were from $60-80/month and only allowed about 22GB of data. Some of those stopped at 22GB (which is what I was migrated to earlier this year) while others continue functioning at 3G speeds (mostly unusable) after that. To now be able to get 100GB for $50 is truly a fantastic deal!
The fine print also cites this:
Plus taxes and fees. On all T-Mobile plans, during congestion, heavy data users (>50GB/mo. for most plans) and customers choosing lower-prioritized plans may notice lower speeds than other customers. Video typically streams at DVD quality (480p).
The important points out of that bit:
- If you go beyond 50GB/month, your connection could get super slow in time of congestion. That happens where a tower is busy which can be in rural areas just as much as in metro areas. Near my marina, when cruise ships docked, T-Mobile was essentially unusable if you were over your data allotment for the month. This restriction is not unlike similar restrictions on high monthly data or even “unlimited” plans from many other providers.
- Video streams at 480P. I personally don't care, since I'm just happy I can watch Netflix and Hulu at anchor if the weather is bad. If you expect HD streaming on any LTE data plan, you're going to need to use VPNs or other things to get around the restrictions, and you're going to burn through your data very fast. I'd suggest using Plex or another local server solution instead.
It's important to also note that these are data-only hotspot plans. They cannot be used in a phone or other device. Voice services won't work, and I wouldn't bother trying or testing it since it might send up a flag on T-Mobile's end.
My friends over at the Mobile Internet Resource Center have a news article on this change as well with even more details if you want to get deeper into what is being offered.
This plan talks about access to T-Mobile's new 5G network which might get you excited for faster speeds and newer technology. I wouldn't get too excited….
The various G's that providers have used in the last few years – 3G, 4G, 4G LTE, and now 5G – have been confusing. They all stand for “generation” – so 5G is the 5th generation of the technology. LTE stands for Long Term Evolution and is the underlying standard that these all fit into in some way.
The problem with 5G, and it was a similar problem with 4G, is that each provider is saying they have it, but it means completely different things, and it is changing frequently.
5G for Verizon generally means technology called mmWave which is super fast, but the radio waves can't penetrate walls or glass (!!) so it is limited to outdoor use in metro areas. It is also extremely short range compared to existing 4G or LTE signals. In all likelihood, mmWave will never be usable from a boat given it's short range, and that it would more likely be deployed in metro cities.
5G for T-Mobile means a bunch of new bands/frequencies that they are using in a sort of layered fashion, plus mmWave in the future. This included lower band (Band n71 / 600 mhz) stuff they rolled out early in 2020, and mid-band stuff (Band n41 / 2.5Ghz acquired from Sprint) that has been turned on in October 2020.
You'll notice those bands have a little “n” in front of them, which stands for “new radio”. None of the normal providers such as Peplink or Cradlepoint have devices that support these bands yet. It will be a while.
Tests with the newer 5G stuff on T-Mobile has shown about a 20% increase in speeds, so that's nice. However, if you're in this to try to increase your overall speeds, it's better to combine two SIMs/plans with features like SpeedFusion from Peplink than it is try to to shop for 5G plans and devices. Most people looking for 5G on boats should be focusing on the coverage and range that it provides, not speeds.
Bottom line, don't expect faster speeds with this plan, and don't waste any time trying to track down 5G capable routers just yet.
You can find the plan here.
Here are my tips for signing up for this plan, or any pre-paid plan:
- Don't try to combine it with an existing T-Mobile account. It looks like there may be some benefits, but it seems like it is only offered to newer accounts? Not completely sure, but I would just sign up as a pre-paid customer separately.
- Use a reliable credit card to pay for it. Pre-paid plans don't work like traditional post-paid, contract plans where you pay at the beginning of the month for the service you used last month. Pre-paid is a fixed price that gets charged at the beginning of the month and you need to have payment ready right at that time. Many people have lost amazing unlimited pre-paid plans because their card changed or couldn't be charged, and the provider usually will not try again – if the plan has been retired, and they can't charge you for it, it's gone forever.
I've tested this SIM in the following devices:
- Peplink MAX Transit CAT18
- Peplink MAX Transit CAT12
- Peplink MAX HD1 Dome CAT18
- Amarok GL-X1200 with CAT6/CAT4 modems
- Teltonika RUTX11
The most important ones to me are the CAT18 devices, which T-Mobile blocked earlier this year. This plan solves that, and allows me to once again use T-Mobile as a decent provider around the Puget Sound area with their great coverage.
In all of my testing, I was able to successfully connect to T-Mobile's network and had good data speeds. I have not reached the 100GB data limit yet, but I expect things to slow down when hitting that mark, or at 50GB in congested areas.
Keep in mind that T-Mobile could change what devices could access this plan, and there would be little recourse. Your device could also not work depending on what it is, so choosing the pre-paid plan is a smart choice in case you need to cancel. If you have a device you've tested that works, please post in the comments below so we can update the article above.
If you need a good, cheap plan for a router or hotspot, and you don't already have an unlimited or high data allowance plan from T-Mobile, I would jump on this right away. Carriers often only offer these types of plans for a limited amount of time.
100GB a month is quite a bit, and especially for $50 pre-paid, and no contract is required. It's a massive improvement over the previous $80/month 22GB plans that they were offering.
Not only is it a decent amount of data, but it is contract-free, fairly inexpensive, made for routers and hotspots, and gets you access to T-Mobile very easily. Highly recommend!
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