I want to explain some of the few details behind what makes a carrier a carrier and how the perception of connection changes based on different factors. These factors often depend on resources that are limited and largely owned by the bigger corporations.
To start, I will need to give brief overview on how you connect to a carrier like AT&T or T-Mobile. They each own certain amount of airwaves known as spectrum, much like a TV station or radio broadcast. Each carrier can only then broadcast over spectrum that each of them own. And spectrum for cellular carriers is a very limited resource. The original spectrum to go up for sale was bought up by many different regional carriers. Most of these carriers have now been swallowed up by either AT&T or Verizon, who own the majority of the available low band spectrum.
What is low band spectrum versus the high band? Well, low band spectrum can reach much further distances, and penetrate walls much better than high band, but high band can push more through it. High band can get faster data speeds, or handle more concurrent phone calls, but covers a much smaller distance per broadcast location. To give a rough idea of that difference, it would take 3 high band towers to cover the same area as 1 low band tower. This makes the low band essential for deploying cell coverage into rural areas, as it is roughly speaking a third the cost.
T-Mobile 2 years ago, picked up its first low band spectrum from Verizon, for $2.4 Billion. Now, most spectrum is split up onto small blocks, sometimes down to the size of counties. So, this spectrum T-Mobile got, covered a lot of big cities and rural areas, but it was not nationwide. Also, this spectrum had been available and owned by many regional carriers, none of which had deployed anything to them. Why? Because AT&T was blocking it, which is another whole story I won’t get into. Now, having low band spectrum, T-Mobile could now compete in a way they were never able to before as they could start deploying into rural areas is wasn’t monetarily feasible before.
Just getting the spectrum though, didn’t solve T-Mobile’s problems. They had many hurdles to jump through, the main one being getting phones that could use this new spectrum. Not only do they have to either update or build to towers to broadcast this new frequency (spectrum), but for the end user to use it, their phone has to support it, and at the point of the sale, no phone was shipping with support for it, even though it had been existing for over 4 years. That was in thanks to AT&T, basically blocking the competition.
Now, we are a 3 years into T-Mobile owning this low band spectrum, and T-Mobile’s coverage is completely different because of it. I now can connect to a T-Mobile LTE tower in parts of the Upper Peninsula in Michigan, and have connection to LTE all the way along I-75 to the Mackinac Bridge. They have been deploying furiously out to the spectrum to cover rural freeways, so people can stay always connected, as that is what is now expected in this day and age.
You may say in response though, why didn’t I have LTE then for most of the trip to Detroit? Well, remember from what I said earlier, the end device has to also support this new spectrum. Unfortunately, Apple did not add the necessary capability for the frequency until the iPhone 6S. Google's Nexus 5 also lacks the hardware necessary for using this spectrum. Moving forward though, all iPhones will support it. All phones sold from T-Mobile and Google for over year now have supported it as do most other phones built for GSM networks.
Here is great map that will show you where T-Mobile owns licenses for this low band spectrum, and points showing where users have reported sightings/connections to it. This is just confirmed reported sites. There is likely far more within the areas owned, it is just they haven’t been put into the map as they aren’t known or specifically reported. For instance, the UP of Michigan has several towers, but aren’t displayed.
As you may notice in this map, much of the midwest is not covered. This is because US Cellular owns that spectrum. T-Mobile has made roaming agreements with them that go into effect Q1 2017 which means that if you go inside and lose T-Mobile signal, you may then roam to U.S. Cellular.
T-Mobile has been the driving force of major change happening in the wireless space. If in an area with T-Mobile, I like them the best as they offer more features on their network than AT&T and Verizon, plus they are not as evil a corporation. The trade-off is you might hit a few times when coverage is less than optimal in comparison, but make no mistake, AT&T and Verizon have shortcomings in their coverage and network performance as well as a much higher cost of entry, regardless of what the commercials say.
AT&T tried to merge with T-Mobile as T-Mobile was at the time failing, with over 4 quarters with a loss in customers. That merge failed as it was rejected by the FCC. From there, T-Mobile changed its plans and since then has grown every quarter and is now over twice the size making it now the 3rd largest carrier as it passed Sprint in Q1 2016. T-Mobile combined with Sprint are still smaller than AT&T. That just shows how large AT&T and Verizon are.
Because of T-Mobile, we now have the following across the other carriers:
- No Contract options for services
- Improved International coverage
- Upgrade plans for those who always want the latest phones
- Data rollover for unused data in a given month
T-Mobile’s Simple Choice plans first started with 500MB of data. The plans a year later changed to 1GB of data, which was automatically applied for subscribers but their cost remained the same. Little over a year later, it was increased to 2GB, again for the same cost. Something not seen from Verizon or AT&T. Then there is T-Mobile Tuesday where they give away cool free stuff. I’ve gotten many free movie rentals from Fandango, over $40 in credits for buying or renting movies on VUDU, free subs from Subway and Frosty's from Wendy’s.
All of this is the reason why I prefer T-Mobile.
Anyway, hope you found this useful. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below.