There really shouldn’t be anything momentous about switching cellular carriers, but this year was different for me. After seven years of using AT&T, I finally switched to one of its competitors. I’ve been expecting to switch for six years, yet the process of actually doing it turned out to be a bigger deal than I’d imagined. If you’re thinking of switching carriers, I hope my experience — a generally very positive one — will be useful for you.
Why Switch Cellular Carriers?
Up until AT&T got an exclusive on the original iPhone — something I was professionally obligated to buy and use — I was a very satisfied customer of T-Mobile USA. It wasn’t easy to leave a cellular network with generally trouble-free pricing and performance just to get service for a device I needed for work. But I switched to AT&T in 2007, and quickly began to experience the kind of brain dead customer service and network spottiness T-Mobile had insulated me from. AT&T’s service low point has become a legendary story for friends and co-workers: Apple released the iPhone 3G, leading to the first round of what turned out to be years of customer disputes over iPhone upgrade pricing and availability.
When we went to get one for my wife, who was at the hospital after giving birth to our first child, an AT&T employee told my wife that she should have planned the delivery properly so she could pick up her new iPhone in person. As per AT&T policy, even her husband — a registered user on the account — couldn’t pick up the phone for her. We were stunned. Despite this idiocy, and too many subsequent examples to count, we didn’t have another option, thanks to AT&T’s iPhone exclusivity agreement and my job.
AT&T’s exclusivity ended when Verizon and later Sprint made deals to carry iPhones, but between their slower data speeds and inability to simultaneously use cellular data during phone calls, we felt stuck with AT&T. Once a viable rival, T-Mobile USA had all but collapsed. In part due to delays associated with failed merger talks with both AT&T and Sprint, its once-strong cellular network had fallen behind, and even though T-Mobile was internationally an iPhone carrier, Apple wouldn’t let the American T-Mobile sell iPhones. It took until 2013 for Apple to add official T-Mobile USA support to iPhone hardware. But even then, it was hard to consider switching to T-Mobile, which didn’t have as much LTE coverage as AT&T or Verizon.
Enter The Test Drive
This month, thanks to some really smart T-Mobile initiatives, that changed for me. Back in June, T-Mobile unveiled Test Drive, a seven-day iPhone 5s loaner program that let prospective customers try out the company’s cellular network for free. After signing up for Test Drive, it took four days for the box to arrive, after which I used the T-Mobile test phone alongside my otherwise identical AT&T iPhone 5s, driving from place to place comparing the results. Ookla’s Speedtest app measured data speeds, and I made some phone calls, listening for differences in audio quality and connectivity.
I was surprised: I’d expected the T-Mobile phone to have markedly worse performance in most places. But due to a variety of factors, that wasn’t the case. In high-density locations where AT&T’s network was saturated, T-Mobile’s network tended to deliver twice the speed. In less populous areas, the phones sometimes ran comparably, sometimes in one network or the other’s favor. For sure, there were times when AT&T’s performance was stronger — the best and worst speeds I saw overall were both AT&T’s — but in my experience, AT&T rarely had a huge advantage: it tended to be faster when T-Mobile’s service was already fast enough. When I was on the road, I didn’t see “No Service” on the T-Mobile phone.
There was one exception: dead zones. Several times early on in my test drive, the T-Mobile phone unexpectedly dropped calls or experienced network errors. One call dropped when I walked into a mall, and another dropped in both directions crossing the same point on a street. Another problem, when a Beatles song began to flood my car’s speakers during a speakerphone call, turned out to be an iOS 8 bug rather than T-Mobile’s fault. Then I tried calling tests on more streets, highways, and at home. For whatever reason, perhaps as the result of a new iPhone carrier update, the dropped calls stopped and didn’t reappear. Based on everything I’d experienced — understanding that the new network’s performance mightn’t always be ideal — I was ready to make the switch.
It should be said that moving from AT&T’s network to T-Mobile’s isn’t necessarily going to be as seamless in your area as it was in mine — Test Drive is there to help you figure that out. I tested the T-Mobile iPhone 5s for days on roads and in places I commonly visit, with a radius of around 15 miles. But I didn’t leave my geographic region. So hefore I made the switch, I asked for reader input over Twitter and received a mix of comments, including some positive responses, alongside reports of major network issues in Massachusetts, as well as some angry customer service complaints surrounding the iPhone 6 launch. If I hadn’t experienced equal or worse things over seven years with AT&T, the complaints might have scared me away from T-Mobile. I’ve come to accept the fact that none of these wireless companies is wonderful — the difference is that T-Mobile is trying a lot harder to win new business.
T-Mobile’s Simple Choice data plans are aggressive. There’s no two-year contract, and the monthly prices are much lower than AT&T’s. Even for $50 per month, you get unlimited calling and messaging, with zero overage charges for going over the allotted 1GB of data — just speed caps for the rest of the month. You also get more high-speed data for each $10 step up to $80 per month, where the data becomes unlimited, including up to 5GB of Personal Hotspot tethering.
At AT&T, I was paying an average of $87 monthly for the since-discontinued “unlimited” plan, which prohibited me from tethering, included zero text messages, and imposed artificial caps on both my calling and data usage. AT&T’s “unlimited” plan now warns you and slows you down if you hit 5GB in a month; its convoluted voice minute counting still uses separate counters to penalize or replenish you for monthly “peak calling” and “rollover” use, with separate rules for video calling. I was paying a fee every time I received or sent a text/MMS message that didn’t use iMessage, which I couldn’t always control. Every month’s bill was unpredictable, which was a bad user experience.
Wisely, T-Mobile has done away with all of the nonsense. You don’t need to care at all about your calling minutes or the number of messages you’ve sent or received. And if you do a quick check of your actual monthly data usage, which I did with AT&T’s myAT&T app, you can figure out how much cellular data you actually use, then pick a level of service where you won’t ever have to worry about data overages, and probably not slower speeds.
Wi-Fi and Cel-Fi Calling
But T-Mobile has gone further than that. Starting with iOS 8, T-Mobile not only lets you connect your iPhone to a Wi-Fi router to make and receive phone calls, but will supply a very well-regarded and modern 802.11ac router to you for free — you just pay a $25 refundable deposit. This reduces demand on its cellular towers and improves the quality of your service indoors. In my testing with an iPhone 6 Plus, and tests run by friends on older iPhones, the Wi-Fi calling feature works really well. Newer iPhones can automatically hand off calls to T-Mobile’s cellular network when you leave Wi-Fi coverage area; older phones cannot.
Additionally, if your home or office has weak LTE service, T-Mobile offers a separate “Cel-Fi” signal booster that turns one bar of service by a window into four or five bars of service indoors. Once again, the booster is free with a $25 refundable deposit. For me, this meant that years of excessive iPhone battery drain based on AT&T’s “weak cellular signal” — over 30% of drain, according to iOS 8 during months of beta testing — are now gone. I can now make cellular, Wi-Fi, and video calls without feeling penalized or worrying about quality; everything just works. I was particularly impressed that the company did little thoughtful things, like sending a free text message to help with setup of the signal booster, automatically upon processing the transaction.
Tethering and International Roaming
The other key hooks for me were tethering and international roaming. AT&T has used tethering — aka Personal Hotspot — as a carrot to force its remaining “unlimited” customers onto more expensive, data-limited plans. In practice, this meant that there was a $20 monthly surcharge and loss of “unlimited” data if I wanted to share my iPhone’s cellular data even briefly with a laptop, tablet, or iPod touch. As a competitive differentiator, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile have offered tethering to customers at no added cost. Even though I’ll probably rarely use the feature, being locked out of it when I occasionally needed it was awful: trying to switch it on led to an iOS message that I needed to call AT&T and change my service plan. International roaming, which I’ll occasionally use on cross-border jaunts into Canada or trips overseas, is similarly included with T-Mobile for free, versus $30-$120 monthly “add-ons” at AT&T. I refused to pay AT&T’s ridiculous fees for rarely-used services like these, and now I won’t have to.
That was what bothered me the most during my time with AT&T: the nickel and diming. Rather than using its gigantic scale to offer customers markedly better cellular or customer service, AT&T took its customers for granted, and tried to find as many ways as possible to charge them excessive fees. Someone at AT&T actually created a calculator to help people figure out whether they’d need to pay an extra $120 per month for a meager 800MB of international cellular data. Over the past seven years, AT&T effectively created penalties for all sorts of optional but occasionally useful services, pushing customers to actively seek out workarounds such as device unlocking, international SIM cards, and tablet-specific cellular data plans. There would never have been a need for any of this if AT&T followed T-Mobile’s simpler but smarter approach: just sell access to data and let customers use it as they like.
Getting T-Mobile-Compatible Hardware
Today, the biggest challenge in switching to T-Mobile is getting Apple hardware to use with it. Technically, any iPhone 6 or 6 Plus sold by Apple for AT&T, Verizon, or T-Mobile should work on T-Mobile’s network. But AT&T iPhones are sold locked to AT&T, and unless you’re willing to pay a fee to a third-party unlocking service, you’ll need to get AT&T’s permission to unlock them. AT&T wouldn’t unlock an iPhone 5s I’d used for a year, so buying and unlocking an AT&T iPhone 6 probably isn’t a realistic option.
Apple makes it harder to get iPhones for T-Mobile than it does for other carriers. If you look closely at the Apple Store iOS app, you’ll notice that Apple doesn’t even include T-Mobile as an option for ordering iPhone 6 or 6 Plus devices; you have to go through Apple’s web site to place a T-Mobile order. Even on the web site, T-Mobile is treated as a second-class citizen, placed on a line below its rivals. T-Mobile retail locations aren’t faring much better: local stores say they’re only stocking 16GB units, so they’re directing customers to order online, with a “1- to 4-week” wait for iPhone 6 and a “1- to 8-week” wait for iPhone 6 Plus hardware.
There’s one piece of good news. If you can find a Verizon iPhone 6 or 6 Plus at an Apple Store, and purchase it with no contractual obligation at full price, it will not only work on T-Mobile’s network, but actually arrives unlocked for use on AT&T, Verizon, or T-Mobile, with both GSM and CDMA service. Buying from Apple requires you to give up one thing: the ability to trade in your existing cell phone to T-Mobile in exchange for cash to use towards the new iPhone, and the related ability to have T-Mobile cover your existing carrier’s early termination fees. Since there’s a “switch to T-Mobile” subsidy of up to $650 per line of service at stake, placing an order through T-Mobile’s web site and waiting for the delivery might be a better idea.
My personal switch to T-Mobile has been very positive. For the first time in years, my iPhone is showing four dots/bars of cellular signal strength at home, and not bleeding battery life. It’s also making calls over Wi-Fi, letting me tether, and capable of working in other countries without killing my wallet. Buoyed by my experience, my wife switched, too. She never forgot AT&T’s callous response to the birth of our now six-year-old daughter, and has been as anxious as me to switch — when the time was right. That time is now. Our collective cellular bill just dropped by $70 per month. And we’re glad to be back on the network we felt forced to leave years ago.
Just in case you’re wondering, T-Mobile did absolutely nothing behind the scenes to move us to switch. We haven’t gotten assistance from anyone at the company save for its regular customer service representatives, and we’re not getting any special pricing or treatment. Three of the customer service reps we’ve dealt with have been excellent, and a few haven’t been stellar. We’d be surprised if our experience wasn’t fairly typical, but obviously, cellular and customer service can vary, so if there’s a locally better provider for your needs, certainly consider it, instead. In any case, there’s no need to stay with a cellular provider that isn’t offering the services you need.
If T-Mobile gets bad for whatever reason, we’re not under contract, so we can switch carriers in a heartbeat. The continued freedom of customers to go elsewhere may well motivate T-Mobile to keep ahead of its rivals going forward — motivation AT&T has certainly lacked up until recently.