Wireless Service and T-Mobile’s LTE Band 71 Conundrum

September 19th, 2017

The entire American marketing scheme for selling mobile handsets received its overdue overhaul via T-Mobile’s “Uncarrier” program. Instead of being stuck with a two-year contract, they basically separated the device from the service.

Well, I suppose it seemed different enough, because you would strike a separate deal to buy or lease a mobile device. This meant that, once the equipment was paid off, your bill would be reduced accordingly. Compare that to those old fashioned two-year cellular plans where, even when you technically had no more obligation to pay off a device, the price would never go down. You’d pay it forever.

You can bet which plan sounds better. But that doesn’t mean U.S. cellular carriers — and even Apple — don’t have a scheme to lock you in. So you can pay a monthly fee for the device, and depending on the deal you select, you can regularly trade in your equipment for the new model. If you want to upgrade every year, you pick the appropriate deal.

In short, you never stop paying. What’s more carriers will, from time to time, offer a trade-on on your old equipment from another carrier. So if you still have payments to make, you can opt to remit the balance, sell it off to a third-party, such as Gazelle, or see what the carrier offers.

But  before you switch carriers, you’re certainly going to want to make sure that you’ll have decent coverage. You don’t want to deal with dropped calls, the inability to make or receive calls, or the lack of a decent Internet connection. Indeed, other than price and other considerations, this is a key reason to switch carriers.

So I have an AT&T account for my business with three lines. One of those lines is used by Chris O’Brien, co-host of my paranormal radio show, The Paracast. These days he hangs his hat in Cottonwood, AZ, and thus probably won’t get reception that’s as solid as it is in and around Phoenix.

That’s understandable.

But I’ve been tempted to switch from AT&T for various reasons, and not just to pay less. You see, customer service, which used to be decent enough most of the time, has declined seriously in the wake of the company’s acquisition of the DirecTV satellite service in 2015.

It’s not just bad, it’s awful for users of both services. In order to reach a phone support person, you have to navigate an automated voice assistant that’s only barely capable of voice recognition. As a trained radio broadcaster, I believe that a digital system ought to be able to detect most of my routine requests accurately, but it doesn’t. More often than not, I’m connected to the wrong departmentt. So when I want to talk to someone about my wireless bill, on occasion I am sent to DirecTV support.

T-Mobile has some attractive offers, and my monthly bill may really be lower. And, yes, I’ve looked at prepaid plans, but when you add up the total cost for the level of service I need, savings aren’t so terrific. I require a decent amount of mobile data to continue to drive for Lyft and Uber. Hours upon hours of running a navigation app with turn-by-turn directions while driving passengers about sucks up bandwidth real fast. It’s one of the costs (tax deductible) of doing business.

But one of the big limitations of T-Mobile’s network up till now is that coverage in rural areas hasn’t been so great. So it’s understandable that the company has been attempting to build out its service to provide better coverage not just for less-populated areas, but in buildings in large urban areas where you’re apt to lose a signal.

As part of the network expansion, T-Mobile is rapidly rolling out cell towers that support LTE Band 71 at 600 MHz. They have begun to deploy the expanded service in different parts of the country where service wasn’t so good before, such as Wyoming and other more sparsely populated regions such as West Texas, the Oklahoma panhandle — well you get the picture.

If you live in one of these states, the prospects for expanded coverage should be welcome.

But if you’re read the published reports, you’ll discover that the no iPhone supports Band 71. No, not even the iPhone 8 and iPhone X, nor the Apple Watch with LTE. What’s more, this is a hardware limitation, meaning that these devices can’t be retrofitted later on.

If it’s going to happen, you’ll have to wait until next year to see if Apple installs chips with the proper support.

But even if you’re inclined to switch to a Samsung Galaxy instead, well, no, they don’t support 600 MHz either. Future gear from LG and Samsung will reportedly support Band 71, so one expects Apple to provide such support, perhaps next year.

So was this some evil plot on the part of the major mobile handset makers not to support T-Mobile? It’s more a matter of development time, that with the rapid rollout of 600 MHz, manufacturers didn’t have the chance to order up cellular radios that support this band.

This doesn’t mean that T-Mobile doesn’t work with iPhones and the other premium handsets. It will, just on other bands. This is where the coverage maps may be misleading, presenting a picture of solid coverage where it won’t exist for you.

In fact, coverage maps in general may be highly misleading.

Before you change carriers, you may want to talk to your coworkers, friends, maybe family members in other cities where expect to travel. See which carriers they use, and their experiences as a guide.

Overall, I would assume that larger cities ought to have decent coverage from any major carrier in the U.S. The problems tend to occur in outlying areas. You can also check a carrier’s money back guarantee, and see how long you have to cancel the service if it doesn’t meet your needs.

Long and short is that T-Mobile’s coverage map does display active service areas in Arizona that appear to be better than AT&T and closer in density to Verizon Wireless. Sprint is almost universally worse.

I won’t make any moves, though, until I know for sure that I’ll receive the level of dependable service that I need. But I am really tempted to leave AT&T behind, really tempted.

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2 Responses to “Wireless Service and T-Mobile’s LTE Band 71 Conundrum”

  1. Czar Emboalo says:

    If T-Mobile is your target, you can purchase a data device and data package from T-Mobile. I’m guessing that a data device compatible with the 600 mHz, band 71 should be available now or perhaps sooner from T-Mobile. That way you get the coverage until it becomes available with the next generation of Apple devices.

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