On Saturday, I walked away from a 20-year relationship with AT&T and switched our wireless carrier to T-Mobile. I would be lying if I said it was not an easy decision to make, particularly once I discovered how well T-Mobile treats customers who are older.
I also would be lying if I said it was smooth and simple. There have been enough annoying glitches in the process, but so far nothing that has made me regret saving about $85 dollars a month for faster speeds with unlimited data service.
My family has had wireless service with AT&T since the mid-1990s. We started with PrimeCo, which got swallowed by Cingular, which then became part of AT&T. At one point, our account had five lines with AT&T, but now that we're empty nesters, we were down to just two. (When I told my youngest daughter we were switching, she called us "traitors.")
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Those two lines and a 16-gigabyte data allowance each month cost us about $175. That included unlimited calls, texts and no roaming charges for voice and data in North America. It was $150 a month until late last year, when we added two LTE-capable Apple Watches to our plan at $10 each a month.
Now, I'd been T-Mobile-curious for some time. I liked what the company, under the helm of CEO John Legere, has done. With an aggressive pro-consumer approach, the company has branded itself as "the Uncarrier" and smoothed out a lot of the aggravations that come with wireless service in the U.S. T-Mobile has dragged his competitors - most notably AT&T and Verizon - kicking and screaming into better ways of doing business.
Do you once again have unlimited data service, after carriers killed it off for new customers years ago? You can thank T-Mobile. Do you no longer pay roaming charges in Canada and Mexico? That's T-Mobile, too. Are you able to upgrade to a new phone without waiting two years for your contract to expire? Yep, T-Mobile. The list goes on.
T-Mobile also typically undercuts AT&T and Verizon (and sometimes Sprint, which with it announced a merger agreement on Sunday). But in the past, when I'd looked at my options, T-Mobile wasn't quite a good enough bargain given my family's needs.
I also was wary of T-Mobile's signal quality. In the past, I've known customers whose T-Mobile signal couldn't reach inside some buildings - including the mighty Houston Chronicle's old location in downtown Houston. And the company had a reputation for not providing good coverage in rural areas.
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But then I discovered T-Mobile's Unlimited 55+ plan, which is aimed at people 55 and older. I passed that age 6 years ago, as did my wife, so we definitely qualify. Ironically, I found it when I saw a news story about Sprint planning to launch a similar plan. A link in the story took me to the T-Mobile original.
Here's how Unlimited 55+ works. You pay $70 a month for two lines ($80 if you're not using autopay). It gives you unlimited everything. Yes, as is usually the case with "unlimited" data plans in 2018, there is a limit, but it's a generous one. Customers who go over 50 GB in a monthly billing period may be throttled when they connect to congested towers. For other carriers, that limit is 20 GB.
In addition, we pay another $10 a month ($15 without autopay) for each smartwatch. That brings our total to $90 a month - and it really is $90. T-Mobile bundles in taxes and regulatory fees, which AT&T tacks on.
After doing some research about the signal quality issues - and asking my Twitter followers who are on T-Mobile about their experiences - I determined that my other objections may no longer be valid. T-Mobile has added spectrum, or radio wave frequencies, that can better penetrate buildings. And their LTE coverage has expanded to cover more rural areas, though it can still be spotty in some places.
We decided to make the leap.
When I asked on Twitter about switching, John Legere responded to me, and asked one of his minions to help me out. I thanked him but politely demurred, saying I wanted to be treated like anyone else. To be fair, I've seen him do the same for others considering switching, but I wanted to see what the process was like.
Interestingly, I did not get a similar Twitter response from AT&T. You'd think that a company would have someone monitoring social media looking for people talking about switching and offering to address any concerns. But the first time I heard from AT&T was while my wife and I were walking to our neighborhood T-Mobile store to actually make the switch. A local sales manager texted me. But by then, it was too late.
I knew, though, that AT&T didn't have anything that could match T-Mobile. Their seniors plan doesn't kick in until age 65, and sounds like something out of the cellphone dark ages - no data is available, with only 200 anytime voice minutes and unlimited mobile-to-mobile calls. And it apparently doesn't work with smartphones, much less smartwatches.
At the store, the basic process of switching took about 30 minutes, but there were complications that made it drag on.
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My wife's smartphone came online with the T-Mobile network flawlessly, but mine did not. I could get calls and texts but not data. The store reps were very patient and persistent, checking for errors in the system and calling T-Mobile tech support for help. They wound up telling me to wait two hours – the amount of time it can take for a phone to get on the network – and then get back to them.
Two hours later, I was still not able to connect to the internet. I went back to the store, and after another conversation via phone with tech support, the store reps swapped out the SIM card, thinking the first one might be defective. Sure enough, after a restart, I was online and rockin'.
Some other minor issues: A typo initially prevented my Apple Watch from pairing to my iPhone's phone number, which was quickly fixed. And for some reason, international data use was tacked onto our account for $25 a month, something we had not requested. I was able to remove that myself on T-Mobile's website before it made it onto our first bill.
In terms of the service itself, we're pretty happy. Generally, download speeds are much faster than the ones I had with the same phone on AT&T. For example, we often were hard-pressed to get any signal from AT&T in the Kroger on West Gray near our home, but a test on my wife's iPhone X had a download speed of of 94 megabits a second. In the parking lot of that same Kroger, I got well over 100 Mbps.
And in the living room of our Montrose apartment, I also got over 100 Mbps. There, AT&T typically got around 15-20 Mbps.
Speed tests in other parts of town were sometimes better, sometimes worse. Near our downtown gym, speeds were lower than those of AT&T. At the Chronicle at the intersection of U.S 59 and Loop 610 near the Galleria, they are a little better. In the Medical Center area, speeds were much, much better than AT&T.
I have yet to head out of town and try T-Mobile on the road, but an upcoming trip to San Antonio will test that out. [Update 5.7.2018:We took that trip. See the results.]
But I will be happiest when autopay yanks the first payment out of our checking account, leaving behind $85 more than when we were using AT&T. That's as significant a savings as when we dropped cable TV - AT&T's U-verse, at the time - in favor of streaming TV online.
The day after we switched, of course, T-Mobile and Sprint announced their $26.5-billion merger plan. If the feds approve it, the combined companies will have about 100 million branded subscribers, and 126 million if you count subscribers of cellular providers who resell the companies' service. Legere has vowed that the new T-Mobile will be as aggressive an "Uncarrier" as it was before, with more punch behind it.
That's not been the history of what happens in America when there are fewer competitors. But there's been no cellular carrier like T-Mobile before, either.
[Updated 5.2.2018 to correct combined Sprint/T-Mobile subscriber numbers.]
FOLLOWUP 1: After 8 months with T-Mobile, I'm still glad I switched
FOLLOWUP 2: T-Mobile fixes a big downside to its 55+ plan.
Dwight Silverman is the technology editor for the Houston Chronicle and the grillmaster for the TechBurger tech news site. Follow him on Twitter and Facebook. Sign up for histech newsletter.
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