Pssst...RV Rule-Breakers Are Loving T-Mobile Home Internet
Cheap 'Trash Can' Service Works Great But Not Meant To Move
Elon Musk’s Starlink satellite internet system is grabbing all the attention at the moment, but I’m seeing a much cheaper option for domestic cruisers that offers similar performance. There’s only one catch: Using it underway would break the rules.
The system is from T-Mobile, and it’s called 5G Home Internet. The hardware is an 8½-by-4¾-inch tower, which users refer to as their “Trash Can.”
We live on a boat. When Home Internet service came to our area of North Florida, I signed up immediately and was immediately impressed. I Velcro-mounted the Trash Can on a shelf adjacent to a portlight, because T-Mobile recommends that it be placed near a window (though I suspect the propagation properties of solid fiberglass are similar to a glass window anyway).
Signal strength at our location is a consistent three bars, which is T-Mobile considers “good,” and I consider fantastic based on results.
Up until then we had been struggling along with a WiFi hotspot and cellphone hotspot from the same carrier for both business and pleasure. She sells insurance through a proprietary web-based corporate platform, and I…well, I do this. We also stream movies. Before, we had to husband hotspot data because it would quit working after 50 gigabytes until the next monthly cycle. Similarly, my phone’s hotspot stepped down to 3G after 40 gigabytes, which meant having to endure frequent spooling during movies.
There is no data cap whatsoever with Home Internet, which costs a flat $50 a month. The tower, which is made by Nokia, is on loan for the duration of your subscription. There is no contract, and you can cancel the service at any time and return the tower.
At our location in North Florida, speed tests routinely show download speeds of 100 mbps and uploading at up to 30 mbps, which supposedly “should be able to handle multiple devices streaming HD videos, video conferencing and gaming at the same time.” Other users report speeds triple and quadruple my results.
Similar performance is reported by Starlink users, but at a higher price. Starlink service costs $110 a month after the purchase of a $599 receiver. Starlink plans to be available to everyone between 44- and 53-degrees latitude globally by the end of this year. The Home Internet picture is more complicated. At the moment, T-Mobile offers coverage in parts of 49 states with greatest coverage in California, Texas and Florida.
Of the three, Florida likely has the most cruisers and certainly the most cruisers on the move. I followed the T-Mobile Home Internet coverage map down the East Coast of Florida and saw consistent 5G availability, which did not stop until just south of Key Largo.
As I mentioned, using a Trash Can underway is problematic, at least in theory. Using it outside an initial subscriber’s address violates T-Mobile terms of service. Advertising it as a fixed system, T-Mobile apparently calculated the network’s capacity to handle anticipated Home Internet subscribers in each coverage area and worried that customers moving to and fro might cause an imbalance, degrading service for both themselves and customers playing by the rules.
So, what did T-Mobile customers who are RVrs and long-distance-truckers do? Some wasted no time taking their Home Internet systems over the highway. For proof, peruse online forums catering to these roving subcultures or visit the T-Mobile Home Internet Facebook page. Although T-Mobile limits use of the system to an initial location, many users reported that it worked—without having to be adjusted—anywhere in the country that has T-Mobile 5G coverage.
Some users even reported that low-level T-Mobile salespeople had gone off message, advising that Home Internet towers would work anywhere with 5G and not to worry about consequences from corporate.
Here is a report from “a family of six” on an RV road trip covering 1,300 miles in two days:
Traveled from Illinois to Ft Myers, Florida. The T-Mobile home internet works fantastic. Traveled down interstates 74, 55, 24, and 75, all with a good connection. My kids watched a lot of Netflix on a smart TV, and my wife worked remotely on her laptop with several Skye calls with no dropped calls.
What I love about it is that I unplugged the T-Mobile home internet and one of our Google WiFi pucks from our house and plugged them in the one outlet in our RV with constant 110. All phones and devices picked up the internet just like at home. Didn't need the generator at all, no password or network changes needed.
Currently sitting in Fort Myers getting 378 mbps speeds in a random parking lot, waiting to check in later today at our campground, which has notoriously bad WiFi.
So, what would T-Mobile corporate have to say about these apparent abuses?Obviously the company has the means to identify and block outlaw subscribers, but would they? I asked Elizabeth Seelinger, T-Mobile public relations manager for emerging products.
Loose Cannon: I am a boating writer who often covers electronics. Can you please tell me why the Home Internet system, which is what I've got on my boat, is supposed to be tied to my current location?
Elizabeth Seelinger: Great question – thanks for reaching out! T-Mobile Home Internet is completely different from wireless. To ensure a great experience for everyone, we allocate access to 5G Home Internet on a sector-by-sector basis to only offer it in places where we can ensure there’s enough network capacity to deliver a great network performance to all our customers. This means that eligibility is specific to your home address. Because of this, we ask that customers do not move or re-locate their Home Internet gateway.
LC: Thanks for getting back to me. Most boaters on the East Coast are going through the densely populated coastal regions. Can I assume this where the most service capacity has arrived?
I'm reading online that the RV community is moving all over the country and reporting good experiences with Home Internet. Is T-Mobile punishing any of these folks (for lack of a better word) for breaking the rules?
Plus, the liveaboard boaters who might benefit from Home Internet are a much smaller group, maybe only 20,000 for the whole East Coast. Seems like too insignificant a number to overload the local networks along the way, no?
Seelinger: Thanks for the response. Just want to stress that T-Mobile Home Internet is not intended for use on the go. T-Mobile does offer hotspots for this purpose though…Home Internet service is specific to your physical home address, so you can’t move with it from one location to another…Liveaboard boaters (who are stationary) are welcome to sign-up for T-Mobile 5G Home Internet, as long as their address is eligible and stationary.
LC: I take your point about being stationary. Have you had to use any means to enforce or discourage this behavior, other than just state the rule?
Seelinger: We haven’t seen any widespread use outside of eligible addresses. However, if you were to use the service away from the approved address, you’d likely experience performance issues, as the service is intended to be used only at the address approved for service.
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Okay, she really didn’t answer all the questions—no surprise. In my opinion, the key takeaway from this exchange is the fact that T-Mobile has not seen “widespread use outside of eligible addresses,” which makes sense given that the company signed up its millionth Home Internet customer earlier this month. With only a tiny fraction of its customer base living like techno-gypsies, the head office may well have deemed these kinds of terms-of-service violations to be harmless.
Worst case scenario: T-Mobile fires you as a customer and makes you give back the Trash Can. You will be no worse off than where you started.
T-Mobile says its goal is to have its full-spectrum 5G network available to 99 percent of the United States by 2027. Maybe by then T-Mobile’s Home Internet would be deemed transportable. Mobile, you might say.
Verizon, it should be mentioned, has a similar service, which might be worth checking out. Of course, neither system—neither T-Mobile nor Verizon—will work outside the U.S.
Maybe Starlink will be a cheap alternative for cruisers going beyond the horizon, where traditional marine satellite services are now the only option—at a very high price. Pity them, with Mr. Musk breathing down their necks.
Lastly, domestic cruisers considering Home Internet and willing to break the rules, can take a cue from the RV and Trucking communities. Go on a roadtrip paralleling the waterways you intend to transit and see how well the device works. Don’t take my word for it. As a bonus, you will be able to brag, for example, about how you “did the Great Loop” in a car. Who does that?
A lot of times terms of service are used as a buffer so the company can’t be sued. The device is meant to work at home. If you travel and experience no service then you can’t come back on them and say you have no service.
I see a huge CLASS ACTION ..…...if they try to implement that to people like me that disabled and live in the van that would be a big deal to them