Can you hear me now, John Legere? Here are the results of my T-Mobile Test Drive

John Legere

T-Mobile CEO John Legere during the company’s “Uncarrier 5.0″ event.

“When are you going to do your Test Drive, Tricia?”

That was the question T-Mobile CEO John Legere laid on me during our interview following a very passionate — some may argue controversial — performance at the Paramount Theater two weeks ago, where he outlined the Bellevue carrier’s next moves for disrupting the wireless industry.

If you haven’t yet heard, T-Mobile’s Test Drive is a way to try an iPhone 5S on T-Mobile’s network, on loan for seven days, without making a major commitment.

Sometimes I had no service when testing the iPhone 5S at home.

Sometimes I had no service when testing the iPhone 5S during my T-Mobile Test Drive at home.

If you find the phone works for you, then maybe one of T-Mobile’s cut-rate plans will entice you to make the switch. But if the network isn’t up snuff, you can return it without paying a dime.

“We think everyone should cheat on their carrier and enjoy every minute of it,” Legere said that evening.

The concept is yet another way that T-Mobile is trying to be an “Un-carrier,” a term T-Mobile’s marketing department uses describe how the company is trying to solve customer “pain points” and move away from many of the wireless industry’s traditions.

The Test Drive program has two goals: Letting consumers test for themselves whether T-Mobile’s network has improved, and spreading the word that T-Mobile finally has the iPhone for sale, too.

Legere is a big talker, and he thrives on making extravagant claims, so when he asked me when I was going to take a Test Drive, I told him I didn’t have high hopes for T-Mobile. I switched from T-Mobile two years ago after moving to West Seattle, where I got spotty reception (a deal-breaker when working from home).

But during our interview, Neville Ray, T-Mobile’s CTO, assured me that over the past 18 months, the network has been rebuilt from the ground up. In fact, Legere bragged last week on Twitter that T-Mobile hit its goal of covering a population of 230 million people with its super fast LTE network.

Its super-fast network is something the company is very proud of. It claims to have “the most dense network in the nation,” and more cell sites per customer than any other wireless company.

Trying to load GeekWire in the Safari browser with one bar.

Trying to load GeekWire in the Safari browser with one bar.

So I did what Legere suggested and gave T-Mobile another try, just like 12,000 other people who signed up for Test Drive in the 24 hours after it was announced.

And here’s the result: Two years later, I still get poor reception at my house. The service may have improved, somewhat, but I am not one of those millions who has access to T-Mobile’s super speedy LTE network.

Over multiple days of testing the phone, here’s what I found:

  • I often had one bar of 4G, sometimes a couple bars of EDGE (that’s 2.5G).
  • At home, I occasionally would have “no service” or it would say “searching,” especially in the lower level of my house, which is still above ground.
  • The phone didn’t actually say “T-Mobile LTE” until I went into the GeekWire office in Fremont. The service was really, really fast at the office, hitting 20 mbps at one point.
  • When I did have one or two bars of 4G at home, the service was fast. I could stream ESPN, for instance, and clocked the network at 6mbps down and 0.24 mbps up.
  • During phone calls, words were garbled, however, and I found myself saying the dreaded “Can you hear me now?” cliche, made famous by T-Mobile’s larger competitor, Verizon Wireless. During one eight-minute long conversation, the call dropped twice.

In the words of T-Mobile’s marketing chief Mike Sievert, “Sounds like a pain point.”

Still searching...

Still searching…

In response to my experience, T-Mobile acknowledged it can’t reach every house and building. (I live just off a major arterial in the City of Seattle, albeit on the west-facing slope of West Seattle.) A spokeswoman also offered me additional equipment that would boost the cell site’s range to my house, and pointed out that in circumstances like these, it’s possible to make phone calls over Wi-Fi.

But generally, nothing could be done. I’m better off using Verizon, and my husband is very satisfied with AT&T.

“This is what the Test Drive is about,” said T-Mobile’s Stephanie Hanschka. “We think the way people buy wireless in this country is broken. They have no way of knowing what the network is going to be like for them personally until they’ve gone through a time-consuming and painful switch. That’s not good for anyone, so we’re ending it. At T-Mobile, we think buying blind is just crazy…and so we’re changing it.”

  • ddvelin

    and how much in bogus charges did you rack up during the test drive?

    • http://www.bytenow.net Andy G

      The Test Drive is free.

    • UMA_Fan

      You realize customers of all national wireless carriers in the US were billed for the third party charges right? T-Mobile has done more than any other company to get those charges refunded to customers since late last year. Not sure why the FTC singled T-Mobile out and many people suspect at&t/verizon spending major lobbying dollars to give them bad press since T-Mobile has been heavily eating into their market share.

      Objectively speaking is there any reason the FTC didn’t sue att, verizon, and sprint for the same charge?

    • Maverick

      Bogus charges!

      Watch out. Don’t trust any carrier especially tmobile. legere is nothing more than a used car salesman. Shoddy at best.

  • Guest

    Did you try using wifi? When I had T-Mobile service, their customer service recommended that I use wifi to get better data coverage. I could even make phone calls and send texts using wifi.

    • http://www.bytenow.net Andy G

      The iPhone, using iOS 7, does not support those features.

      • Guest

        Not a concern — iOS 8 is coming out soon.

        • soon

          Soon isn’t now.

          • Guest

            You can download it now. Bing “iOS 8 beta.”

          • guest5527

            So we’re using “Bing” now?

          • Guest

            Yes, we are. If it’s good enough for Apple, it’s good enough for me.

    • Maverick

      That’s really insane. Sign up with a wireless carrier network and pay them for using wifi.

      Makes 0 financial sense.

      • Amber

        The wifi calling/texting capabilities are free and a last resort if you are in a poor reception area. It is never something you should completely rely on. Ask for a coverage check when entering a retail store to see if your most visited locations are covered. If they are, then sign up. The wifi calling is for times when you’re away from home, work, etc. Like when I visit my friend’s house out in the sticks I get 2G speeds there, but I can make calls and send texts seamlessly through wifi. It’s really not a big deal…

        I love T-Mobile. Only provider besides Sprint which offers unlimited data and at a decent price. T-Mobile is changing the face of wireless! So happy to have left Sprint.

  • UMA_Fan

    T-Mobile is the only national carrier with WiFi Calling and with iOS 8 Apple has confirmed they will finally support it on T-Mobile.

    So essentially the service problems in your home, and any building for that matter, would be eliminated. In some cases, better reception than Verizon in many buildings provided WiFi existed.

    For those who don’t know, WiFi Calling is a huge differentiator for T-Mobie US customers. Your calls and text messages work seamlessly as if you were connected to a cell tower. No logging into a third party app. It’s your same phone number everything works like normal… but through WiFi.

    • Guest

      I agree. T-Mobile is America’s best mobile phone company when you’re on wifi. I strongly recommend that if you want to save a little $, get a wifi access point and switch to T-Mobile. You’ll be glad you did.

      • UMA_Fan

        Alternatively on another phone company you could be stuck in a building unable to place a call.

      • UMA_Fan

        Actually for certain people who rarely venture into the boonies or do so once in a while it would be cheaper to pick up a prepaid Verizon LTE mifi and use your Tmobile phone to do WiFi calling off of that than to actually sign up with Verizon.

        • Guest

          I like it! T-Mobile is truly a great mobile phone company, especially when it’s backed with the power and coverage of Verizon.

    • http://www.linkedin.com/in/frankjramirez/ Frank Ramirez

      Wherever there is free access WIFI, also make sure your security is configured correctly prior to use.

    • Bryce

      Sprint also had WiFi calling. Additionally, WiFi isn’t available everywhere so that doesn’t make up for her low signal and dropped calls while she is out and about.

      • UMA_Fan

        Sprint WiFi calling is different. Not available on all devices, won’t be supported on the iPhone, and requires one bar of CDMA to work which makes it pointless.

        • Bryce

          That’s incorrect. Wi-Fi calling is making its mmway to all devices in Sprint. It will more thank likely be added in iOS 8 since it now supports that feature. It also doesn’t require a signal as you think. It uses GPS to determine if you are in a Sprint coverage area. That requirement will soon be dropped because Sprint is pushing for Wi-Fi calling for international use and of course, internationally, there is no native Sprint signal.

  • http://www.bellevuefineart.com/ panacheart

    I like T-Mobile, and I’ve been with them for years. But it’s a tradeoff. Verizon has the better network, but it’s expensive and any interaction with support or billing makes you want to go postal.

    But despite liking T-Mobile I sometimes get poor data coverage, or none at all, and I can see their headquarters from my house in Bellevue.

  • rmeden

    I agree WiFi calling can soften the blow with T-Mobile’s network issues. Unfortunately, they only make it available on expensive handsets purchased directly from them (no Moto-G for example). Hey T-Mo, bring it back to all devices via an app-store app, like you used to!

    • UMA_Fan

      They never had WiFi calling via an app. Its integrated into the OS so its not something a downloadable app would have access to. Tmobile has $200 and less devices available that support it including windows phones but you have to buy it straight from them because Google won’t support natively. When Apple supports it with iOS 8 I suspect it will register with the public consciousness a lot more.

      • rmeden

        What $200 or less device? If I search on their web site referb android phones with WiFi calling sorted by price and the cheapest is the LG Flex at $408. (I’m talking full price, not financed)

        • rmeden

          Ok, I do see a few.. Samsung Exhibit is $144 and Prism II is only $72. But those phones are crap compared to a Moto-G. (the Galaxy S2 is $200, which we already have).

          • Amber

            I am a sales associate for T-Mobile and any phone can be set up with wifi calling (besides iPhones, for now at least). It is something we set up when activating an account and if you contact customer care or enter a retail store it can be added to your account. So no worries!

  • http://geekwire.com Tricia Duryee

    As a previous T-Mobile customer, I really liked wifi calling. It was great, but now I just don’t think about the cellular coverage at all — I just assume it will work, and it does, and I pay a lot for that luxury. This test drive was a reminder to me how I had to hack together service before. I guess you get what you pay for, and if you are willing to tolerate a bit of tinkering, T-Mobile is one of the best options out there. It’s funny because the cab driver who drove me home from the Uncarrier 5.0 event was a T-Mobile customer. He also didn’t have coverage at home, and he said he finally had enough and was switching soon.

    • Jamison Shaw

      Glad I stuck with Sprint. Thanks again for helping me realize why I did not leave sprint for tmobile even with all the network complications I lived through…Most of those issues are completely gone, and I’m glad I stuck where I am.

  • Cynicism

    Haven’t wireless carriers been doing some version of “try before you buy” for years now? Sometimes its a 30 day return, sometimes 14 day ostensibly so you can try it at your house, work and other places you go? This never struck me as revolutionary. The only shiny/new aspect is the iPhone, right?

    And, frankly, I’m surprised they gave you a phone and those lofty expectations w/o knowing your address before hand. Reporter demo 101 is knowing what the reporter is going to experience before shipping them the equipment.

    • Jamison Shaw

      You can check your coverage before getting a tmobile test drive phone. The difference between the test drive and actually signing up for service, is exactly that. You’re not signing up for service. You’re testing a phone as if it were a car your loaned for 7 days and then returning it. Even sprints 30 day money back guarantee requires you to activate service, purchase phones, sign contracts etc….Test drive is just a few clicks, credit card information and thats it.

      • jeremyvbk

        But coverage means nothing when drastically overstated by all carriers. On T-Mobile only the two darkest shades have usable data in my finding here. I’d rather personally spend less money and sign a contract, have longer period to “test drive” a network. And if it fails return the device, and get a refund for the actual phone, and no charges for used service. And T-Mobile has to put a hold for the full cost of the phone on your Card. Which can be harder for everyone to test drive it. And here for example we have no T-Mobile corporate store ,city of 100k+, and so the nearest one is Dallas. It is places like this that people need to be test driving.

  • BBOY

    I thought there was a period where you can return the phone if the service is not working. T-Mobile is nothing but gimmiks. They have a subpar network and they ahve to use used car sales tactics to get people to buy their service. UGHHH they are so anoying! Can someone just please buy them out!

    • Pat

      +1 yup – BBOY is correct ! They are so quick to make the “sale” that after the sale they don’t care about you at all. I got the test drive phone and it was a failure – dead out of the box and no one would step in and help! What an awful experience – just like getting a used car from a sleazy dealer!….

  • Pat

    Get this, I got my test drive iPhone 5s from T mobile 3 days after ordering online and it was defective out of the box!

    Would not power up – just dead – an iPhone paperweight!

    2 hours of calls with 5 different customer support reps = nothing.
    2 trips to local T mobile stores (corporate owned) = nothing.
    2 days wasted trying to get a replacement – no one would offer any help!

    No one would help me out – so I returned the phone after 2 days of frustration.

    At least I got my debit card hold released for $760 the next day… That’s the only thing I got.

    So having been a Verizon customer for over 15 years, I must say that I should probably keep paying $250 per month instead of T Mobile’s $100 for 4 lines ???

    Is that an irony or what ??

    What a loser of a test drive…..

  • Maverick

    Two years later no change. No surprise there.

    legere is full of hot air. Since 2011 there’s been no coverage expansion and rural areas still suffer.

    You get what you pay for and paying for wifi is financially stupid. When signing up with a carrier consumers pay for network service because not all phones are supported by wifi, only selected few.

    tmobile is the worst!

  • Justine

    John Legere someone who says they know you Thomas Atkinson says you’ve provided him (just today even in print) with all of my text and phone details and you asked if he wanted you to suspend my account. This is not only illegal but unethical please confirm before I seek legal counsel.

  • Melissa Cardenas

    i got this here in los angeles i put my att iphone 5s to the side , i was impressed with tmobile data speeds , outside with full dots lte up to 60 dwn att tops out at 15 . Once inside buildings or stores tmobile searching no service , att at least 2 dots and works to call n txt were as tmobile nada , i will be returning it and stick with my att iphone 5S more expensive a month but worth it .

  • Amber

    As a sales rep for the company I want to defend T-Mobile. I really do believe that T-Mobile is trying to reinvent the face of wireless. The company is the smallest amongst the big 4 (Verizon, ATT, Sprint, T-Mobile) so it’s coverage has suffered a little. However, after a deal between ATT and T-Mobile fell through earlier in the year, the company has been pouring millions into revamping the network. Speeds are faster and more areas are being covered. This isn’t something that happens overnight, so if you live out in the sticks, of course I’m not going to recommend our services to you. That would be ridiculous. If you live in a more urban area it’s perfect! The coverage is dense and the speeds are fantastic! I moved from Spring to T-Mobile and couldn’t be happier. I really do believe the network is expanding. The prices are great and the company is trying to get rid of customer pain points. For example, switch from any other carrier and you will experience these benefits:

    1. No more contracts
    2. Upgrade when you want not when you’re told (with the new JUMP program you can upgrade your phone once it’s half paid off rather than wait 2 years)
    3. No more data caps/overages
    4. The fastest speeds of any wireless carrier (Our retail store has reached spikes of 60mbps!!!)

    So far I have had no problems with my data coverage, and I love how innovative the company is being! John Legere, you are one crazy man. But I always tell our customers that brilliance and insanity are known for being one in the same.

    PS wifi calling and the test drive program are free so we’re not stealing your money or ripping you off :)