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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.”

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