From 2G to 4G: How to make sure you get the T-Mobile iPhone 5 performance you deserve!

After its failed merger with AT&T, it seemed that T-Mobile was doomed. But the company has come roaring back with a 4G network buildout, game-changing contract deals for its customers, and an aggressive marketing campaign. I decided to switch to T-Mobile when I got my iPhone 5, but I ran into a few roadblocks that finally got sorted this past weekend.

T-Mobile uses GSM, the same type of technology that AT&T uses for its wireless coverage throughout the US. While T-Mobile's network isn't as wide as AT&T, they do have some advantages - there's a lot less traffic congestion on T-Mobile's network, so you get faster data transfer speeds in heavily populated areas, for example. T-Mobile is building out its LTE network to help accommodate the faster speeds of the iPhone 5 and other LTE-capable devices.

T-Mobile also costs less than the competition, and doesn't force customers into long-term plans that incur steep early termination fees for leaving early. That, and an irrepressible desire to support the plucky underdog, is what drew me in. And as the proud owner of a new unlocked iPhone 5, I figured it was as easy as going to my local T-Mobile store, signing up for service, popping in a nanoSIM and going.

It wasn't. I was left with a phone that was crippled.

In major urban areas and a few outlying, wealthy and populated suburbs, my phone would show a 4G or LTE connection. But most of the time I was relegated to EDGE speeds. That's right, 2G.

For a long time, the running joke was that the iPhone, especially on AT&T's network, could do anything except make a phone call. (When the iPhone finally came to Verizon, I'd ask people if they knew what the killer app was on the Verizon iPhone, then show them the phone app.)

With T-Mobile, I was stuck at the opposite end of the spectrum - my iPhone worked great for voice calls, but everything else sucked. Unless I was on a trip to New York or San Francisco - then everything worked fabulously.

I checked a few times with T-Mobile, and they told me that they're in the process of "refarming (opens in new tab)" their cell phone towers. The bulk of T-Mobile's network in outlying areas comprises second-generation PCS technology which operates on the 1900 megahertz spectrum. Those are the towers that my iPhone was connecting with 90 percent of the time.

Those towers are being converted from EDGE to 4G HSPA+. As this buildout happens, people with unlocked iPhones from AT&T should see faster service. But it's going to take a long time for T-Mobile to get its entire network there - probably at least through the end of 2013.

This is where I was ready to throw in the towel and just go with AT&T, which I had been reluctant to do because, well, I have my reasons.

Then it dawned on me: You can buy an iPhone 5 on contract from T-Mobile that works just great on T-Mobile's network. I spoke with a T-Mobile rep about it.

"Well, sure, we can sell you an iPhone 5 that works every bit as good as every other phone on our network," he said. "But it's a locked phone."

Shouldn't I have had essentially the same phone from Apple, minus the locked profile?

Turns out I didn't.

T-Mobile started selling the iPhone 5 on April 12, 2013. I got my iPhone around April 15. My unlocked GSM phone - a $649 phone direct from Apple - was missing the frequency support to communicate on T-Mobile's network.

It took me about an hour and a half at a local Apple Store to convince the Genius who was helping me - and later the store manager - that all I needed to do was to swap out my phone with another unlocked GSM model. Once that was done, I had a new iPhone 5 in hand, with the same T-Mobile nanoSIM, and it works on 4G almost everywhere.

I must have gotten stuck with some old channel inventory before Apple began shipping iPhone 5s optimized for T-Mobile.

There were a couple of lessons I learned along the way that are worth passing along:

  • Unlocked phones are worth the money, compared to the cost of buying a locked phone and paying a long-term contract. It's more money out of your pocket up front, but less money out of your pocket in total.
  • They're especially worth the money if you plan to travel internationally. Buy a new nanoSIM when you arrive at your destination and be saved the hideous expense of international roaming rates.
  • The unlocked iPhone 5 that's sold in the Apple Store today works every bit as good on T-Mobile as phones bought from T-Mobile.
  • If your unlocked iPhone 5 is stuck in 2G hell on T-Mobile and it's still under warranty, go back to where you purchased it and explain to them it's not working right. Don't take no for an answer - insist on getting your phone swapped out.
Peter Cohen
  • Well, that's nice to know. I got my T-Mobile ready iPhone 5 when they swapped it due to the defective start/wake button recently. Also, all iPhone 5's are definitely still under warranty.
  • Just to clarify your article, the part about no ETF on T-Mobile. That is partially true. However, if you buy a new phone from TMO and opt for the interest free monthly payments, and you cancel your account, your balance on the phone becomes due immediately, which in the beginning exceeds an ETF from the contract carriers (for the iPhone 5 at least).
  • This is the way to make sure.. iPhone 5 Black 16GB: FH19
    - iPhone 5 White 16GB: FH1C
    - iPhone 5 Black 32GB: FH1D
    - iPhone 5 White 32GB: FH1F
    - iPhone 5 Black 64GB: FH1G
    - iPhone 5 White 64GB: FH1H
  • thanks gadgetmon!
    so just to clarify - since my serial number ends with FH1D - that means i have the correct radios?
  • That is correct and it would need to be unlocked or T-mo
  • thanks!
  • Yep, this jibes with my experience - my (new) iPhone 5 ends in FH19. (Now you all know I have a 16GB black model. ;)
  • This is exactly what I did and they were excellent. The closest apple store is over an hour away from me if I don't have to sit in traffic. Every time I have had to go there they have made sure I did not regret the trip. Super helpful and friendly and swapped it right out for me. Sent from the iMore App
  • There an Apple support acrticle that helps with this issue of which phones work on proper T-Mobile AWS band (1700/2100). support .apple. com/kb/HT5720? viewlocale=en_US&locale=en_US I have an unlocked iPhone 5 that is not supported that I bought right after the 12th. I will take Peter's advice and work with Apple to resolve even though I am AT&T I planned to switch to T-Mobile in October after my contract was up for the same reasons. Of course I may not have the same type of star power as Peter Cohen, but I will try.
  • I did the same thing. I made sure I was up front and honest with them about why I wanted a swap. I told them I didn't want to lie, and say something was wrong with the phone, when there really wasn't, just to get a swap. But I also made sure to reiterate that I was NOT entitled to a swap, but I was merely asking them to use their discretion if possible. They appreciated the honesty, and said that they would do it because I was being honest about it. I don't agree with Peter that Apple should HAVE to do it for everyone who has an AT&T version that is unlocked, and you shouldn't leave until you get it. His case is slightly different, as he got his right at the time when TMob began selling the 5, so it should have likely been the version that worked on both. But for everyone else, I'm amazed at that level of entitlement that people think they are owed, just because this is Apple. Imagine trying that with a car that you bought, where they made an update to something in the vehicle, and you demand that you are entitled to a swap, because you want that upgrade? You bought the phone under an assumption and understanding that it was going to be used on AT&T's network. Just because Apple started selling it for TMobile, and had the foresight to include the plumbing in the hardware to allow it to work on TMobile, with a future firmware tweak, doesn't mean you are entitled to the new version now. The phone was fine when you bought it, and you were ok with it then. Just cause you changed your mind and now want to go to TMobile, doesn't mean Apple has to give you a new (or almost new phone), for your used one. So my suggestion is lose the air of self entitlement, and try to use a little bit of humility when you go in to ask, and you might be surprised what happens.
  • "I don't agree with Peter that Apple should HAVE to do it for everyone who has an AT&T version that is unlocked, and you shouldn't leave until you get it." I didn't say anything about people with AT&T iPhones. What I said was, "If your unlocked iPhone 5 is stuck in 2G hell on T-Mobile and it's still under warranty, go back to where you purchased it and explain to them it's not working right." I agree that you attract more flies with sugar than vinegar.
  • Correct Peter. You didn't actually say that. But then again, you didn't specify which segment of unlocked iPhone 5 users you meant, either. But the way the article reads, and the fact of the matter is, anyone who bought an unlocked GSM phone before the Tmob/Apple partnership, would have been buying the phone for use on ATT, otherwise, they knew what kind of speeds they'd be getting if they used it on TMob. And if they bought it after the announcement, they'd have the new version already. So unless this article was for the very, very small percentage who just happened to catch it at that switchover time, like you did, then who would it be for? Was this article written to provide instructions for probably 0.001% of the iPhone5 users out there? Don't get me wrong. I completely respect your opinion and what you do, Peter. I just think the way this article is written will convince all the att unlocked people who purchased it before the announcement (or anyone who unlocked it themselves off eBay services) to think they are owed a swap, when they are really not.
  • What about the clumsy who have iPhone 5 older models on AppleCare+? If they get phones replaced now, are they the new ones? Or is Apple still clearing out some old iPhone 5 stock with the replacements?
  • No, it appears from what I've seen and experienced that all the replacements are now the ones that will support all the ATT and TMobile. You would just want to double check that the serial number end s in one of the four digit combinations above in the comments section of this thread.
  • This has been my plan all along. Sent from the iMore App
  • I have the 64gb in white, love it on T-Mobile. Don't have the LTE on T-Mobile yet, it's just a few blocks away from my house but an getting super fast HSPA+. During the day I get 17 - 22gb down and 5gb up. Get LTE a few blocks away and it is over 30mb down and 8up. The LTE has just started and will get even faster. Very happy with T-Mobile. Real unlimited data plan.
  • Too bad their coverage is horrible. I'll probably be leaving them soon. EDGE is just too slow (3 kpbs speeds) for 2013 when AT&T and Verizon have blanketed practically their entire networks multiple times over with 3G, HSPA+, and LTE, and Verizon will be launching LTE-Advanced soon.
  • Apple has a support article which documents the specific models (and serial ranges) which support the T-Mobile bands. To find out if your phone is the T-Mobified version, check here:
  • > In major urban areas and a few outlying,
    > wealthy and populated suburbs, my phone
    > would show a 4G or LTE connection.
    > But most of the time I was relegated to
    > EDGE speeds. That's right, 2G. Please tell us WHERE. You can't just say you have crappy service and not tell us!! ;)
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  • Help, I bought a used unlocked iphone 5 and I set up a prepaid on tmobile. Interestingly I never ever receive a 3G signal. Whenever I don't have 4g it drops to edge immediately or to no service at all. I spoke to tmobile and apple and they couldn't identify the problem. Please help