NSFW: Sometimes newer isn't better

T-Mobile is doing its best to win the hearts and minds of new customers and hang on to its existing customer base. T-Mobile's focused an aggressive marketing campaign to sign new users up, pitching themselves as the disruptive "Uncarrier" who isn't going to play by the rules set by Verizon and AT&T. But that doesn't change an essential fact: T-Mobile's coverage can be dismal unless you're in a city. That's certainly what I've come to find out, and unfortunately, the solutions T-Mobile is offering to improve the situation don't work for everyone.

I live in what they call an "exurb:" An area far outside the closest cities (I'm equally distant from Boston and Providence, which are both about an hour and a half north and west of me respectively). I'm not in the sticks, by any measure, but I am in a quiet corner of southeastern Massachusetts.

The best of a bad situation

In fairness, service problems in my area aren't unique to T-Mobile. Every time I work at my local Apple retailer, I hear complaints from customers about cell service. And they run the gamut from Verizon to AT&T to Sprint to some of the smaller budget brands. On Cape Cod, there just isn't a lot of cell service infrastructure. That's partly because of geography, partly because of population density, and partly because of provincial NIMBY attitudes from many of the residents when it comes to the erection of new cell towers.

T-Mobile is further hobbled by its own spectrum: The part of the radio frequency its phones and cell towers communicate at is different than where AT&T and Verizon live, and at these frequencies, signals don't travel as far and don't permeate structures like walls nearly as well.

T-Mobile hopes to correct that by deploying 700 MHz coverage across the country. But that buildout is going to take time, and it's going to require phones that support it. And the iPhone 6 is not such a device.

Many of us with T-Mobile are left with only one or two bars in our houses, or no service at all.

By any means necessary

That was the situation I had up until early this year, when after kvetching about it with a T-Mobile support specialist, I was sent a 4G signal booster. It consists of two parts: A window unit, which I place in my son's window in his upstairs bedroom, and a coverage unit, which goes on the opposite side of my house, in my basement office. With both of them plugged in, I get four to five bars of 4G coverage anywhere I go in the house. It's great. Calls are clear, they don't drop.

During an early fall promotion, T-Mobile announced the release of two new devices to help improve signal coverage in people's homes. One is a special router designed specifically to prioritize Wi-Fi calling traffic. The other is a 4G LTE signal booster, ostensibly the successor to mine. Either is available at no cost to T-Mobile "Simple Choice" customers, of which I am one.

When Apple first announced support for Wi-Fi Calling in iOS 8, I figured for sure this was the solution I was looking for. And in truth, Wi-Fi Calling works great. Call quality is crystal clear. There's only one problem, and it's a doozy: For some reason the way it's implemented, you can't use Wi-Fi Calling with another feature introduced in iOS 8 and OS X Yosemite: Call Relay. If Wi-Fi Calling is turned on, Call Relay is, by necessity, deactivated.

I work from home and spend much of my day in front of the computer. Call Relay is by far my most frequently-used Continuity feature. I talk to a lot of people on the phone, because it's still the best way to reach them — whether it's contacts for stuff I'm working on for iMore, or my kids' pediatricians, or my mechanic, or making reservations at a restaurant. In fact, I really didn't take stock of how much I talked on the phone until I started using Call Relay. So being able to make and take calls without actually physically hunting for the phone is a pretty big deal for me.

You get a warning on your phone when you turn on Wi-Fi Calling to let you know that Call Relay is going to stop working. And sure, you can toggle it, but it's another thing to remember to do and it is, quite frankly, a pain in the ass. So I don't. That also eliminated the T-Mobile Wi-Fi router as an option.

So I called up and asked for the 4G LTE booster. I got it, hooked it up, and was promptly disappointed with the results. The signal was never as strong with the LTE booster as it was with the plain old 4G booster, which meant more calls that were hard to understand and more frequent drops.

It's a good thing I insisted ahead of time on keeping my older 4G booster, which I went back to. Or I might be up the creek.

Over the course of two months of experimentation, consultation with T-Mobile and recitation of various incantations to eldritch spirits, I could never get the LTE signal booster to work nearly as well as the 4G booster did. I was told at various times:

  1. That T-Mobile was improving tower coverage near my house, and I should be patient and wait a week or two for things to improve. (I waited and didn't see any improvement.)
  2. T-Mobile sent me a bad 4G LTE router and I should try a new one. (I got the new one and had the same problems.)
  3. I should try different upstairs and downstairs locations for the window and coverage units. (I did, but could never get them to work better.)

I'm not sure if that's because LTE coverage in my neighborhood is worse than 4G coverage, or if the booster wasn't as strong, but the net result was the same: Worse coverage in the house, without a clear way to fix it.

Back to the drawing board

If it sounds like I'm slagging off T-Mobile, let me be very clear: I'm not. They're awesome. T-Mobile went above and beyond trying to find a solution that worked for me, and I'm grateful they let me keep my old booster throughout (in fact, they initially weren't going to, but when I explained my situation, they agreed). And in every conversation I had with them, their support people — especially their technical folks — were polite, cheerful and earnest. It's just that by the end of it, it was clear to me that the new products they offer to improve call coverage in people's houses don't work for everyone.

Ultimately I couldn't care less about LTE data speeds on my phone, at my house. It's on Wi-Fi at home, and that sorts the data issue quite well. I was looking for reliable call service that was at least on par with what I'd come to expect with the 4G booster, and I wanted to future-proof my configuration a bit with the expectation that LTE coverage in my area was going to improve. But that didn't happen.

So the LTE booster went back to T-Mobile, and I'm back to using the first 4G booster they gave me.

It's a much better solution, unless Apple can somehow fix it so Wi-Fi Calling and Call Relay can both work at the same time.