T-Mobile’s biggest problem

America's most important wireless carrier has a huge problem that its CEO's showmanship will never overcome

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I live in Bergen County, New Jersey. Just a stone’s throw from my previous home on the upper east side of Manhattan, my neighbors and I get to enjoy things like houses, trees, backyards and privacy but a quick 20-minute drive brings us to midtown in New York City. My area of Bergen County really is the best of both worlds, offering a suburban setting with many of the conveniences of urban living. But there’s one thing New Yorkers can enjoy that I cannot: T-Mobile.

Bergen County is the most populous county in the most densely populated state in America. There are a lot of consumers here. And yet in my home and in many of the areas I visit regularly, T-Mobile’s coverage is very poor.

In most rooms in my house I see one or two bars of LTE service at best, though sometimes T-Mobile devices struggle to see any LTE at all. Download speeds range from an impressive 15Mbps to a paltry 200Kbps. There is no rhyme or reason to it; some days are better than others. In my basement, I never get any T-Mobile LTE service.

At my parents’ house 20 minutes west of my town, there is no T-Mobile LTE service. At my wife’s mother’s house just a few miles from there, there is no T-Mobile LTE service and barely any 3G or even 2G service. I sometimes can’t even connect a phone call or check my email on a T-Mobile phone unless I’m on her porch.

Contrast that with AT&T, which I use for my personal cell phone service, or with Verizon Wireless, the nation’s top wireless carrier. I would be hard pressed to find an area of Bergen County I visit even sporadically that doesn’t offer four or five bars of LTE coverage.

My problem is not uncommon. T-Mobile CEO John Legere bragged during a press conference at CES 2014 on Wednesday afternoon that his company’s LTE service now covers 209 million people. As impressive as that figure is, the U.S. population currently sits at nearly 320 million.

Glance over the comments section of any T-Mobile coverage in the digital media and you will inevitably see variations on the same statement over and over. Move over to social networks like Facebook and Twitter and you’ll see more of the same. The gist of it is this:

I would love to switch to T-Mobile but the coverage stinks.

In some areas like much of Manhattan, T-Mobile’s LTE service is terrific. Even in areas where subscribers know they have solid coverage, however, there is still no guarantee that they’ll be covered when they go the mall, or visit a friend in another town, or try a new restaurant. And if they want to go on a hike in the woods or visit some other remote area, forget about it.

This is T-Mobile’s biggest problem.

The handsets are there; T-Mobile carries plenty of popular devices. The prices are there; T-Mobile’s plans are extremely competitive. And of course, then there are T-Mobile’s Uncarrier initiatives, which offer several solid value-adds to sweeten the pot.

But even if I wanted to, I couldn’t switch to T-Mobile. With AT&T, I’m covered everywhere I go. Period.

T-Mobile is working hard to solve the issue, and there is no question the carrier is making progress at an impressive rate. T-Mobile’s LTE network now covers 209 million people. This time last year, it covered zero people. And the company is showing no signs of slowing down, having just announced a $2.37 billion deal to acquire more spectrum from Verizon.

Chief executive John Legere is incredibly fun to watch. AT&T bashing and other antics aside, he is on a serious mission to shake up the wireless industry. Against all odds, he is succeeding. T-Mobile added a jaw-dropping 4.2 million new subscribers last year and its larger rivals are now chasing its every move, often to no avail.

As I said Wednesday afternoon on Twitter, the wireless industry has never been this fun to cover.

But numbers are just numbers. Surely I am included in that impressive 209 million figure, for example, but I would hardly consider myself “covered” by T-Mobile’s LTE service. Not by a long shot. Yes, I get LTE reception sometimes, but it doesn’t even come close to resembling the reliable service I see from rival carriers.

T-Mobile is making impressive progress and it is incredibly fun to watch this story unfold, but there is indeed still much work to be done.

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