A rubble-strewn construction site outside the El Cortez, a notoriously low-rent Las Vegas casino, is probably not where you want to be in the middle of the night.

But it’s where I had to go to try out T-Mobile’s new 5G network, which is one of the more perplexing 5G buildouts I’ve seen so far. I’d even dare say T-Mobile doesn’t have its heart in it, and I can explain why.

T-Mobile appears to have tacked some millimeter-wave panels onto existing cell sites at easy-to-access places in Las Vegas and called it a day. Because the network firmware can only access half of T-Mobile’s available spectrum right now, speeds are pretty uninspiring. It’s a very different approach from AT&T, which has focused on high-traffic areas and is delivering gigabit speeds.

T-Mobile has a plan. The rollout I saw just isn’t it.

T-Mobile Needs to Drive 55

Of the three wireless carriers using short-range, millimeter-wave 5G spectrum, T-Mobile is the only one that has released coverage maps. Its coverage map in Las Vegas is, well, pretty spotty, and honestly presents the carrier as not covering popular locales like the Strip or the convention center.

T-Mobile Las Vegas 5G Coverage Map

It’s important to note that T-Mobile’s coverage makes more sense in some of its other launch cities. In New York, it has pretty dense coverage in some of the busiest parts of Manhattan. In Cleveland, it covers hospitals and college campuses, where people would tend to congregate and use a lot of mobile data.

I went to five sites on the Las Vegas map and ran 48 tests on the night of July 9. T-Mobile’s map was pretty honest for all of them! In general, each site had a 1-2 block radius, between 500-700 feet, where it provided coverage. That’s better than I was seeing with most of the AT&T sites in Las Vegas, which had around 400 feet of coverage. Here’s a Google Map showing you how three sites panned out.

The thing is, that map does not show you how truly desolate many of these locations are. For instance, here’s the downtown location I checked. It’s on an industrial block currently closed to traffic and reduced to rubble, albeit with a large apartment building and the El Cortez casino just at the edge of the cell radius a block away.

Downtown Las Vegas 5G cell tower

Site No. 2 on my tour was in a parking lot on the edge of Las Vegas’ “art district,” a low-rise neighborhood of small homes and artsy shops between the Strip and downtown.

Downtown Las Vegas 5G cell tower

Site No. 3 was in the parking lot of an Embassy Suites hotel, serving pretty much just the Embassy Suites and a neighboring gas station.

Downtown Las Vegas 5G cell tower

Compare those sites with the super-bustling, center-Strip locales where I tested AT&T 5G, such as this view right outside Caesar’s Palace.

Caesar's Palace Las Vegas

Okay, so what’s going on here? Did you notice what those T-Mobile sites had in common? They’re standing out in lots on big poles, really easy to access. It looks to me like T-Mobile just tacked 5G up where it’s easy, rather than where they intend people to actually use it.

That’s because they don’t want people to use it.

The Tri-Band Strategy

Big, sprawling Las Vegas is very different from dense New York, where T-Mobile already has cell sites every two blocks as it approaches capacity limits on its 4G.

In Vegas, T-Mobile really wants to use its tri-band strategy. The company has said it’s going to use low-band 600MHz frequencies for coverage, and once it merges with Sprint, it will use Sprint’s mid-band 2.5GHz for speed.

Look at those poles again. They all have big antennas on them. Those are 600MHz antennas. T-Mobile isn’t just enabling those sites with two-block-wide millimeter-wave—it’s getting ready to turn on 600MHz 5G at each of them, which can blanket a neighborhood with one mega cell site.

But the currently available, first-generation 5G phones don’t support T-Mobile’s 600MHz 5G, and the company doesn’t know whether or not it can use Sprint’s assets yet. The company has said it will have a phone that supports low-band by the end of the year, and it hit a milestone today by connecting a data call over its low-band network.

The first-generation phones have other problems as well. I had two Samsung Galaxy S10 5G units with me, and even testing in the middle of the night, they tended to overheat and drop back to 4G. To T-Mobile’s credit, when that happens, the network indicator flips back to 4G LTE, as opposed to showing “5G” when it’s no longer connecting to 5G, as AT&T’s phones do. Once I cooled the phones down, they’d flip back to 5G.

The overheating issue appears to be endemic to all first-generation, Qualcomm X50-based millimeter-wave phones. So it’s best to see this Las Vegas rollout as prep, rather than production. T-Mobile is hooking up its macro sites with 5G to prepare to blanket the Las Vegas valley with broad, low-band coverage. But it can’t make any announcements on that until the low-band phones come out, and they’re three or four months away.

So What About Speed?

Average Download Speed June/July

The speeds I saw on this test run weren’t that impressive. I got a high speed of 462Mbps outside Frankie’s Tiki Room on West Charleston Avenue, a bunch of results in the 200s, and several results under 100Mbps.

That doesn’t compare favorably with AT&T in Las Vegas, which was able to deliver a lot of 800Mbps-900Mbps results and peaked at 1.048Gbps.

My T-Mobile tests in New York didn’t average much higher, but I saw much better, more seamless coverage over more of an area, and more frequent results in the 300-400Mbps range.

T-Mobile’s performance in Las Vegas will change soon, the carrier told me. T-Mobile owns 200MHz of 39GHz spectrum in Las Vegas, but it’s currently only using 100MHz. T-Mobile’s cell sites will get an upgrade later this month to use the full 200MHz, which means speeds should double.

But the real prize T-Mobile has its eyes on is down the road. Those parking-lot sites will make a lot more sense when low-band 5G emanates half a mile from them, as opposed to the 600 feet of millimeter-wave we’re seeing today. I expect some big announcements around Thanksgiving.

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