Exclusive: T-Mobile upgrades mobile tethering feature with 5G access

(Image: Detusche Telekom/Handout, Graphic: The Desk)

When wireless company T-Mobile rolled out its newest consumer plan last week, the move grabbed headlines for a lot of reasons.

The biggest element of T-Mobile’s announcement that drew the most attention was the company’s decision to stop slowing down connection speeds on its most-expensive plan, now called Magenta Max. For $85 a month, Magenta Max subscribers can use as much data as they want without ever having to worry about their service slowing down — whether they’re on the company’s robust, nation-wide 5G network or connected to the still-plenty-fast 4G LTE network.

Other perks got honorable mentions, like T-Moble’s decision to include a basic Netflix subscription with Magenta Max if a customer has a single line of service (before, this was only offered on accounts with two or more lines), the ability to stream content in ultra-high definition when connected to the cellular network (previously, it was limited to standard definition on Magenta and high-definition on Magenta Max) and an increase in the amount of premium mobile tethering, or hotspot, data allotted to each plan (5GB on Magenta, up from 3GB, and 40GB on Magenta Max, up from 20GB).

But there was one upgrade that T-Mobile didn’t mention — and it’s a big one.

TP-Link RE220 AC750 Unboxing

On Thursday, a T-Mobile spokesperson confirmed to The Desk that both Magenta and Magenta Max subscribers are now able to connect to the company’s 5G network when using their smartphones as a mobile hotspot. The move means Magenta and Magenta Max customers are able to access T-Mobile’s 5G wireless network on their tablets, computers and other devices when connected to their smartphones using the built-in tether or hotspot feature.

The same perk is also offered to customers who sign up for Magenta or Magenta Max plans using T-Mobile’s senior discount, which it calls Magenta Unlimited 55 and Magenta Max Unlimited 55, and also applies to discounted lines for military members, first responders and business customers. Business customers who sign up for T-Mobile’s newest business plans under the T-Mobile WFX campaign will also be able to connect to T-Mobile’s 5G network when they use their phones as mobile hotspots.

The move puts T-Mobile on par with its rivals, AT&T and Verizon, which also allow access to 5G data when a customer uses a phone to tether to other devices. But Magenta Max winds up being a better deal for customers: AT&T charges over $85 a month for 30GB of mobile hotspot data on their 5G network, while the same plan at Verizon costs over $90 a month. By comparison, T-Mobile’s Magenta Max customers pay just $85 a month — with taxes and fees included — for 40GB of hotspot data.

So why isn’t T-Mobile making a bigger deal out of this? Well, there are two reasons.

First, T-Mobile is still in the process of updating its website, according to a person familiar with the company’s plans. While all Magenta, Magenta Max and Enterprise Unlimited plans allow customers to access the company’s 5G network when tethering with a phone, some pages on T-Mobile’s website still claim the feature is limited to LTE connections only. Going forward, those plans will change to explain how much “high speed” data a customer is allowed to use when tethering before that part of their service is slowed to 3G speeds.

And then there’s the phrase “high speed” data, which is how T-Mobile will reference its mobile hotspot feature from here on out, the person explained. The fine print on T-Mobile’s website reveals why: Smartphone data is prioritized over mobile hotspot data. Most customers  won’t have any problem accessing T-Mobile’s 5G network when connecting their tablets, laptops or other devices to their phones, but during times of intense network congestion, those devices might have to temporarily revert to T-Mobile’s 4G LTE network or wait a few seconds to have their data processed.

But will that even matter? Probably not. T-Mobile’s 4G LTE network is still plenty fast, enough to “perform basic internet tasks,” according to Rtings.com. In other words, a tablet tethered to a smartphone during periods of congestion would still be able to check e-mail, shop online and post to Facebook, but it might find more-demanding tasks like streaming movies or online gaming to be a bit sluggish.

Still, those occasions are likely going to be rare for customers of “America’s 5G leader.” For people who want to connect their laptops, tablets and other devices to their phones when on the road, T-Mobile just gave them a gigantic reason to switch to them.

Thanks for reading and supporting The Desk. If you have a question, comment or news tip, send a message by email or text, or connect on Facebook, Twitter or LinkedIn.

Also, check out our new membership service The Desk: Pro Access for exclusive reporting, news scoops and in-depth analysis.