Why More Cell Phone Companies Should Offer User 'Test Drives'

A true test of service

Key Takeaways

  • T-Mobile now offers iPhone users a 30-day 'test drive' of its network, using a limited-time app.
  • While limited, experts say that programs like T-Mobile’s network test drive could give users a more realistic view of what to expect from the network’s coverage map.
  • No other carriers currently offer similar options, but more widespread eSim support could open the door for more test drive plans in the future.
Someone picknicking and using an iPhone in a rural setting.

Luke Porter / Unsplash

Experts say widespread adoption of services like T-Mobile’s Network Test Drive app could make finding a cell phone carrier easier for users by giving them a more realistic way to test the network’s coverage.

At the end of June, T-Mobile announced the launch of its Network Test Drive app on iOS devices, including the iPhone XS or newer. When downloaded, the app allows users to test out the network’s coverage in their area without replacing the SIM card in their phone.

Instead, it uses the eSIM built into the iPhone, and while there are some limitations, many users, including myself, have used it to give the network a try in their area. It’s not a perfect solution, but experts say with more widespread adoption, it could change how we search for the perfect cell phone carrier.

"It's super annoying when you can't get any signal bars in your town, let alone in your own backyard. The benefit of a 'try before you buy' program is it allows customers to test coverage before committing to any long-term contracts," Tyler Abbott, a wireless service expert with WhistleOut, told Lifewire in an email.

"You can hit up your local haunts, make sure you can refresh your Instagram feed, and send out texts before committing to a plan. If you can't get a reliable signal, then you know to find a new carrier."

Trust and Accuracy

Any consumers who have had to change cellular service in recent years know how frustrating it can be to spend hours looking over coverage maps just to find it isn’t as good as advertised. When this happens, you often have to return the phone that you’re using, pay back any return fees, and just go through the general headache of refunding the purchase.

A T-Mobile Coverage Map

T-Mobile

With systems like T-Mobile’s test drive network, users could try out any new networks without having to commit to a phone purchase or any kind of plan.

The problem with coverage maps is they don’t always tell the full picture. Back in 2018, the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) opened an investigation into claims that bigger networks like AT&T, Verizon, and others were exaggerating the coverage that they offered.

In 2019, the FCC released the full findings from that investigation. The report showed that cell carriers exaggerated their coverage roughly 40% of the time when creating coverage maps and advertisements. 

It’s unclear if the maps available in 2021 show more coverage than the carriers actually provide, as the FCC didn’t share any plans to fix the problem. However, providing the ability to test the network before switching would alleviate any concerns that consumers might have concerning accuracy.

Universal Need

Without systems like the Network Test Drive, users are instead forced to rely on coverage maps and promises from advertisements. With no way to fully verify the findings showcased on that material, customers may end up subscribing to a carrier’s service that isn't a good fit for their area. 

Someone sitting on top of their vehicle trying to get cell phone signal.

Justin Paget / Getty Images

Solving this issue can become especially important in more rural areas where high-speed broadband isn’t readily available, since many turn to their mobile phone as a way to access banking and other important information. 

With so much of our daily lives moving to the digital landscape, having consistently reliable access is essential. In fact, in many areas, home internet options that rely on mobile network coverage have become a good way for consumers to bring faster and more reliable internet into their homes, using the same networks you use to message or call your friends and family.

As such, the need surrounding reliable network coverage has grown beyond the simple task that mobile phones were created to address.

"T-Mobile is currently the only carrier that offers the try-before-you-buy feature, so it's an awesome opportunity to try out a cell phone plan before you commit to anything long-term. It'll be interesting to see if other carriers follow suit and offer a similar service," Abbott explained.

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