T-Mobile's new LTE network could help the "Un-carrier" compete with AT&T and Verizon
Almost everybody hates their mobile carrier. T-Mobile wants you to hate them a little less. The carrier plans to debut its LTE network later this month, the company has announced. This, combined with its proposed merger with MetroPCS, which was approved by the FCC last week, and its decision to end phone subsidies will help T-Mobile position itself as the solution to big-carrier woes.
"As the ‘Un-carrier’, our promise is simple," said T-Mobile USA CEO John Legere in the company's Q4 2012 earnings report. "You will see us put customers at the center of everything we do going forward, and that means giving them fair and simple wireless experiences in a way that other carriers never have before."
It's near impossible to talk about AT&T or Verizon without throwing an obscenity-laden tantrum and complaining of ridiculous billing practices, poor coverage (in AT&T's case), or hellish customer service. Both carriers restrict what devices on their network are able to do (unless legal action is threatened), whether it's disabling hotspot functionality unless customers pay a surcharge each month or installing "crapware" on otherwise pristine smartphones.
Contrast that with T-Mobile's decision to enable the Samsung Galaxy Note II's dormant LTE capabilities via a software update. T-Mobile didn't have the network in place to handle this functionality before, so it was turned off. Now that it can support the feature, it'll be turned on. It's a small, simple thing that should be expected of carriers but goes against what AT&T and Verizon have done with other devices.
T-Mobile says that the machinery and antennas that enable its LTE coverage will provide faster, better connections to non-LTE customers as well. The carrier isn't building out its network and then requiring customers to upgrade their devices to take advantage of the change. Again, a win for consumers.
In some ways, T-Mobile has assumed a startup-like position in the US. It has identified problems consumers have with incumbent carriers, from high costs to the fear of a long-term commitment and a desire to not have their devices handicapped for no reason besides lining the carriers' pockets.
And, of course, there's the staple of modern startup culture: The power of mergers, both failed and successful. Take the botched AT&T deal from 2011: T-Mobile walked away from the deal with new spectrum covering the West Coast, with sprinklings of spectrum in the Midwest and East Coast as well.
Or take, instead, the MetroPCS deal, which, if approved, will further extend T-Mobile's coverage and increase its retail presence. Oh, and a 40 percent increase in its available spectrum, which will allow the combined carrier to provide an even more reliable (and potentially faster) network than before.
T-Mobile won't even screw over MetroPCS customers, whose phones utilize CDMA technologies instead of the GSM standard used by T-Mobile, AT&T, and international carriers, promising to support those devices until 2015. The fact that there isn't a "Good Guy T-Mobile" meme yet is just astounding.
Whether or not any of this will make a difference depends on how long T-Mobile is willing to wait for customers bound to two-year contracts to switch from existing carriers and Americans' ability to do the math and get over the larger upfront costs of an unsubsidized smartphone.
It's refreshing to see a carrier make long-term, consumer-friendly bets, however. AT&T and Verizon are an effective duopoly in the US, and have been able to enact policies that benefit them while screwing consumers time and time again. Now that the No. 4 carrier -- or, as Legere says, the "Un-carrier" -- has started thinking like a startup and is barreling ahead with improvements, potential mergers, and new networks, that could finally change.
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