The New T-Mobile USA

T-Mobile USA made news on two fronts this week. For starters, the Un-carrier announced that they’re ditching mobile contracts altogether. No more 2-year lock-in with the purchase of a new phone. No early termination fee for leaving. There’s not even an overage fee if you run past your data plan. And the prices for similar services are cheaper than with rivals Verizon, AT&T and Sprint.

Sounds like a plan
T-Mobile’s smartphone plans start at $50 per month for unlimited talk, text and web, with 500 MB of high-speed data. Another $10 will bump you up to 2 GB of high-speed data. Exceed your high-speed data plan, and you’ll be slowed down for the remainder of the month, rather than charged extra. In other words, no surprises. That alone may come as a welcome relief for many of us without deep pockets. You’re unlikely to find a less expensive option than T-Mobile without going to a virtual network operator like Straight Talk.

Of course there’s still that little matter of buying a new phone on occasion. Here in the US, we’ve long been sucked into the buy now, pay later mentality. And not just with our phones. But the reality is that relatively few of us would pay up front for the latest smartphone at the unsubsidized price of, say, Apple’s $649 iPhone 5. Instead of lumping a phone subsidy into the plan and then charging the increase forever, T-Mobile offers two alternate paths.

You choose
When buying a new phone, you can choose to “pay in full today at checkout.” If that isn’t to your liking, you may pay a specified down-payment and a monthly payment for 24 months. While this may sound a lot like a traditional 2-year contract, there’s a key differentiator. You’ll stop paying for your phone the minute you’ve fulfilled your obligation. The other big carriers will continue to charge you a subsidy indefinitely, whether you buy a new phone every two years or not. Looking at T-Mobile’s site today, the pricing transparency of their current phones is both informative and reassuring.

Speaking of new phones
On Tuesday, T-Mobile CEO John Legere announced that they’ll begin officially carrying Apple’s iPhone starting April 12th. The flagship iPhone 5 will launch at $99.99, plus 24 monthly payments of $20 each. All told, T-Mobile’s iPhone 5 is about $69 cheaper than buying one unlocked at an Apple Store. It’s been reported that T-Mobile will serve up a modified version of the A1428 iPhone 5 currently produced for AT&T. T-Mobile’s variant should support Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) 1700 MHz spectrum in addition to previously-supported bands. For this reason, anyone buying an iPhone for use with T-Mobile going forward may want to buy theirs from T-Mobile rather than bringing their own. T-Mobile will also be the first US carrier to support the iPhone 5’s HD Voice feature. In short, T-Mobile’s iPhone launch brings every feature that their customers could hope for, save one. The iPhone won’t support T-Mobile’s Wi-Fi calling that is currently available on many of their other handsets.

But can you… hear me now?
It’s one thing to offer the latest phone hardware at a competitive price, and to offer service that people can afford. Both are important. But at the end of the day, all that is for naught if customers can’t use their phones reliably. The reach and quality of a cellular network is everything. Verizon Wireless has focused on their network for a long time, and as a result, they maintain the largest chunk of US subscribers today. There may still places in the western US where it’s Verizon or nothing. So how does T-Mobile stack up?

The Northeast
Awhile back, I wrote here about porting a number from Google Voice, and happened to choose T-Mobile as my destination. At the time, I was surprised to discover what appeared to be a stronger signal from T-Mobile, both at home and my office here in Connecticut, than I was getting from AT&T. That discovery was an eye-opener, and I wanted to investigate a little further.

I began carrying around a disposable-quality Android 2.3 Gingerbread phone on T-Mobile’s network. After pairing the phone with my truck via Bluetooth, I logged a few long drives (by Connecticut standards) while on the phone continuously. I experienced no dropped calls between Milford and Newington, from Trumbull to Wallingford, and similar trips. Speaking as someone who averages 23 hours of cell phone calling per month, the lack of dropped calls was encouraging.

Then I loaded up the app for both iOS and Android. I began comparing my iPhone 4 on AT&T to the cheap Android phone on T-Mobile. Neither phone is LTE enabled, of course. (Incidentally, T-Mobile just launched their LTE service in seven cities this week.) My tests were less a comparison of either network’s top performance, and more a test of general network viability. From the slideshow that follows, it’s apparent that T-Mobile works well in the locations that I visited.

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Your Area
OpenSignalWe all know that cellular coverage is an extremely local phenomenon. What works in one town or region may be less viable elsewhere. When considering a wireless company that you don’t have previous experience with, it’s best to seek out as much information as possible. Talk with friends or colleagues in the immediate area about which networks work for them, and which ones don’t.

For those of us who are technically inclined, I recently fired up an Android-only app called OpenSignal. This app crowd-sources the signal strength mapping of the four major cellular networks. You can view coverage maps of any of the four in your area, complete with a NetworkRank seen here at the right. According to OpenTable, Verizon is number one at my home, followed by T-Mobile, AT&T and Sprint in that order. Curiously, the OpenSignal web site seems to provide less data than the app, and leaves me with a conflicting impression. So use the app. Forget the web site.

T-Mobile is the nation’s 4th-place network in terms of subscribers. But I find myself rooting for the underdog from time to time. A successful iPhone launch coupled with an unconventional pricing arrangement is potentially a win for all of us. Hopefully the other networks will sit up and take notice. If T-Mobile offers decent coverage in your area, you could certainly do worse than to walk into a T-Mobile store on April 12th. Or any time that you’re in the market for a new phone.

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  1. Chuck Sarhan II says:

    You are spot on with your analysis. My spouse is moving from Cricket to T-Mobile to get better service and plan visibility. I had Verizon a few years ago with an old phone and they would not let me share in the savings. One of the reasons they were fired.

    Let’s hope this works for T-Mobile. If not, the gap between them Sprint, T-Mobile versus Verizon and AT&T will only get bigger.

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