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Summary:

MetroPCS was the first U.S. carrier to offer an LTE handset, and customers get unlimited 4G web access with their voice and message plan for $55 a month. That’s far less than other carriers’ 3G plans, so how does the MetroPCS 4G network compare?

4G-metropcs-gigaom

The race to deploy Long Term Evolution Networks is just getting underway and MetroPCS holds the distinction of being the first U.S. carrier to sell an LTE handset. For $55 a month, MetroPCS offers unlimited voice, messaging and 4G web access; an additional $5.00 per month adds unlimited 4G video on demand. I’ve spent some time reviewing the Samsung Craft — a $300 dual-mode handset that uses CDMA for voice and LTE for data — to get a feel for the MetroPCS 4G network at this price. The verdict? It’s generally for folks that are new to mobile broadband.

MetroPCS first launched LTE in Las Vegas back in September, but the carrier recently lit up its 4G network in the Philadelphia area near my home office, so I traveled a good way into the coverage area found on the MetroPCS website. I often had the full number of signal bars with my 4G testing, although the signal fluctuated up and down, just like any mobile broadband service I’ve ever used. The first thing I did was to run a series of speed tests.

Since the browser of the Craft only has limited Flash support and there’s no app store for the device — this isn’t a full featured smartphone — I relied on the HTML mobile speedtest page of DSLReports. Multiple tests in a several locations yielded a fairly narrow range of results: The average download speed reported was around 700 kbps with approximately 200 milliseconds of latency. Video playback on YouTube didn’t offer any high quality version, so the Craft was only downloading low-bandwidth vids, which it did with no buffering.

These results remind me of what I experienced on Verizon’s 3G network a few years back, before the carrier rolled out the EVDO Rev. A upgrade. The MetroPCS LTE network is also far slower than T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network I’ve been using most of this year; it’s not uncommon for my phone, which isn’t capable of full HSPA+ speeds, to see downloads in the 4 Mbps range, or roughly six times faster than LTE on MetroPCS.

Since there aren’t yet voice standards for LTE networks, MetroPCS is relying on CS fallback for voice. That means the Craft uses a CDMA network for voice, but LTE for data. You might think that would allow for simultaneous voice and data, but that’s not the case. I called the Craft phone while it was downloading a web page and the little 4G symbol on the phone quickly reverted to a 1X when the phone rang, and there was no way for me to switch back to the browser while on the call.

I can’t say I’m surprised, nor have my expectations been let down by the results. Stacey noted the intended audience for MetroPCS’ new LTE network when it first launched, saying:

MetroPCS customers aren’t really looking for the next hot Android or iPhone. They’re looking for access to Facebook, Twitter and most importantly, online video, without having to sign a contract with a carrier. According to Tom Keys, COO of MetroPCS, about half of them use their phone as their primary Internet connection, and about 90 percent of them use data on their handsets.

Folks looking for a no-contract deal and basic web services such as email, social networking and the occasional video or media-filled website will find this LTE network refreshing. After all, current MetroPCS customers have no 3G option; prior to the LTE launch, all MetroPCS data was hampered by slow 2G speeds, except for a few select metro areas due to a lack of roaming agreements. I ran bandwidth tests at my home office and never saw speeds surpass a painful 100 kbps, for example.

While the MetroPCS LTE network is based on 4G technology, the infrastructure MetroPCS is using keeps speeds in the range of older 3G networks. Current customers on the MetroPCS network who’ve been living with a 2G network will be happy with LTE, especially at this price. But data-hungry consumers already addicted to iPhones, Android or MiFi devices will likely jump on faster — and more expensive — data networks available now from Sprint, Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile.

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  1. Kevin, good perspective.

    Unfortunately for MPCS, (if you check public FCC data), they are very spectrum limited in PA. That being said, their LTE performance will improve over time with newer devices and network evolution. I think it was very forward thinking on their part to leap frog 3G.

    Agree with your conclusions!

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  2. i would disagree with the statement from metroPCS about what their customers are looking for. i am quite familiar with the retail environment in both metroPCS and cricket retail stores. high end smartphones(usually flashed(converted) from verizon or sprint) are not only in very high demand(far beyond the supply) plus prepaid customers are easily willing to pay in the $400 – $700 range for used phones. that is something very different from the major carriers.

    the reality is that metro’s leapfroging of 3G means that for now at least customers are unable to use fast data on the phones they can easily obtain(new or used phones flashed from spring or verizon) and are instead limited to either metro’s limited 4G selection or using WIFI only for data.

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  3. i also do not agree that their customers are just looking for facebook, etc …

    the same argument was made as to why the iPhone would fail, no one would want a full web experience … apple themselves thought there was no real market for aps

    If the lesser players want to make a real dent into establish telecos, theyll need to provide the full experience at discount prices

    having people use a crippled services will only bring incremental adds from those without smartphones … it will not trigger any port outs

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    1. its not just about the experience. its also about customers want the latest/greatest piece of technology. at my cricket store i have customers asking me before phone are even on the market whether it will be possible to flash them over. metroPCS is no different than cricket in this regard.

      in fact it would not surprise me if the demographic that buys prepaid is not actually more interested in the latest and greatest phones the the average buyer.

      my friends using cricket nearly all have late model top of the line android handsets converted from verizon or sprint. many of my friends with contracts from the big carriers on the other hand have just simple phones. part of this is because of the price difference for data access. on cricket or metroPCS it only $5 for unlimited data on flashed phones, although you pay more for cricket own android phones since they have special plans. but than again no one wants the cricket branded phones. data from the big carriers though is $20 – $30 month which is enough to get lots of people to not want a smartphone.

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  4. [...] as trial runs, since they’re not yet in place for the company’s biggest markets. As Kevin Tofel of GigaOm reports, it’s acting just in that manner. The speeds aren’t quite up to snuff yet, but [...]

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  5. [...] as trial runs, since they’re not yet in place for the company’s biggest markets. As Kevin Tofel of GigaOm reports, it’s acting just in that manner. The speeds aren’t quite up to snuff yet, but [...]

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  6. I also don’t agree with the comment that Metro Customers do not want the latest tech. We do! I am a Metro Customer and I wouldn’t mind having a phone that is on par with the myTouch 4G, Evo 4G, Epic 4G, G2, and Iphone4. I’m a tech geek, but I want it at a price I can afford. I wouldn’t mind paying $400 – $500 for a super phone and $55/month for 6 – 8 mbps 4G LTE service. I want to use my phone as my main source of internet connection. Meaning I want to tether it’s 4G connection via wireless hotspot for Android 2.3 (which is free on Gingerbread OS). To me, Android > iOS I don’t care what Apple fanatics say. I need Adobe Flash 10.1 because I love viewing full websites. Anyways, this article is false about what Metro customers want.

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  7. I disagree with the comment as well,

    I own 9 stores throughout broward county, Miami-Dade, and palm beach county of throughout south FL and I have a huge amount of demand for better phones
    .
    Iphone4 4g since Verizon has it ( CDMA )…etc

    Customers will pay 600 for the iPhone 4 to use on Metro.
    Unsubsidized doesn’t matter last GOOD smart phones we had were sold out quickly.

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  8. Thanks for the Post. This is what i have been looking for for a while. I moved away from metro a few years ago for something better, now the news about the 4G brought my interest back on them, but no corporate store has a real phone you can touch and play and no damn customer support will tell you the real speed facts. No news for me. The only thing good about metro is the price. everything else sucks big time. I will stick with a REAL carrier for now.

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  9. I was tempted to get a flashed phone to metro now that they have LTE but I have my doubts it be better than my T-Mobile speeds… I was a metro PC’s customer back In 2001 when u could only have service on SF n Sacramento n other cities… and even thou they had grown so much… I doubt they can fullfill the needs of a techy customer….

    And why would u have a flashed phone if u don’t have a good network???

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    1. In response to jake: because put quite simply most MetroPCS customers are looking more for “flash” vs “functionality”. I love my Evo 4G for the phones sleek interface and great features, but i have it flashed to MetroPCS because i do not necessarily want to pay the $100+ that others are willing to pay for the phones full 4G speed, i only really use the phone for basic email and social networks as this add describes, but that said I would like to be able to hop on a website every now and then and be able to view a page without having to wait several minutes or having the browser timeout. 4G is great but what i would love to see is 3G coverage for most if not all call areas! 2G is pretty much only good for email and twitter. Not to mention during peak times your lucky to get an MMS or even a SMS out…

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