Two months as T-Mobile US: Where it’s been, where it’s going

Source: Flickr / swruler9284

Exactly two months have passed since T-Mobile and MetroPCS officially merged, becoming the new T-Mobile US. We’ll be hearing a lot more specifics about how T-Mobile performed in its first-ever independent earnings report later this summer, but we thought 61 days out was as good a time as any to take at what the new T-Mobile has accomplished so far.

After failing to merge with AT&T in 2011, T-Mobile and its former parent Deutsche Telekom chose another partner in MetroPCS in hopes of finding a new avenue for growth. About a month before the merger became official, T-Mobile had the coming-out party to end all parties. It launched its new LTE network in seven markets, completely overhauled the way the U.S. mobile industry charges for service and devices, and even debuted the long-awaited iPhone.

03/26/2014 T-Mobile iPhone 5 unveilingBut since that blockbuster day, T-Mobile has been relatively quiet. It hasn’t launched any new LTE markets, nor has it announced any new activity with its ongoing HSPA+ network overhaul. It started selling the Samsung Galaxy S 4 and HTC One along with the other major carriers, but it hasn’t landed any big device exclusives. There haven’t been any big tweaks to T-Mobile plans or device pricing (except to raise the cost of the iPhone 5).

While T-Mobile may be outwardly quiet, though, an awful lot of activity is going on behind the scenes. T-Mobile has a big media event planned for next week, in which it promises to announce its “boldest moves yet.” I don’t know what exactly T-Mobile plans to reveal, but here’s what we know CEO John Legere and company have been working on:

  • T-Mobile has started its migrating MetroPCS customers off of CDMA and onto its GSM networks. Last month, T-Mobile started selling three GSM smartphones to Metro customers in three cities and began inviting other customers to connect their unlocked GSM/HSPA+/LTE smartphones with Metro plans. Typically it can take years for an operator to fully merge to disparate network operations, but T-Mobile seems to moving as quickly as possible. The sooner those CDMA devices are gone, the sooner T-Mobile can shut down Metro’s networks and the sooner it can use that spectrum for LTE and HSPA+.
  • T-Mobile may not have announced any more LTE markets since its original seven, but we know it’s been hard at work building out new markets. TMoNews has been tallying up LTE sightings in dozens of different markets, from San Francisco to New York. T-Mobile has said it plans to accelerate its rollout, covering a population of 100 million by midyear. Well it’s exactly midyear, so expect T-Mobile to announce a lot of new official LTE markets next week.
  • MetroPCS may have brought in valuable new spectrum in key markets, but T-Mobile has been opportunistically poaching new airwaves wherever it can find them. Last week it announced a deal with U.S. Cellular to buy a big regional Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) license covering the Mississippi Valley. Those frequencies will add considerable heft to its mobile data networks in key cities like New Orleans, Kansas City, St. Louis, Memphis and Nashville.
  • T-Mobile isn’t just expanding its LTE footprint; it’s also pushing LTE’s technical capabilities. GigaOM has learned that T-Mobile will be among the first operators in the world to implement 4X2 MIMO smart antenna technology, which will increase overall uplink and downlink capacity and help devices maintain better signals when at the edge of a cell. T-Mobile is also weighing its first step toward LTE-Advanced through a technique called carrier aggregation, which could double device speeds in several of its markets. We could get a preview of both these technologies next week.

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It’s only been two months, so it’s still far too early to weigh in whether the merger has been a success. But T-Mobile has set a very specific goal for itself when its planned marriage to AT&T fell apart in late 2011, and MetroPCS is a key part of that plan. T-Mobile is trying to position itself as the anti-carrier, or as it calls it, the “Un-carrier,” Whatever the big operators do, T-Mobile will do the opposite.

Consequently T-Mobile has been overhauling every aspect of its business — from its consumer-facing strategy to its underlying network technology. MetroPCS is important to that scheme, not only because it brings the valuable spectrum it needs to compete head-to-head with AT&T and Verizon in mobile data, but also because it already hosts a huge prepaid customer base that has traditional shunned the big carriers.

I reached out to T-Mobile, but it wasn’t willing to talk before its big media event in New York next week (which is understandable). I suspect we’re going to hear a lot more than just network overhaul details at the event next week, ranging from plans to unsubsidized device pricing. We might even see T-Mobile’s first consumer shared data plan (it’s already launched them for business customers).

It’s probably a bit early, but there’s a possibility that Legere might say T-Mobile will stop selling CDMA devices to MetroPCS customers completely. That’s a stretch because it would require a complete integration of T-Mobile and Metro’s backend and provisioning systems. T-Mobile may be aggressive but there are limits.

T-Mobile, however, has already gotten the ball rolling in Boston, Las Vegas and Hartford, Conn, and it plans to put a GSM device in every MetroPCS customer’s hands by the end of 2015 if not sooner. Why not go for broke?

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