It's tough going for T-Mobile these days. Other than having the prettiest ad person (Canadian model Carly Foulkes), the number four wireless provider is suffering from a serious drain in customers and momentum.
The company has repeatedly pitched that it has the largest 4G network in its TV ads, but that's playing a little loose with the definition. Generally speaking, the term "4G" is applied to two different wireless technologies: LTE and WiMAX. Whether that applies to a third technology, called HSPA+, is debatable.
HSPA+, also known as Evolved HSPA, is a greatly amped up version of the 3G HSPA technology that can reach speeds of 100 Mbps, which is one of the criteria for a network to be considered 4G by the International Telecommunications Union (ITU).
The ITU's definitions are a little vague, but it does allow the term 4G to be used with LTE, WiMAX, and to other "evolved 3G technologies providing a substantial level of improvement in performance and capabilities with respect to the initial third generation systems now deployed."
With that definition, HSPA+ can be called a 4G network. On paper, HSPA+ can potentially reach speeds comparable to LTE, which would be up to 37Mbps down for LTE at 5MHz bandwidth vs. 42Mbps down for HSPA+. At 20 MHz, LTE tops out at 150MBps while HSPA+ hits 168Mbps.
That's because LTE and HSPA+ both use the same enhancements to increase performance, like a highly optimized shared channel, advanced antenna techniques, higher order modulation, advanced receivers, and wider bandwidths.
So lacking a clearer definition beyond "it's really fast," T-Mobile does have a 4G network, and a big one. Its HSPA+ network is currently available in 217 markets, covering well over 200 million customers. It has 25 devices, including phones, base stations, tablets and USB modems, serving HSPA+ 4G connectivity.
Its "other" 4G network will be LTE, and that does not begin until 2013. The company does not have any details to share regarding how many people will be covered by 4G LTE in 2013 or which markets will be covered first.
With the AT&T merger now dead, T-Mobile walks away with $3 billion in severance, a nice chunk of change that will hopefully make up for all the customers it has lost. When it announced its earnings last month, the carrier said it lost a net of 706,000 customers in just the last quarter, which also dragged revenues down 3.3 percent.
On an earnings call with analysts, Deutsche Telekom CEO Rene Olbermann more or less blamed his company's problems on AT&T and the iPhone. "Our T-Mobile US business suffered from a difficult year, with a pending deal on the one hand and a very difficult fourth quarter due to the iPhone 4S introduction with heavy promotions by three competitors," he said.
T-Mobile isn't likely to get the iPhone until iPhone goes LTE. While T-Mobile is HSPA, just like AT&T, the spectrum band T-Mobile's network operates in is not supported by the iPhone's chip set.
So going forward, T-Mobile plans to spend its break-up fee from AT&T and more on new spectrum, both HSPA+ and LTE. The company plans to install new equipment at 37,000 cell sites and reposition spectrum for its LTE launch.
If the company can survive on its own, it will be last to the market with a 4G network. Without the most popular phone on the planet, that will be a challenge.
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