T-Mobile’s UN-Carrier Approach Sounds Awesome, But Killing Contracts Shouldn’t be Their Message or Focus [Opinion]

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T-Mobile is trying to shake up the entire wireless industry this month by taking the “Un-carrier” approach to wireless service. Gone are the two-year contracts and 23-month phone upgrade cycles – in are the month-to-month plans with the option to upgrade to the newest phones whenever you please at the lowest prices. They are also shunning tiered data plans (sort of), spouting off colorful commentary to their competitors, and claiming to have cancelled their membership to the “out-of-touch wireless club,” a direct reference to the “Big 4” U.S. carriers grouping that includes Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint. It’s a lot of marketing speak and posturing, but is it even the right approach? 

In T-Mobile’s new plans, customers can sign up for unlimited talk and text for $50, with 500MB of data. If they want more data, they can add on 2GB for $10 or go fully unlimited for an additional $20. Second lines are $30, with data remaining at the $10 and $20 price points. After the first two lines, additional lines are $10 per month without data.

Of course, those monthly rates do not include the monthly payment plans you make on the phone you just purchased through them. See, T-Mobile will get you into the brand new iPhone 5 for $99, but they’ll then charge you a monthly fee until you have fully paid off the full $579 price of the phone (or whatever retail is these days). It’s their way of killing subsidies – whether or not you like the approach can be debated for hours, so we’ll leave it as it is.

They also launched their LTE network in seven cities and hope to cover up to 200 million people by the end of this year. Sure, they are late to the party, but they are hoping to ramp up rollout so that they can keep up with Verizon and AT&T.

But here’s the thing – if I were to ask you today, why you aren’t a T-Mobile customer, I bet I can guess the answer in a matter of seconds. It’s the coverage, isn’t it? Too many times in the comments of this site have we seen, “I’d switch to T-Mobile in a heartbeat, but I get zero coverage at my house/work/regularly visited bar.” We’ve even bragged up prepaid plans and adopting the unlocked model, yet so many of you still bring up the fact that Verizon gives you the best coverage and that’s exactly why you’ve stuck with them for so long. There is no denying that you’d love to go with the cheapest carrier that provides the most freedom, but in reality, you can’t do it at this time.

Here are the coverage maps of the northwest that I pulled minutes ago from Verizon (left) and T-Mobile’s (right) websites to add some perspective:

verizon map

So here is where I don’t think T-Mobile is taking the correct approach at their latest attempt at a comeback. In my opinion, I don’t necessarily think it’s all about two-year contracts, subsidies and cheap no-frills plans. People want to know that they are going to have coverage 99% of the time. Mobile phones are replacing home phones by the second, so things like reliability are more important than ever. When consumers take that weekend road trip or fly back home to their small home town, will they have service? If they hit up an outskirts suburb in a major city, what’s their data coverage going to be like?

We’ve even talked about Verizon’s insanely priced Share Everything plans, yet as expensive as they remain, with prepaid options sitting out there at arm’s reach that are half the cost, customers still won’t switch because they know exactly what they are getting and have been getting for years. T-Mobile is still known as having sh*tty service, so is becoming the Un-carrier going to change that? And whether that’s still true or not depends on the person, but that’s sort of the point here.

While my time with T-Mobile’s service has been limited to my life with the Nexus 4, I can tell you this. I live in Portland, a decent sized city and have asked my wife to look something up for me more times in the last four months than I did the previous three or four years of my smartphone-filled life combined because I constantly run into a lack of signal or coverage. It was spotty in New York during Samsung’s Galaxy S4 event, it’s at times non-existent at Blazers games in downtown Portland, I lose service when I drive 5 minutes south to Lake Oswego (suburb of Portland), and typically find myself carrying a second phone (Verizon or AT&T) with me when I know I’ll be heading out for more than a few hours at a time.

Again, I like no-contracts, unlocked phones, and a “f*ck the man” approach to life. Props to T-Mobile for that. I even despise the recent approaches by Verizon and AT&T to essentially scam consumers into overpriced shared data plans while selling them on unlimited text and calling features that they don’t need anymore. But did any of T-Mobile’s song and dance change their network status or image? I don’t know that it did. Give us great wireless service that’s reliable and we’ll sign on the dotted line, whether that includes a contract or not.



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