Dissecting T-Mobile's 'uncarrier-like' plans

Analysts disagree on how effective T-Mobile's no-contract plan will be (See video below)

Analysts offered divergent opinions of T-Mobile USA's "uncarrier" initiatives for no-contract service and low subsidies for mobile devices announced this week.

Three praised T-Mobile, the fourth-largest U.S. wireless carrier, for taking on its three bigger rivals, but one Gartner analyst said he's skeptical the carrier's ideas will attract more customers.

"It's an interesting attempt by T-Mobile to make a change, but not one that I think will succeed," said Phillip Redman, of research firm Gartner.

A central element of T-Mobile's announcement is the sale of popular new smartphones like the iPhone 5 without a two-year contract or the subsidy offered by other carriers. A T-Mobile iPhone 5 will cost $579 and can be purchased in payments over two years, making it $70 below the price that Apple charges.

T-Mobile also announced three service pricing plans starting at $50 a month that provide unlimited voice, texting and data with no contract. It also launched LTE service in seven U.S. cities.

A major reason that T-Mobile won't succeed is that customers will discover that if they buy a phone through T-Mobile, and then leave T-Mobile and want to use the phone on another network that operates with different radio frequency bands, it is unlikely to work, Redman said.

"Because you can't take T-Mobile's [issued] phone to another operator because of technology differences, there's really no advantage in owning the phone," Redman said.

T-Mobile could be planning to offer the iPhone or other devices with support for an assortment of bands that are workable on other networks, but the carrier has not provided such details.

A T-Mobile spokeswoman said the carrier uses "some" of the same network technology and spectrum bands as AT&T, which makes it possible for T-Mobile phones to work on AT&T's network. "We already have more than 2 million unlocked AT&T phones on our network and continue to add 100,000 month," the spokeswoman said.

CEO John Legere said on Tuesday that an iPhone 5 brought to T-Mobile from another carrier would work well over T-Mobile's AWC bands, and on 1700 Mhz and 1900 Mhz bands on HSPA+.

Redman said that some T-Mobile phones might not work over the GSM 850 Mhz band that is widely used by AT&T. The same could be said for different carriers' LTE networks running over different bands from T-Mobile's, he said.

More generally, Redman is skeptical that many Americans will want to turn away from subsidized phones, which can be purchased for $200 or less with a commitment to a two-year contract. Legere made the case that a two-year contract and an iPhone from AT&T could cost $1,000 more than with T-Mobile over the same period.

Jeff Kagan, an independent analyst, said the success in recent years of pre-paid phone plans with no contracts shows that "a segment of the market place ... clearly prefers a no-contract environment." Kagan termed what T-Mobile is doing as a hybrid between pre-paid and post-paid plans, but closer to post-paid without a contract.

Keith Shaw chats with Computerworld's Matt Hamblen about T-Mobile's "UNcarrier" announcement, in which they are eliminating two-year contracts, getting the iPhone and expanding their 4G LTE network. Can this make a splash in the mobile market?

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