What will T-Mo announce next week?

Quality service over LTE, matched by unsubsidized phone and unlimited plans could give T-Mobile fighting room, analyst says

What is T-Mobile USA planning for its press event in New York City next Tuesday?

The carrier already disclosed last fall and again at International CES in January that it plans to offer unsubsidized smartphones with no contract requirement to its customers.

Probably, T-Mobile will formalize those no-contract plans and might even show off an iPhone as one of the unsubsidized products it will sell, according to various tech bloggers and analysts. Updates on its emerging LTE service could also be part of the day's news.

T-Mobile would say nothing more about the event other than what was on its invitation to journalists: "We're still a wireless company. We're just not going to act like one anymore."

Whether T-Mobile announces anything truly revolutionary that stimulates a major change in the wireless carrier industry will depend on how it performs and whether its no-subsidy approach is matched by quality service, including fast LTE. All the components -- LTE, no subsidies, high-performance phones like the iPhone -- are required to make T-Mobile a success, analysts believe.

The carrier said in December that it would carry Apple devices in 2013.

At CES, T-Mobile CEO John Legere introduced a $70 a month unlimited plan with no annual contract and strongly suggested that customers might be shocked at paying $700 for an unsubsidized smartphone like the iPhone, but would do so as long as they could get unlimited service at an affordable price.

Typically, U.S. carriers charge $200 for a high-end smartphone, then require a two-year service agreement that can cost more than $2,000 over the lifetime of the contract.

"Our unlimited 4G data plan means 4G speeds, no caps and no overages on what [is a] smoking fast, nationwide 4G network," Legere said at the time. "This is the start of somebody listening to customers."

Legere also took pot shots at the other major carriers for gaps in fast wireless coverage and expensive service plans.

Also at the CES event on Jan. 8, T-Mobile Chief Technology Officer Neville Ray said that the carrier would activate LTE in Las Vegas by the end of January, making it the first city on T-Mobile's LTE network.

Asked why that city's rollout has since been delayed, a spokesman said Tuesday that T-Mobile had confirmed in February the LTE build-out in both Las Vegas and Kansas City, "but the network is not yet commercially available."

To recap, T-Mobile on Tuesday is likely to formalize its unsubsidized plans, provide an LTE rollout update and and maybe show off new LTE phones, like an iPhone 5 or a BlackBerry Z10, that it would offer for sale unsubsidized. Apple sells an unlocked, unsubsidized iPhone 5 for $649.

"I think T-Mo is experimenting [with unsubsidized phones] and trying to find differentiation in a very crowded market, especially one for the fourth-largest contender," said Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates, in an email.

A key ingredient to whether T-Mobile's bid will work is whether the Federal Communications Commission finally decides to support the unlocking of phones, as President Obama supports, analysts said. That would make it easier to bring an unlocked phone to T-Mobile and take advantage of its unlimited rates.

"T-Mobile will appeal to a certain group of customers who don't want to get tied into a two-year commitment," Gold said. "If the FCC really does support unlocking, it will help T-Mobile support folks who want to migrate."

Still, T-Mobile must prove it can offer good service and wireless coverage. "If they want to compete, T-Mobile has to offer better coverage than they do now, and LTE is one way to do that."

Despite the high hopes from T-Mobile's Legere, Gold said he doubts other U.S. carriers will follow the no-subsidy, no-contract pathway right away. "If T-Mobile is successful, other carriers will have to offer a competing service. If T-Mobile is not successful, the other carriers can all say, 'See, we told you so. Customers want subsidies and that's what we offer.' "

Matt Hamblen covers mobile and wireless, smartphones and other handhelds, and wireless networking for Computerworld. Follow Matt on Twitter at @matthamblen or subscribe to Matt's RSS feed. His email address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

See more by Matt Hamblen on Computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2013 IDG Communications, Inc.

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