MetroPCS expands LTE to L.A., Philly

Fifth-largest carrier also adds nationwide coverage plan for CDMA network

The nation's fifth-largest wireless carrier, MetroPCS Communications, launched 4G LTE service in the Los Angeles and Philadelphia metro areas today, bringing to five the number of major U.S. markets in which it offers the faster wireless technology.

Samsung Craft
The Samsung Craft smartphone can be used on MetroPCS's 4G LTE network.

In addition, the carrier launched a new service plan called Metro USA that features nationwide coverage. That means MetroPCS customers will no longer have to pay charges for roaming onto another carrier's network. MetroPCS has expanded its own CDMA footprint and now has LTE or CDMA service in place 90% of the U.S.

MetroPCS, which first launched LTE service in Las Vegas in September, won't say what speeds its LTE network is capable of, but other U.S. carriers estimate LTE performance to be somewhere between 5Mbit/sec. and 12Mbit/sec., which is perhaps 10 times faster than 3G networks.

"We haven't put a number on the speeds for LTE because there are so many variables, but we are saying it will offer an exceptional experience for customers," MetroPCS spokesman Drew Crowell said in an interview.

MetroPCS sells only one device that's able to benefit from LTE speeds, the Samsung Craft, a horizontal slider smartphone with a physical keyboard. It features a 3.3-in. AMOLED touchscreen and a 3.2-megapixel camera with a camcorder, and it weighs 3.7 oz. It runs on Samsung's proprietary operating system, a combination of TouchWiz and BREW.

Like other phones MetroPCS sells, the Craft is sold without an annual contract for $299 after a $50 rebate. Unlimited text, talk and Web plans start at $55 a month, including taxes and fees.

With 7.9 million customers, MetroPCS is the fifth-largest U.S.-based wireless carrier. But its customer base is only a fraction of the size of those of both first place Verizon Wireless, which has 93.2 million subscribers, and second-place AT&T, which has 92.8 million. Sprint Nextel, which has 4G wireless service over WiMax technology in 55 markets, ranks third with 48.8 million subscribers, while T-Mobile is fourth with 33.8 million.

Despite its relatively small size, MetroPCS is seen as a scrappy fighter in the market; it's perhaps best known for its wacky TV ads featuring two fast-talking Indian-Americans named Ranjit and Chad who deliver "hot, spicy news!" They manage to squeeze in a few facts about MetroPCS's unlimited, no-contract CDMA plans, which start at $40 a month, including taxes and fees.

MetroPCS's introduction of LTE in the Las Vegas market in September was seen as a jab in the eye of the biggest carriers, especially Verizon, which is planning to launch LTE in 38 markets by the end of 2010. AT&T will be rolling out LTE in 2011. MetroPCS's five LTE markets also include Dallas/Fort Worth and Detroit.

"MetroPCS got to say it was the first mover and got to 4G LTE first, but marketing is marketing," said analyst Jack Gold at J.Gold Associates. He said it's too early to judge MetroPCS's LTE service. Given its size, he said, MetroPCS could be a prime target for a takeover, which has been the case with other small U.S carriers.

Phillip Redman, an analyst at Gartner, said MetroPCS might be able to prod the big U.S. carriers to speed up their delivery of new technology, but added, "so far, there hasn't been any evidence that companies like MetroPCS and Cricket have a negative impact on the national providers." He said they have found success in local markets but are still "niche" providers.

MetroPCS expects to offer LTE service in all 14 of its core markets by the end of 2011. It has 11,000 cell towers nationwide for both CDMA and LTE.

The Metro USA plan means 280 million people can be connected via the carrier, up from 220 million previously, Crowell said. Before the nationwide plan, a user would pay an added roaming fee for traveling outside a MetroPCS coverage area to cover the cost of being transferred to another carrier's network. There is no added cost for the Metro USA plan.

The five markets with Metro PCS LTE service are Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Dallas-Fort Worth and Detroit. Later this year and in 2011, MetroPCS will expand its 4G offering to Atlanta, Boston, Jacksonville, Miami, New York, Orlando, Sacramento, San Francisco and Tampa.

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 e-mail address is mhamblen@computerworld.com.

Copyright © 2010 IDG Communications, Inc.

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