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 its 4G LTE service in the Los Angeles and Philadelphia metro areas today, bringing the faster wireless technology to five major U.S. markets.

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

In addition, the carrier launched a Metro USA nationwide coverage plan, meaning there will no longer be a cost to its customers for roaming onto another carrier's network across 90% of the U.S. where MetroPCS has expanded its own CDMA footprint or has LTE and CDMA in place.

MetroPCS, which first launched LTE in Las Vegas in September, won't say what wireless speeds its LTE network offers users, although other U.S. carriers put the range for LTE at 5 Mbit/sec. to 12 Mbit/sec., perhaps 10 times faster than networks on 3G.

"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," said spokesman Drew Crowell 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 AMOLED touchscreen, a 3.2 megapixel camera with camcorder and weighs 3.7 ounces. It runs on Samsung's proprietary OS, a combination of TouchWiz and BREW.

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

MetroPCS has 7.9 million customers, making it the fifth-largest U.S.-based wireless carrier. That puts MetroPCS at a fraction of both first place Verizon Wireless, with 93.2 million customers, and second-place AT&T, with 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, 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 annual contract wireless plans starting at $40 a month, including taxes and fees, for phones on its CDMA network.

MetroPCS's opening of the Las Vegas market in September to LTE was seen as a jab in the eye of the biggest carriers, especially Verizon, which is planning to launch 38 LTE markets by the end of 2010. AT&T is also rolling out LTE in 2011. The five LTE markets for MetroPCS 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 Jack Gold, an analyst at J. Gold Associates. He said it is still early to judge MetroPCS 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 and are still "niche" providers.

MetroPCS expects to reach all of its 14 core markets with LTE 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 an 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 current five markets for Metro PCS LTE service are Los Angeles, Philadelphia, Las Vegas, Dallas-Fort Worth and Detroit. Later this year and in 2011, MetroPCS will add 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 .

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Tags mobilesmartphoneswirelessNetworkingtelecommunicationPhonesconsumer electronicswireless networkingMobile and WirelessMetroMetroPCS Communications

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