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Who Leads Wireless Tech Race? MetroPCS
MetroPCS, the nation’s fifth largest carrier, just launched a technology Verizon and AT&T have been struggling for years to implement.
Who’s the No. 1 technology leader among cell phone carriers? MetroPCS.
I know. That sounds surprising. But let’s look at some facts. MetroPCS just became the first U.S. wireless carrier to roll out voice-over-LTE, the biggest change in wireless phone calling in decades. This is a technology on which Verizon and AT&T are working, and it’s critical if carriers are going to start using more airwaves for speedy 4G rather than sluggish old 2G networks. MetroPCS has it now.
That’s not the fifth-largest U.S. carrier’s only triumph. MetroPCS started the whole LTE ball rolling launching LTE two months before Verizon did. Just last week, MetroPCS became the first carrier to support local broadcast mobile TV, which TV stations are hoping will help save their industry.
Metro leads on consumer friendliness, too. The carrier pioneered including taxes in its monthly rates, so you don’t get surprised at the end of the month. It offers super-cheap plans and truly unlimited plans. It’s the only carrier I know of with an unlimited international calling option ($10!), and if you don’t have a credit card, you can even pay with cash.
Politicians like to talk about the “digital divide,” but MetroPCS is actually doing something about it. The carrier has led on making Android phones really cheap, with no extended contract or lock-in. Right now, it offers three different Android phones for under $100 with no contract. Rivals like Virgin Mobile have caught up with time, but MetroPCS really led the way on this.
Technology leadership seems to be paying off for MetroPCS. MetroPCS and its rival Cricket have very similar businesses; they serve similar customers with similar plans. But MetroPCS has recently been gaining subscribers, improving its churn rate and even ticking up its average revenue per user, while Cricket’s numbers have been heading in the opposite direction.
Metro’s track record shows that smaller carriers can innovate and succeed, if they don’t get snapped up by bigger ones. MetroPCS’s focused, nimble organization has been able to head out onto the end of the technology wedge probably in part because it isn’t dragging a huge battleship behind it. Of course, the flip side is that little MetroPCS has trouble bringing prices down for new technologies all by its lonesome.
Why Metro Gets No Respect
So MetroPCS is a tech god. But it doesn’t get any respect from the tech world for it. Why?
A lot of the problem has to do with the carrier’s non-geek-friendly product line. MetroPCS is a CDMA carrier (so, no unlocked phones) with a focus on low-cost devices (so, no fancy flagship phones) and maximizing network capacity rather than speeds (so, no 4G speed bragging rights.) Some of its lower-cost Android phones, such as the Huawei Activa and Huawei M835 , are real dogs.
Its out-of-the-box thinking tends to use new technologies to maximize its goal of providing the least expensive wireless service rather than flashy features. When it launched 4G LTE, it didn’t even use a smartphone. It’s designing LTE for spectral efficiency rather than great speeds. Similarly, VoLTE is initially about being able to refarm 2G spectrum, not about offering HD voice calls. That results in a functional network rather than a sexy one.
MetroPCS also has a reputation for wobbly network quality. We tested that, sending drivers out to 10 MetroPCS cities as part of our Fastest Mobile Networks tests. I compared it to the 3G networks from AT&T, Sprint, T-Mobile, and Verizon on our “successful downloads” measure, which counts how many of our download tests completed without error.
On our tests, MetroPCS only did poorly in Los Angeles and San Francisco, where it completed fewer than three-quarters of downloads. It did very well in Philadelphia, New York, and Boston, where it completed a higher percentage of downloads than AT&T, T-Mobile, and Sprint 3G. (Verizon’s 3G network was the most reliable in our northeastern cities.)
If you aren’t considering MetroPCS when you’re shopping for mobile phones, you should absolutely check the carrier out. Metro offers the high-quality LG Connect 4G at a reasonable price with some killer service plans.
MetroPCS would do even better if it could find a way to harness the geek community. I understand why it doesn’t. The company is focused on using advanced technologies to close the digital divide, and catering to data-hungry, demanding techies would be a resource-hogging distraction. But reaching out with a developer’s toolkit or conference, for instance, could help geeks leverage MetroPCS’s technology leadership even further.
By Sascha Segan, PCMag