Jeff Gelles: It's not just about the phone, it's about the network

Brian Esteves is a former MetroPCS customer who is thinking of returning with T-Mobile.
Brian Esteves is a former MetroPCS customer who is thinking of returning with T-Mobile. (JEFF GELLES / Staff)
Posted: March 15, 2013

If the world ever seems to be spinning too fast, my advice is to stay away from the latest crop of smartphones: Apples, Androids, Windows, probably even the latest BlackBerry.

If you're not keeping up, the pace of progress can make you dizzy. The LG Spirit 4G, debuted in January by MetroPCS, is a case in point.

For just $199 (after a $70 rebate), you get a responsive, full-featured Android smartphone with a 4.5-inch screen - longer and wider than an iPhone 5, yet less than four-tenths of an ounce heavier. And, like the latest iPhone, it serves data via a speedy 4G LTE network.

Ah, yes, the network - increasingly, the main distinguishing factor in choosing a phone or plan. At MetroPCS, a prepaid, no-contract carrier, you can buy unlimited talk, texts, and data for $60 a month, taxes and fees included, and other plans for as little as $40 a month.

But, as with other bargains, the deal comes with some trade-offs. MetroPCS says most of its nine million customers live in 14 regional markets, such as Philadelphia, where its network coverage is strong. Check its online coverage maps and you'll find promisingly deep purple in the Northeast from Washington to Boston, and around cities such as Atlanta, Dallas, Detroit, Los Angeles, Miami, and San Francisco.

Through roaming agreements, the carrier says it serves 90 percent of the U.S. population. Elsewhere, you might find "Travel Talk" territory, with free texts but calls costing 19 cents a minute.

MetroPCS was in the news this week when the Federal Communications Commission approved its proposed merger with T-Mobile, the smallest national carrier. Even afterward, T-Mobile will still rank dead last, with about 42 million customers vs. Verizon's 115 million, AT&T's 106 million, and Sprint Nextel's 56 million, according to the FCC.

But size, as they say, isn't everything. The same thing that makes MetroPCS especially attractive to T-Mobile as a merger target - its investment in a fourth-generation LTE data network - is what makes it interesting to customers such as Brian Esteves, a Frankford construction worker shopping for a new phone this week at a MetroPCS dealer in Center City.

Esteves, 36, is a former MetroPCS subscriber who left a year ago for T-Mobile, partly because service quality was frustrating when he worked in the far reaches of Montgomery and Bucks Counties.

"In certain places it was pretty fast, and in certain places it wasn't," he says. "With T-Mobile, I could count on high-speed downloading."

Esteves' experience reflects the slow process of building out a network - something in which MetroPCS's larger competitors have had a big head start. But his interest in acquiring a new phone reflects something else crucial to the wireless market: its swift product cycles, with continual innovation that lures customers to covet upgrades.

His last MetroPCS phone was a Coolpad Quattro, which the carrier still offers for $79 to entry-level customers. The Quattro runs Android 2.3, also known as Gingerbread. The Spirit runs the more refined Android 4.0 (Ice Cream Sandwich).

Esteves was shopping partly to see if the price had come down for the highly popular Samsung Galaxy S III. At MetroPCS, it's still a top-of-the-line, $499 phone, though it's not clear what may happen after Thursday's expected announcement that some carriers will soon be getting the Galaxy S IV.

For less than half that price, what would the LG Spirit offer? He'd get the later version of Android, the same as on the S III. He'd get the Spirit's sharp display and impressive battery life. He'd get a 5-megapixel camera with a high dynamic range (HDR) mode similar to that on the latest iPhones, enabling him to take, say, successful photos of a city's nighttime skyline. And he'd get an array of features too numerous to detail (see specs at http://bit.ly/XJz5bY).

It still may be a little iffy in the region's rural reaches. But not a bad deal.


Contact Jeff Gelles at 215-854-2776 or jgelles@phillynews.com. Read his blog at www.philly.com/consumer. Follow him on Twitter at @jeffgelles.

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