By: Kirk Douglas
The year was 2005. I was working in customer support for an internet startup in downtown San Diego that had just made the FierceWireless ‘Fierce 15’ list. A revolution was about to take place in mobile that would turn the handset industry on its head. Although SMS.ac, the startup I worked for, had little to do with the sweeping hardware changes that were just around the corner I had a heightened awareness of all things mobile due to the nature of the booming business and our part in it. I had no idea I would look back on my experiences at that job and one of the things I would remember would be my introduction to T-mobile.
SMS.ac was a company that few people stateside seemed to know very much about, yet at our height we had 30 million users across 180 countries. Our claim to fame was creating a social network using a proprietary mobile messaging relay service. This allowed users to send text messages across the world, forgoing all prior international billing norms in favor of direct flat-rate billing from SMS.ac.
The business would eventually change hands and change its mission. But I look back on it now and remember the unique time it was for an industry that was about to be blown wide open. It was there I was introduced to mobile hardware technology and got a taste of carrier relations.
The hardware of the day were feature phones by the likes of LG and Samsung. Sidekicks were a thing and Blackberry reigned supreme among the business-minded. Palm was leading the high-end, albeit ‘niche’ market of Windows CE devices and if you can believe it, Sony actually had a bit of presence in partnership with Ericcson in a wide ‘camera phone’ portfolio.
It was at SMS.ac that I became familiar with these phones because our business required a group of people to test all varieties of handsets across carriers near and far. Once we made the Fierce 15 list that year, I was hooked on mobile tech blogs and this aspect of our business became of interest to me.
Most of the phones my co-workers tested were what I considered junk phones: cheap phones simplified for voice calls and basic text messaging. Some were freebies from carriers or donated by employees and occasionally i’d see something higher end like palm pilot or blackberry being tested. All this furthered my curiosity about the handsets of the day and the carriers that provided them service.
It was a time when networks were far from mature. Verizon had a strong and long-running successful business but like the rest of the networks, acknowledged that connectivity and data speeds had incredible untapped potential. AT&T stumbled in acquiring Cingular around that time but eventually caught a break as it completed transition and gained exclusitivty on the iPhone a couple of years later. Sprint was a bit of an outlier and T-mobile was entirely unfamiliar to me.
Strangely, at SMS.ac, T-mobile had an undeniable presence among my coworkers.
I remember asking and being surprised how many of my peers seemed to prefer T-mobile. On several occasions I asked what their service was like and they would tell me about the lower cost and the phenomenal customer service. I had it in my head that they couldn’t possibly be right. I knew I paid more on Verizon, but I surely had the best coverage, equipment options and customer support.
I didn’t know then that Apple’s iPhone release would break my long-standing loyalty with ‘Big Red’ and start a half-decade love affair with AT&T. The iPhone was huge and by all of my standards, incredible. It was everything I thought a phone could possibly be and it was worth the insane cost and the necessity of switching networks to get my hands on one. AT&T did great in their partnership with Apple in executing the rollout of the initial iPhone and the first few releases thereafter. My service was ever-improving in lockstep with what I expected from phones and I was generally happy having made the switch.
It wasn’t until a year ago that opinion would again change. Like my experience with Verizon before them, AT&T offered compelling service and enough network bandwidth to comfortably serve large cities like San Diego. But the growing costs of network infrastructure paired with consumer demand for faster connectivity and larger data plans also meant an ever-increasing phone bill. Over the years my bill grew from roughly $69 or so all the way up to over $150.
At the time I left AT&T last year, my bill had climbed to nearly $165 per month after tax, this was after a small 10% or so business discount. I had been talked out of keeping my unlimited data a year prior to leaving (foolish move – I know) but the throttling at that time slowed my connectivity down to a crawl after 5 or 6 Gigabytes of usage and I couldn’t bare to pay as much as I was any longer. Full disclosure: I also acquired a WiFi + Cellular model iPad in the last few years and that accounted for $10-$15 of those charges, but it was still outrageous to me.
With my taste for AT&T soured, and just wanting some real change, I gave T-mobile an honest look for the first time as a potential option. By this time a year ago T-mobile CEO John Legere had already become an established name (and player) in both the mobile industry and among the tech blogosphere. More than that, he’s become known for sharing his bullish stance on his company’s differences and straight-forward opinions that ‘Big Red’ (Verizon) and ‘Big Blue’ (AT&T) are mere blood-sucking corporations nickel-and-diming customers into cellular service shackles.
Exaggerated as it may sound, this is how I felt before switching carriers. John didn’t have to work hard to convince me I was overpaying. To have an unlimited cable package at home costing roughly $65 per month and to be paying $100 more than that for cellular usage around 10 gigs per month was screaming insanity.
I subsequently was granted my iPhone be unlocked and took advantage of a great promotion T-Mobile had to pay off my cancellation fee. I’ve since been very happily a T-Mobile customer who is pleased as punch to pay about $85 per month for both unlimited phone data and a 5 Gigabyte allowance on my iPad (not to mention 5 Gigs of tethering, should I need it).
The once dismissive nature of my relationship to the company who’s now charging me reasonable fees for reasonable service is a thing of the past. Is it perfection? No. I’ve had a few hiccups along the way. But I’m fortunate to live in a city where T-Mobile’s coverage has vastly improved over the last year. And when I wonder if it is just me who’s affected, look no further than the Internet for clarity on their moves being made elsewhere.
Company execs stated Tuesday that in the last year they have doubled their nation-wide LTE footprint. The latest iPhones, one of which I’ve recently upgraded to, supports the new 700 mhz LTE frequency that extends the network and offers better penetration indoors. Not to mention that I’ve had Wifi calling enabled since making the switch, a prime example of where Verizon and AT&T recently followed. T-mobile has also been the first to extend Apple’s “continuity” feature, a feature previously limited to wifi connections within proximity. With Cellular Continuity enabled on T-Mobile’s behalf, I can now answer phone calls and receive text messages from any compatible device that has an internet connection, regardless of my phone’s whereabouts.
It’s become clear to me as a customer and much of the industry that John Legere is putting his money where his mouth is, and the numbers prove it. According to recent tweets from analyst Walt Piecyk, T-Mobile added 835,000 post-paid subscribers in Q3; nearly double the 430,000 Verizon added in the same quarter. They’ve also recently announced plans to deliver mini-towers they call “CellSpots” to increase cellular connectivity among users who have low signals in their homes. The small box will be free, connect to your existing home network and allow connectivity for up to 16 devices. Perhaps most impressive is these transmitters’ ability to reach a 3,000 square foot radius, enough to cover full-size homes.
You can love or hate T-mobile, or be just as dismissive as I once was, but it is tough to look at their great strides recently and deny they are shaking the industry. There are countless more examples I could point to as illustrations of this, but the most glaring has got to be the dramatic change in how Americans buy handsets today. After T-mobile announced low-cost monthly plans and device financing options that undercut virtually all of their competition, they seemed to have saw the writing on the wall. Carriers are slowly cutting off traditional 2-year (subsidized) upgrades in favor of equipment installment plans (device financing) and having to be more competitive on monthly rates.
I can only guess what the future might hold for the carrier who’s recently taken the 3rd place crown from Sprint, but it is clear T-Mobile is not moving forward without pushing the industry forward.
I think back to the glowing good words and anecdotes my peers used to describe T-Mobile a decade ago, before all of this. There was a reason our leadership team, the many execs and marketing leaders of my startup past chose them in 2005 and those examples of satisfaction are in line with my feelings in 2015. Forget about the feeling, and just observe. I can’t shake my perception as a lover of all things tech that there is really only one major carrier bold and fiery enough to truly change things as of late. I’d dare to put them in my ‘fierce 15’, no question.