What if, with a comparatively minuscule investment, a wireless carrier could increase its network coverage dramatically without building a single new cell tower or working out any new licensing deals? It might sound impossible, but T-Mobile did exactly that last week when it announced plans to “unleash” Wi-Fi.
The company’s “Un-carrier 7.0” event was quite entertaining, as all events led by T-Mobile CEO John Legere are. But this is about much more than entertainment. In an industry dominated by risk-averse giants that are perceived as anything but consumer friendly, T-Mobile is forcing change that, for the most part, benefits subscribers as much as it benefits the company’s bottom line.
And T-Mobile’s latest big Un-carrier move fits that mold perfectly.
Standing in front of a small group of media and analysts last Wednesday, T-Mobile’s fearless chief joked, laughed and swore up a storm when discussing the competition. But the meat of his entertaining presentation was nothing short of game-changing:
By taking advantage of new technology that allows voice calls on smartphones to seamlessly bounce back and forth between Wi-Fi and cellular networks, T-Mobile is able to transform every Wi-Fi network available to a T-Mobile subscriber into a T-Mobile cell tower.
This concept is brilliant on several different levels. First, it reduces the load on T-Mobile’s network and therefore saves the carrier money. Second, it dramatically expands T-Mobile’s coverage. While T-Mobile is currently improving its 4G LTE cellular network at a breakneck pace, its coverage still can’t match that of its two larger rivals, Verizon Wireless and AT&T.
Making matters worse is a lingering perception, even in areas where T-Mobile’s service has improved dramatically, that the carrier’s service is as spotty as it was a year or two ago. T-Mobile indeed still cannot boast of coverage that rivals Verizon or AT&T in many areas, but it often doesn’t even get credit when its coverage does improve.
The iPhone 5s “test drive” is one way T-Mobile is trying to get consumers to give it another chance, but if marketed well, the carrier’s new Wi-Fi initiatives will have a much more substantial impact.
Under the carrier’s new initiative, any and every Wi-Fi network to which a T-Mobile phone can connect, public or private, becomes part of the T-Mobile network. Thanks to software on all T-Mobile smartphones, calls, text messages and multimedia messages can all be delivered over Wi-Fi networks.
What’s more, newer T-Mobile phones starting with the iPhone 6 and iPhone 6 Plus feature enhanced software that allows calls to seamlessly switch from a Wi-Fi network to T-Mobile’s cellular network and back. This new handoff feature means calls will stay connected as Wi-Fi connectivity comes and goes.
Also of note, T-Mobile confirmed that many newer smartphones that are already available will eventually receive software updates that enable enhanced Wi-Fi calling.
The second part of T-Mobile’s new plan is equally brilliant. The carrier is offering all subscribers with a Simple Choice plan a free device it calls a Personal CellSpot.
Built by Asus, the Personal CellSpot is a powerful Wi-Fi router that can replace your existing home router or work alongside it. Of course, T-Mobile recommends the former scenario as opposed to the latter to prevent interference.
So, what exactly makes the Personal CellSpot so special?
There are two main benefits to the CellSpot over conventional routers. First, the device offers better performance than many common routers. According to T-Mobile, the CellSpot offers 20% better performance than many popular models.
Just as important is the second benefit: the CellSpot includes patent-pending T-Mobile technology that prioritizes voice traffic over other traffic. In theory, this means that if you’re on a call while another family member is downloading gigantic movie files, your call will still be crystal clear.
But how does it work in practice?
T-Mobile sent me a Personal CellSpot to review and I can report that the device delivers on both major claims. The range is impressive — I was able to maintain a connection and make voice calls from nearly a full block away from my house — and I also experienced no call breakups while performing various data-heavy tasks on my network.
For example, I tested Wi-Fi calling while slamming my pathetic Time Warner Cable internet connection with huge file downloads and streaming video, and I never had any issues with voice call degradation.
The best part? Beginning Wednesday, September 17th at 8:00 a.m., T-Mobile subscribers with a Simple Choice plan can get a Personal CellSpot for free. Simply call T-Mobile customer care or walk into a store, and a CellSpot is yours for a $25 hardware deposit that is refunded if and when the device is returned.
Giving the router away is a fantastic idea on T-Mobile’s part. The hardware likely costs precious little to manufacture. Meanwhile, it makes customers happy, improves their coverage and saves T-Mobile money by offloading traffic from T-Mobile’s cellular network to land-based ISPs’ networks.
The CellSpot and T-Mobile’s wider effort to “unleash Wi-Fi” is yet another example of the carrier’s willingness to think outside the box in an effort to grow its business. And these disruptive ideas are working phenomenally well — T-Mobile’s subscriber growth now outpaces even its biggest rivals.
Will unleashing Wi-Fi help T-Mobile build even more momentum? It’s too soon to tell, but T-Mobile has nothing to lose and everything to gain.