La Donna T-Mobilé

May 15, 2008

Fewer than six weeks after signing up for a two-year contract plan with AT&T, I learned last night that Verizon has installed a soon-to-be-operational tower less than a mile away. They’re coming to the area with their Broadband PCS B-block holdings in MTA037, Submarket 3, which were acquired in FCC Auction 4 back in nineteen-ninety-friggin’-five. Who knew?

Being the unrepentant mobile geek that I am, for the last two years I’ve been drooling over a particular plot of land less than an eighth of a mile from where they eventually constructed the new PCS antenna, thinking it would make a great spot for a privately owned tower that could be leased to most, if not all, of the major carriers in the area. As previously noted, the closest tower is six miles from here, which in the words of Sister Teresa, my high school guidance counselor, sucks fermented llama balls.

To be certain, this is a sparsely populated region, and the probable ROI of installing equipment to serve fewer than 5000 people offers little appeal, even to me. The low population density coupled with the shorter range of the 1900 MHz frequencies makes me wonder just who Verizon is targeting with their new service, as Alltel is already deeply ensconced in the area as the carrier of choice for those living on the fringe (literally and metaphorically), and none of Verizon’s plans can compete with Alltel’s MyCircle offerings.

My first reaction to the Verizon news ran something along the lines of “hot diggety rhubarb crap,” but after careful scrutiny of their plans and service, my initial ebullience has waned somewhat to a lukewarm “meh,” with light-to-moderate “who-gives-a-shit” forming later in the day.

See, I’ve uncovered a secret.

Well, sure, not a real secret. Anyone can find out about it if they look in the right places, but it might as well be a secret to three out of the four big wireless companies. Rather, two of the three big companies if we don’t count Sprint, and with their recent sun-as-black-as-sackcloth tribulation, I’m not sure we should. All the more reason for those clowns to pay attention.

Wi-fi, baby.

T-Mobile’s HotSpot@Home service allows customers to make calls over wi-fi, using either a specialized T-Mobile-branded router optimized for voice communication, or any off-the-shelf wireless router. Those on select two-year plans can opt to pay a $10 monthly fee for unlimited wi-fi calling from any open hotspot in the country, but anyone with a T-Mobile wi-fi-capable phone can use the service with their existing plan. Even those of us on prepaid.

When I first caught wind of this gig after it launched in the middle of last year, I raised a skeptical eyebrow and scoffed so hard I took out a condor in the Sonomas. We’ve all heard nightmare stories about VOIP quality and reliability, and now they want to charge me extra to connect to their shitty, poorly deployed network using my own router? I provide the connection and T-Mobile charges me to use it. Sure. Thanks, but no. I’ll call you. Or not.

After they changed their prepaid plans to allow unlimited nights and mobile-to-mobile for a dollar a day, I signed up. Not long after that, I tried the Samsung Katalyst on my home router using the pay-per-day plan, and it just works. It works hard. Like Scrubbing Bubbles on Red Bull and crystal meth.

Voice quality is clear, with very little compression noise, and the wi-fi connection is reliable. The phone does lose the network from time to time, but it seems to pick it up again in short order and maintains a minimum of 2 wi-fi signal bars anywhere in my house. Basically it’s like having a tower in the living room.

Are you listening, Sprint? A company with similar infrastructure liabilities (1900 MHz) found a way to overcome its most glaring shortcoming, a lack of adequate coverage, and turn it into what amounts to its most attractive feature. People aren’t fleeing Sprint in panicked droves because of the lack of a lightning-fast data network, but because of poor service. As far as the paying customer goes, “service” means coverage footprint, call quality/reliability, and selection of handsets. Anything else is incidental; if people are satisfied with those three things, you’re golden. With everything else being equal, the handset is of utmost importance, as it’s the end-user’s only daily physical representation of your service. It’s difficult, if not impossible, to evade the damaging association that a bad phone can wreak upon your network, whether fully justified or through simple consumer ignorance. And there’s no shortage of either bad handsets or ignorant consumers, believe me.

The call quality on the Katalyst is top-shelf, whether on PCS or wi-fi. T-Mobile coverage is now supremely adequate, and their MyFaves plans can be trumped only by Alltel’s MyCircle. T-Mobile offers a total of twelve free, no-rebate-required phones on their website. Sprint advertises exactly one free phone, the Sanyo SCP-3200, and their plan structure is confusing, at best. Having their voice plans listed in mutant sibling Nextel’s sandbox o’ poop and razorblades doesn’t help customers figure out what they want, either.

Part of Sprint’s trouble might be identity; when I look at their logo, I don’t know what the hell to think. Are they a phone company? A walkie-talkie company? A wireless company? Are they Sprint or are they Nextel? Why is all their stuff yellow and black? To me, yellow and black says “DANGER! FLEE!” and it might have a similar subconscious effect on others, as well.

With their HotSpot@Home service, T-Mobile has solidified its standing in the wireless industry as a provider that wants your money, sure, but they’re not too picky about how you access their network. Versatility, mission clarity, and perception of value are vital elements of success in any business, and now T-Mobile has each of those things stockpiled like illicit corned beef sandwiches during a national delicatessen emergency.

Certain other providers might want to peek over the fence to see what’s going on, before they’re remembered in the same breath with names like Omnipoint and Powertel, both of which are now part of Deutsche Telekom. And Deutsche Telekom is also the parent company of…

Anyone care to take a guess? Anyone?