MetroPCS details LTE buildout plans for 2011, open to LightSquared

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MetroPCS (NASDAQ:PCS) CEO Roger Linquist said the regional, no-contract carrier will finish "phase one" of its LTE buildout by the first quarter of next year, and will then cover most all of the carrier's customers with the 4G technology. He said "phase two" of MetroPCS' LTE buildout will be completed by the end of next year, and will involve putting LTE onto all of the carrier's 11,000 cell sites.

MetroPCS spokesman Drew Crowell said the carrier serves 13 core markets, and that the carrier is deploying LTE in all of its markets. He said MetroPCS is aiming to have roughly 80 percent of its existing CDMA footprint covered by the first quarter of next year. On its website, the carrier said LTE is "coming soon" to Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Detroit, locations in Florida, Los Angeles, New York City, Philadelphia, Sacramento and San Francisco. Samsung and Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC) are MetroPCS' primary LTE network suppliers.

MetroPCS counts 7.6 million total subscribers, and has access to spectrum licenses covering 146 million people. With the addition of roaming agreements, MetroPCS' services reach roughly 220 million people.

MetroPCS launched LTE service in Las Vegas this week via the Samsung Craft Qwerty phone. The carrier's LTE service begins at $55 per month, sans contract.

Linquist, speaking at the Goldman Sachs Communacopia XIX Conference, said MetroPCS added LTE data services on top of its existing CDMA network in Las Vegas, and explained that the carrier has enough spectrum to follow a similar buildout approach in each of its additional planned markets. He said MetroPCS owns 20-30 MHz of spectrum in all of its markets except for Philadelphia, and that the carrier is using Distributed Antenna Systems to manage network capacity.

Interestingly, Linquist said MetroPCS has a solid backhaul position to offer LTE. He said the carrier is using eNodeB technology to funnel both CDMA and LTE traffic into the same backhaul pipe, thereby obtaining better backhaul pricing. He said MetroPCS' backhaul vendors offer a flexible price curve, wherein costs decline as the amount of traffic increases.

Finally, Linquist said MetroPCS expects to begin developing VoIP technology for its LTE network via the Voice over LTE specification, which he said the carrier expects to employ in 2011. He said MetroPCS also would look to refarm its existing CDMA spectrum for LTE at some point in the future.

MetroPCS' Crowell said the carrier plans to refarm spectrum in some markets, and that will take place on a case-by-case basis depending on spectrum assets in individual markets.

Open to LightSquared, but not Leap merger

Linquist also discussed two hot-button issues: a partnership with LightSquared and a possible merger with Leap Wireless (NASDAQ:LEAP).

On LightSquared, which is working to build a wholesale, nationwide LTE network via terrestrial and satellite technology, Linquist said MetroPCS would be open to a partnership with the Harbinger Capital Partners venture.

"We look for roaming partners," Linquist said in response to a question about possible LTE roaming opportunities.

"We think that the first step is to get a very solid LTE footprint on where we are today," he noted, explaining that 3 percent of MetroPCS' customers currently roam. On LightSquared, "we're interested in seeing what they can offer and when they can do it."

But when questioned about a possible merging with or acquisition of rival, no-contract carrier Leap, Linquist was decidedly less optimistic. He said described MetroPCS' position for further consolidation as "past ripe," and said there are few reasons for such a transaction in the current market environment. Instead, he said MetroPCS expects to generate extra free cash starting next year, after completing its LTE buildout, and would use the money to purchase smaller carriers and additional spectrum.

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Article updated Sept. 23 with MetroPCS spokesman comments.