Sprint MVNO FreedomPop may partner with AT&T or T-Mobile

Sprint (NYSE: S) MVNO FreedomPop is considering a partnership with either AT&T Mobility (NYSE: T) and T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS), though the company has no firm timeline yet for striking a deal.

Partnering with another U.S. carrier is just one of many the MVNO hopes to make in the months ahead, a plan that includes international expansion. It also will come as FreedomPop is expanding its device lineup; the company just started selling a refurbished Apple (NASDAQ: AAPL) iPhone 5 for $349.

In an interview with FierceWireless, FreedomPop CEO Stephen Stokols said that the company wants to have a second U.S. carrier partner for "strategic reasons," mainly to partner with an operator that has traditionally used SIM cards. That would "open up a whole new avenue for us," Stokols said.

Stokols said FreedomPop wants to pair SIM-based devices with its OTT app, FreedomPop Free Voice and Text. The app will provide free calling and texting services, but will require customers to have some kind of data connection, either through Wi-Fi or cellular. He recently said that the app is intended to generate interest in FreedomPop's service among customers of other carriers, in the hope they may eventually switch over to FreedomPop.

Stokols was coy about whether FreedomPop will partner with AT&T or T-Mobile, but hinted that the company was in discussions with both firms. Without providing figures, he said the company's sales volumes are starting to get to the point where it can support two carriers. Stokols said it was possible that FreedomPop could strike the deal in the second half of 2014.

"AT&T has been traditionally slow to move to wholesale, but that's changing a bit," he said. "T-Mobile traditionally had a strong wholesale business. But they are becoming a little bit more retail-centric. They think they're the disrupter and 'uncarrier.'"

Stokols also revealed that FreedomPop is talking with international carriers about the SIM-plus-OTT app strategy. He said the aim is to get into multiple markets in Europe via a partnership with an operator like Orange or Vodafone. Such a deal might happen later this year, and Stokols said that international expansion is actually a higher priority for FreedomPop than getting a second U.S. carrier partner.

Stokols also said that by mid-year FreedomPop will start offering smartphones that work with Sprint's tri-band LTE Spark service. The goal is to get all of FreedomPop's Android phones off WiMAX and onto LTE. Other Sprint MVNOs, such as Ting, already offer Spark-capable devices.

Stokols said that within four to six weeks FreedomPop will offer Spark-capable smartphones, and will sell "higher-end devices and more popular" smartphones. He said FreedomPop still wants to make sure that it offers a $99 phone and an unsubsidized device for under $200.  He mentioned phones such as the Samsung Galaxy S4 as a possible addition to the lineup.   

With FreedomPop's phone plans, customers can get 200 voice minutes, 500 text messages and 500 MBs of data for free per month. Unlimited voice, text and data plans start at under $5 per month.

Sprint's LTE network now covers more than 225 million people with LTE and remains on track to cover 250 million by mid-year. As for Spark, which uses 800 MHz, 1900 MHz and 2.5 GHz spectrum, the service is expected to cover 100 million people by year-end. Sprint Spark is now available in a total of 24 markets across the country.

Stokols said that Sprint's "network rollout has been a little bit slower than initially communicated to us" but that "the actual network itself, we're pretty happy with." He said in Sprint Spark markets, such as Los Angeles, his Spark-capable phone is receiving 80 Mbps downlink speeds.

As for other initiatives, Stokols said that FreedomPop is still interested in device sleeves that offer connectivity and work on FreedomPop's service. The company is moving away from plans to offer WiMAX sleeves and instead is working on an LTE-only sleeve for phones. That launch is probably about a year away. 

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