T-Mobile to offer unlimited prepaid data for $70 per month

LAS VEGAS--T-Mobile USA turned a rumor into reality with its announcement that it will launch a no-contract unlimited data plan for $70 per month starting Jan. 9. The plan will include unlimited voice and texting as well as unlimited nationwide data. The move is significant for T-Mobile, which currently offers a $70 per month prepaid plan that includes unlimited voice and text but caps users at 5 GB per month of data. 

T-Mobile isn't the only operator taking a fresh look at its pricing plans. Last week, Sprint Nextel (NYSE:S) confirmed to FierceWireless that it plans to launch Sprint As You Go, a prepaid service that will offer unlimited voice, text and data on feature phones and smartphones. The service, which will debut Jan. 25, will offer a $70 per month plan for smartphones and a $50 per month plan for feature phones.

T-Mobile is poised to exploit what it sees as a positive industry trend toward prepaid customers. CEO John Legere said the new T-Mobile, once it completes its acquisition of regional prepaid operator MetroPCS (NYSE:PCS), will register 80 to 90 percent of its growth from no-contract offers. 

T-Mobile's CEO also said the carrier expects to begin offering the iPhone "in three or four months." The carrier will also discontinue its phone subsidies when it launches the iPhone. The timing is sooner than the carrier expected, Legere said.

In addition, T-Mobile also unveiled a new "4G Connect" program in which it will add wireless connectivity to certain devices for no extra charge and provide 200 MB of free data per month for the first 12 to 24 months, depending upon the device manufacturer.

T-Mobile's move is one way for the company to jumpstart its efforts in the connected consumer device space, which is currently dominated by AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) and Verizon Wireless  (NYSE:VZ). Both of those companies have offered wireless enabled laptops and tablets for some time.

"This is a big deal for us," said John Legere, president and CEO of T-Mobile USA, during a press event here at the Consumer Electronics show. "If you thought T-Mobile wasn't going to be a major player, think again."

In wide-ranging, entertaining and often uncouth comments, Legere explained that T-Mobile is positioning itself to be the "uncarrier" of the market by getting rid of device subsidies and service contracts. He said the goal is to please the customer while also making some money for T-Mobile.

Legere also took aim at T-Mobile's competitors. He said AT&T's network in New York City "sucks," and that shared data plans "are a thing of the past." He said Verizon's quarterly metrics, which often show impressively low churn numbers and impressively large subscriber gains, are "unbelievable." But Legere said that, with the iPhone, an LTE network and a refreshed pricing approach, T-Mobile will soon be in a position to challenge the nation's largest carriers.

In other T-Mobile news, the carrier announced it would launch HD voice services, which the carrier said would dramatically enhance the audio quality of voice calling on its network. The carrier said multiple vendors, including Ericsson and Nokia Siemens Networks, were involved in the launch of HD voice technology, and that the service requires HD voice-capable phones. The carrier said the service will not cost extra, and will be available on the Samsung Galaxy S III, the Nokia Astound and the HTC One S. T-Mobile executives said "several million" T-Mobile subscribers would be able to make use of the new calling technology.

"It really enhances the quality of that voice call," explained Neville Ray, T-Mobile's CTO.

Ray also provided updated numbers on the company's network modernization efforts. The carrier is spending around $4 billion to launch HSPA technology on its 1900 MHz spectrum and LTE in its AWS spectrum. Legere said T-Mobile also counts 225 million POPs on HSPA+ in AWS spectrum.

Ray said T-Mobile now offers HSPA in 1900 MHz across 126 million POPs in 46 markets. He said T-Mobile now counts 1.9 million iPhones on its network, and he said the carrier is adding new iPhone customers to its network at a rate of about 100,000 per month. The deployment of HSPA network technology in T-Mobile's 1900 MHz spectrum will allow the carrier to offer faster network speeds to its iPhone customers. (T-Mobile said it recently reached an agreement with Apple that will allow it to sell Apple products at some point in the future; T-Mobile's current iPhone customers are those who brought their unlocked devices to T-Mobile's network.)

As for T-Mobile's LTE launch plans, Ray said the carrier would cover 100 million people with its LTE network by the middle of this year, and that it expects to cover 200 million POPs by the end of 2013. The carrier will offer the Samsung Galaxy S III and Galaxy Note II among its first crop of LTE devices. 

Also by the end of the year T-Mobile will have 200 million HSPA+ covered POPs in AWS, and 200 million of HSPA+42 in the 1900 MHz band.

Ray promised that T-Mobile's planned LTE network would be "way faster" than Sprint's LTE network because T-Mobile will be able to allocate more spectrum than Sprint to its LTE network.

Finally, T-Mobile announced it is now the official wireless provider for Major League Baseball, and that it will install new communications systems in MLB stadiums across the country for players and managers to communicate. The new systems will make use of picocell technology installed into teams' dugouts.

Legere also addressed MetroPCS' fourth-quarter financials. The regional operator's loss of 93,000 customers shocked analysts, but Legere noted one overlooked point in MetroPCS' metrics was that it doubled its LTE base from 1.1 million customers to 2.2 million during the quarter, meaning 26 percent of its base is now LTE rather than CDMA. That will make the customer migration to T-Mobile's LTE network that much easier, he said.

For more:
- see this T-Mobile release on HD voice
- see this T-Mobile release on 4G Connect
- see this T-Mobile prepaid release
- see this T-Mobile MBL release
- see this Reuters article
- see this Verge article

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Sprint's Boost Mobile to start smartphone throttling in January
Confirmed: T-Mobile testing GoSmart Mobile prepaid brand for possible nationwide launch in 2013

Mike Dano and Tammy Parker contributed to this report.