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MetroPCS Mulls Unlocked LTE iPhone

Thu, 05/17/2012 - 6:55am
Maisie Ramsay

MetroPCS may consider targeting unlocked iPhones when an LTE version of the device becomes available, executives said at an investor conference today.

The operator does not offer the iPhone and has not encouraged customers to bring unlocked versions of the popular smartphone onto its CDMA network, but that could change if Apple makes the device compatible with LTE, CFO Braxton Carter said at the annual J.P. Morgan Global Technology, Media and Telecom Conference this morning.

"If you have LTE iPhones out there, it could be an opportunity in the future," Carter said.

MetroPCS would not necessarily offer the device itself. Instead, customers with unlocked LTE iPhones could run them on MetroPCS' network. President and COO Tom Keys, who also spoke at the conference, said that the company has "really not tried to go with a flashing of iPhones as a strategy" for its CDMA network. 

Rumors about an LTE iPhone have circulated but it is not clear when Apple will come out with the device.  

If an LTE-capable iPhone were to materialize, MetroPCS would not be the first operator to try to bring on board unlocked versions of the device. T-Mobile USA estimates more than 1 million iPhones currently run on its network even though the operator itself does not sell the smartphone. 

Aside from the hypothetical iPhone, MetroPCS spoke in more concrete terms about its LTE device strategy.  

The prepaid provider is working to migrate its customer base off its legacy network onto LTE so it can refarm spectrum currently tied up supporting CDMA. But the plan has been stymied by the lack of low-cost LTE smartphones, a major barrier to getting the company's cost-conscious customer base to buy the new devices. 

"We're in a transition period right now as we wait for low-cost LTE handsets," Carter said.  

The three LTE smartphones MetroPCS currently offers on its website range from $250 to $330, compared to feature phones starting at about $50. It is working on "three or four" LTE handsets below the $150 range and other devices below the $100 mark, Keys said.  

It could be some time before those phones hit shelves, however. Keys said the devices "may not be there by December," the important holiday shopping season. The operator's handset lineup for next year will phase out CDMA devices even as prices drop for the low-end phones.

"We're going to see an opportunity for manufacturers to come out with a really interesting price point on (CDMA) 1X devices but we don’t' want to do that," Keys said. "At the end of 2013, 95 percent of the lineup will be 4G LTE."  

It only plans to release one or two feature phones next year, Keys said. He does not anticipate a “forced migration” of its customer base.

MetroPCS expects to finish constructing the remaining 15 percent of its LTE network by the end of the third quarter.  

Once the buildout is complete, it will have between 102 million to 104 million people covered within its footprint, Keys said. He declined to list specific speeds of the network, which runs on narrower spectrum than the LTE service of larger providers.  

However, Braxton said the company is working on the "densification" of its network in urban areas, using small cells and microwave backhaul to add capacity. The company has cash set aside for buying spectrum and continues to look for opportunities to buy licenses, he said.

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