T-Mobile iPhone launch wrap up: LTE speed and HD audio tests, the new $579 AWS A1428 iPhone 5 and the plan gamechanger

We were on hand in New York City today to watch the unveiling of the iPhone on T-Mobile and its new LTE/plans that purport to save T-Mobile customers a lot of money over its U.S. competitors.

T-Mobile tipped us to its grand plan to become the ‘Uncarrier’ at CES in January 2013. The idea is to radically simplify the phone plan purchasing experience by cutting away most complexities of the carrier agreements. The effort was very forward thinking and Apple-like in that sense, and the results are certainly a big change for the industry.

You basically start with a $50 a month unlimited data plan and go from there. T-Mobile will throttle you after 500MB, unless you give them $10 or $20 more a month, which gives you 2GB or unlimited before un-throttling. Family plans are $30 for the first extra device and $10 for each one thereafter. I imagine most normals will pay $50 a month. That’s a lot less than the typical iPhone user pays.

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But, let’s not kid ourselves on what’s motivating T-Mobile here. It has been losing customers like crazy and that’s largely due to its failure to carry the iPhone. The iPhone represents well over half of all smartphones on every other big U.S. carrier, and it will likely dominate T-Mobile over the next few years. T-Mobile said that even though it won’t officially support the iPhone until April 12, it currently has over 2.1 million iPhones on the network. That’s about to skyrocket…

CEO John Legere comes from over a decade at Global Crossing, an IP Data backbone firm, so cutting through all the B.S. and delivering fat delicious packets of data is his specialty.

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T-Mobile’s new plans, whether they are for the common good or out of pure desperation, are significantly less expensive across the board than other carriers. And, as T-Mobile probably said 100 times at the event, there is no contract lock in. That frankly is a really great situation for consumers who want a phone more than once every two years.

T-Mobile is selling the iPhone 5 for just $99 down and $20 a month times 24 months, and that equals a $579 cost for the iPhone 5. If you are like me, the first thing that popped into your mind is that Apple’s off-contract iPhone 5 is $649. If you are lucky, you can find it unlocked on 9to5toys for $625. How is T-Mobile selling it for $50 less than anyone else and $70 less than list? T-Mobile still locks your iPhone, but the carrier told us it would unlock the device once you’ve paid up, so we’re not sure. Why wouldn’t everyone including AT&T customers just buy their iPhones at T-Mobile? Perhaps Apple is giving them a deal, as it did for Best Buy and Walmart for the holidays. T-Mobile will also sell the iPhone 4 and iPhone 4S in certain geographies, with the following pricing:

Qualifying customers can get iPhone 4S through the Simple Choice Plan for $69.99 down and $20 per month for 24 months. iPhone 4 will be available for qualifying customers through the Simple Choice Plan for $14.99 down and $15 per month for 24 months.

I’m sorry, but if you get an iPhone 4S to save $30, you are crazy.

T-Mobile’s version of the iPhone is different. To support the AWS bands, Apple had to tweak this iPhone 5 and gave it AWS radios. It hit the Federal Communication Commission as this was posted (below). Here’s a picture of one of the AWS iPhones being mulled over by the F.C.C.:

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Apple has stated that all A1428 iPhone 5s (like AT&T’s) will be AWS-compatible going forward. This iPhone 5 not only jumps on different bands, but it also allows T-Mobile to do HD audio or “Wideband audio” on the device.

iPhone 5 now includes support for cellular wideband audio for crisper word clarity and more natural sounding speech. Wideband audio will be supported by over 20 carriers worldwide at launch.

I tested it out the HD Audio, and it sounded great, but it was hard to differentiate in the crowded hall from regular calls. The true test will be when I get to use it with headphones in quiet environments, which we hope to try out in the coming weeks. Also, HD calling only works when both people are using the feature. So, unless all of your friends buy T-Mobile iPhone 5’s, you won’t likely get the opportunity to hear it too often. I have tried Sprint’s HD calling, and it was indeed superior and comparable to a really high quality Skype call.

LTE tests ran really well—but so did AT&T and Verizon’s before millions of people jumped on them. I saw speeds up to 60MB per second, and it handily beat out the local Verizon and AT&T speeds. T-Mobile’s HSPA+ is also uber-fast and often beats Verizon’s LTE. T-Mobile is activating seven markets (Baltimore, Houston, Kansas City, Las Vegas, Phoenix, San Jose, and Washington D.C) now including N.Y.C., and it plans to have 100 million people covered by mid-year.

So, does all of this make T-Mobile’s offer a good one?

For my money, yes. I live about 20 miles from N.Y.C., and T-Mobile’s network is without a doubt the fastest at my home. But that isn’t the differentiator. Even if the service at home was on par or even slightly worse than everyone else’s – which I’m sure is the norm around the country – there are plenty of other reasons to like T-Mobile.  T-Mobile’s plans have always been inexpensive, and you could often get unlimited data for the same price as a dumb phone using the old pre-paid plans. T-Mobile also has Wi-Fi calling, though it isn’t seamless like it is on some Android devices, and you’ll need to fire up the Bobsled app. The HD calling is nice as well.

Let’s face it here: While the PR folks are really great to us, when we deal with the carriers as customers, the experience sucks. In my personal experience, T-Mobile was the only carrier that I’ve ever enjoyed as a customer. Now that it changed the game with fair pricing and no lock-in, there is even more reason to jump on board.

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