T-Mobile Adds a Free 3G Stick, Cuts Prices

T-Mobile USA doubled down on 3G (third-generation) data Wednesday, introducing a second USB dongle for laptops and lowering prices for the end-of-year holiday season.

The T-Mobile webConnect Jet can't roam on international 3G networks as the previously introduced webConnect USB Laptop Stick can, but the carrier is offering the Jet free with a two-year contract. The new device works with T-Mobile's domestic 3G network, or with slower GSM (Global System for Mobile Communications) and EDGE (Enhanced Data Rates for GSM Evolution) networks where 3G is not available.

Also on Wednesday, the nation's fourth-largest carrier began offering contracts with a lower monthly data rate for a limited time. Its plan with a 5GB monthly cap is now available for US$49.99 per month, down from the regular US$59.99. A plan with a 200MB cap now costs $29.99 per month, reduced from the regular rate of $34.99. Those rates are available on new two-year contracts until Jan. 13.

Both plans also include access to T-Mobile's more than 10,000 Wi-Fi hotspots around the U.S., where data used does not count against the subscriber's monthly limit. T-Mobile Connection Manager software, which comes with the data devices, can automatically find the best available connection nearby and give users information about their data usage with alerts when they are near the monthly limit.

Both dongles include a microSD/SDHC slot for Secure Digital flash cards as large as 8GB, so the device can be used as portable storage. The devices are made by Chinese networking and telecommunications giant Huawei Technologies. The original webConnect USB Laptop Stick costs $49.99 with a new two-year contract.

The devices can use T-Mobile's HSPA (High-Speed Packet Access) 7.2 data network, which will be deployed across the carrier's national 3G footprint by the end of this year, said Jeremy Korst, director of broadband products and services. That footprint will cover about 200 million U.S. residents by the end of the year, he said. The HSPA 7.2 technology can deliver a theoretical peak speed of 7.2Mb per second (Mbps) and is an upgrade to the 3.6Mbps system T-Mobile began with when it started rolling out 3G in May 2008.

The carrier isn't stopping there. Next year it aims to become the first U.S. operator to commercially deploy HSPA+, a system with a theoretical top speed of 21Mbps. HSPA+ is in trials now in Philadelphia and should be available commercially in many metropolitan areas next year, Korst said.

AT&T, which uses the same basic technology as T-Mobile, will also deploy HSPA 7.2 in some areas this year and plans to make it available to 90 percent of its 3G customers by the end of 2011. That same year, AT&T plans to start offering LTE (Long-Term Evolution), the fourth-generation mobile technology that is capable of 100M bps or more. T-Mobile says LTE is a logical next step but that it's in no hurry to deploy it.

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