Three Ways for T-Mobile to Gain Relevance in US Market

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As much as the American wireless industry loves to paint itself as the ideal model of vibrant competition, it has been moving in recent years toward being a duopoly.

For as Sprint has steadily lost market share in recent years, both AT&T and Verizon have gained significantly. Even as Sprint lost millions of wireless subscribers over the past few years, AT&T has surged from 65 million wireless customers in 2007 to 87 million wireless customers in the first quarter of 2010. Rival Verizon, meanwhile, has also significantly boosted its subscriber rolls with the help of its merger with Alltel, as the carrier has gone from 63.6 million wireless customers in 2007 to 92.8 million wireless subscribers in the first quarter of 2010.

The state of 4G in 2010

So where does T-Mobile fit into all this? As a subsidiary of German carrier Deutsche Telekom, T-Mobile USA has always traditionally run behind the three major American wireless carriers. Although it has steadily grown in recent years, the company's latest earnings report showed that T-Mobile has started shedding wireless subscribers, as it lost 77,000 in the first quarter. T-Mobile USA has decided to shake up its operation by replacing longtime CEO Robert Dotson with Philipp Humm, who ran T-Mobile's German operations until late 2008.

Once Humm takes over in early 2011, he will have a lot of work to do to help T-Mobile expand its current customer base of 33.7 million wireless subscribers. And while no one knows for sure what his plan for improving T-Mobile will be, he does have several strategies he can adopt. Among them are:

-Expand more to the enterprise market. T-Mobile has been mainly focused on consumers since its inception while its competitors at Sprint, AT&T and Verizon have taken a more enterprise-friendly approach. Of course, the difficulty is that T-Mobile is solely a wireless provider and it's getting more difficult for companies that specialize solely in wireless or wireline to garner significant enterprise attention.

"It is possible [for a wireless only company to get large enterprise users], but it's getting harder," says Gartner analyst Phillip Redman. "Even the companies selling wireline/wireless services haven't done a good job of combining both, but the window is closing."

-Ditch the "bargain carrier" reputation. T-Mobile got its foothold in the U.S. by presenting itself as a cheaper brand of wireless carrier that gave especially generous discounts on family plans. However, Redman notes that you can only go so far with this strategy and expect to compete with the big guns at Verizon and AT&T.

"Right now, T-Mobile is known as a bargain, trading off better service for lower costs," he says. "It should really move away from this... there's still work to be done improving the perception of T-Mobile as having poor network coverage. It has made significant improvements, and though it still may lag leaders, it has made some closure on the gap."

-Get LTE up and running. The challenge here for T-Mobile is its spectrum holdings. As ABI Research analyst Phlip Solis notes, "T-Mobile is the only [major wireless operator in the U.S.] that does not have spectrum for 4G." So while other carriers have gobbled up spectrum on the 700MHz and 2.5GHz bands for their 4G services, T-Mobile might find itself relying on a third party for its spectrum.

Solis thinks T-Mobile could either partner with Clearwire and buy spectrum wholesale to build out its own LTE network or could buy spectrum from Harbinger Capital Partners, which plans to repurpose spectrum currently used for satellite services for an LTE network.

"They need spectrum to start building a 4G network before they can begin re-farming existing spectrum to be used for 4G," says Solis. "So basically, the new CEO needs to start laying out strategic options to get access to spectrum for a 4G network. It could buy spectrum, lease spectrum, or be a 4G MVNO [mobile virtual network operator]."

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This story, "Three Ways for T-Mobile to Gain Relevance in US Market" was originally published by Network World.

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