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T-Mobile Takes “Un-carrier” Literally With New Wi-Fi Features

Every T-Mobile smartphone will let you make calls over Wi-Fi–including the new iPhones.

T-Mobile Takes “Un-carrier” Literally With New Wi-Fi Features
T-Mobile U.S. CEO John Legere in San Francisco on September 10, 2014 [Photo: Melissa Perenson]

T-Mobile U.S. may be the fourth largest wireless carrier in the nation, but in more than one sense, it’s the loudest company in the business.

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There’s the fact that its CEO, John Legere, is the rare big-company CEO who doesn’t appear to have an on-off switch between his psyche and his mouth: He’s famous for copious use of profanity in his onstage appearances and likes to refer to Verizon, AT&T, and Sprint as Moe, Larry, and Curly.

More important, T-Mobile’s influence on the industry is disproportionate to its size. Last year, it dubbed itself the Un-carrier and moved away from the traditional carrier business model of signing consumers to two-year contracts and subsidizing their pricey smartphones. It called its new payment system Jump, and designed it to permit more frequent upgrades for a monthly fee; the other major carriers have since introduced plans which resemble it in general concept.

On Wednesday, T-Mobile held an event in San Francisco which it called Un-carrier 7.0, announcing its seventh bundle of outside-the-box new offerings. After opening with Legere doing his wireless-industry insult humor–he called Amazon’s Fire Phone the Fire Sale Phone and paraphrased Sprint’s CEO as saying his own network “really blows”–the press conference segued into news, most of which had to do with T-Mobile piggybacking on local Wi-Fi networks to complement its own LTE network.

For many years, T-Mobile has championed the use of Wi-Fi networks to make phone calls. Doing so allows for calling in areas where the carrier’s network is spotty–and as more people use Wi-Fi, the load on the T-Mobile network is reduced. But the feature was only available on certain phones and sometimes required consumers to use a special app or otherwise adjust their habits.

Now the company says that every smartphone it sells will have Wi-Fi calling capability baked into the operating system, so consumers don’t need to think about it. (That includes the new iPhones, which, Apple announced on Tuesday, will support the feature.) T-Mobile will also offer an open-enrollment period for the Jump plan, allowing current customers and defectors from other carriers to upgrade to a phone that can call over Wi-Fi.

T-Mobile also supports Voice over LTE–VoLTE for short–a new standard designed to allow phones which include it, such as the new iPhones, to switch a call seamlessly between Wi-Fi and LTE.

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By paying a $25 deposit, T-Mobile customers will be able to get free use of a Wi-Fi router which the company calls a Personal CellSpot; it incorporates special technology and is designed to let customers make calls reliably even if T-Mobile’s network is erratic in their home.

The company also announced that it’s working with in-flight Wi-Fi provider Gogo to allow T-Mobile customers to send text messages and check their voicemail for free on Gogo-equipped airplanes. And it will allow international travelers to make Wi-Fi calls back to the U.S. at no extra cost.

Onstage, Legere said that T-Mobile added a record number of customers in August–evidence, he said, that the Un-carrier strategy is paying off. And T-Mobile chief technical officer Neville Ray made the case that the company’s LTE network is competitive with AT&T and Verizon, even though it got off to a late start in building it out and must deal with the challenges of being a smaller player with access to less wireless spectrum.

After the event, I asked them Legere about the reputation of the T-Mobile network and perceptions among consumers that it’s nowhere near as robust as those of its larger rivals. Would that make it tough for the company to keep poaching subscribers from other carriers indefinitely?

“There’s room for us to double our size before that becomes an issue,” he told me. “People whose perception of us was old or outdated or third-hand are opening their minds to try us.”

How about the possibility of other carriers taking T-Mobile’s moves so seriously that they match them, making the company look less like a renegade?

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“We want to be famous for changing wireless for the better,” says Michael Sievert, T-Mobile’s chief marketing officer. “Some of the things we do will get copied well, some will get copied badly. Some will never be copied because they’re difficult to do, or make more sense for a challenger.”

Legere told me that it’s not in AT&T and Verizon’s nature to be creative when it comes to what they offer consumers: “They have a utility mindset. They move customers only when they need to.” Still, he maintains that part of T-Mobile’s strategy with offerings such as the new Wi-Fi features is to goad its competitors into following its lead: “I’m hoping this will wake the industry up.”

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About the author

Harry McCracken is the technology editor for Fast Company, based in San Francisco. In past lives, he was editor at large for Time magazine, founder and editor of Technologizer, and editor of PC World.

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