IPhone Will Appear in T-Mobile Stores—but It's Not for Sale

Photograph by Stephen Yang/Bloomberg

T-Mobile may not sell the iPhone, but you would never know it given how much effort T-Mo is putting into promoting the device. Beginning on Wednesday, Sept. 12, the sans-iPhone operator will begin carrying the iPhone 4S in its stores—not to sell it, but to demo how the device works over its network.

And depending on location, those demo phones won’t be limited to 2G-only data speeds. In a blog post going up Monday morning, T-Mobile reveals it has activated its HSPA+ network in iPhone-friendly bands in parts of New York, Seattle, and Las Vegas. T-Mobile has even developed an iOS version of its Bobsled VoIP calling app to support the 1 million “unofficial” iPhone users it already has.

Essentially, T-Mobile is doing everything it can to welcome iPhone owners onto its network, especially now that AT&T has begun unlocking the devices once its customers fulfill their contracts.

Why the sudden push? T-Mobile is in the process of revamping its mobile data networks, which will allow it to launch LTE next year. But there’s a big side benefit to the project: It is aligning its data networks with AT&T’s, meaning any device that works on Ma Bell’s networks will work on T-Mobile’s.

We talked to T-Mobile Chief Technology Officer Neville Ray and he confirmed that in areas where it’s turned up HSPA+ in the PCS band, there’s no longer any technological barrier preventing the iPhone from meeting its full potential on T-Mobile’s network (though some services won’t carry over such as visual voicemail). At GigaOM’s Mobilize conference on Sept. 20, Ray plans to share the details of T-Mobile’s network overhaul, but this week he gave us a bit of a preview.

T-Mobile has already shut off large portions of its 2G GSM networks in the 1900 MHz PCS band across 80 percent of its footprint, clearing those airwaves for HSPA+, Ray said. In many cases T-Mobile has enough free PCS spectrum to replicate its current dual-carrier HSPA+ configuration in its old 2G bands. That means if the new version of the iPhone supports dual-carrier (like the new iPad released this year), T-Mobile will be able to deliver theoretical maximum speeds of 42 Mbps to the device.

Ray said internal testing of the current iPhone 4S comparing performance on T-Mobile and AT&T’s networks shows that T-Mobile is achieving speeds 70 percent faster than its rival, even though the current iteration of the device doesn’t support dual-carrier. In addition to its network, Ray said, T-Mobile’s big lure will be its liberal data plans. Not only does it offer some of the biggest smartphone bang for your buck in its tiered plans, T-Mobile recently brought back an unlimited data option.

But all of this moot until T-Mo’s network upgrade is complete. LTE is scheduled to go online in the second half of 2013, but Ray said iPhone users won’t have to wait that long. Deploying LTE is the last step in its multi-part overhaul. “We’ll have a material footprint on HSPA+ at 1900 MHz by the end of the year,” Ray said.

Ray wouldn’t define “material,” but he said T-Mobile would begin making even more aggressive moves to lure unlocked iPhone customers during the holidays. Of course, at a certain point the question of locked or unlocked becomes moot.

As I’ve written many times before, when T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network at PCS gets big enough, Apple will start distributing its iconic device directly through the operator. Though Ray won’t comment on any possible negotiations with Apple, a deal between the two is certainly no stretch of the imagination. Despite its status as the No. 4 operator in the U.S., T-Mobile is still one of the world’s largest carriers. As soon as the last technical barrier disappears, Apple will welcome T-Mobile into the iPhone family with open arms.

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