- The Washington Times - Wednesday, October 26, 2011

While federal regulators and courts weigh the pluses and minuses of a proposed merger with AT&T, the onetime “landline” wired long-distance titan, the folks at T-Mobile have a message for you: Take our smartphones, please.

Now, to be honest, Chris Hillabrant, the firm’s mid-Atlantic region vice president, won’t put it in precisely those words, but the underlying pitch is there, as I discovered in a recent meeting.

Whether or not the merger goes through, T-Mobile says it has some compelling offerings that should draw lots of folks into its circle of customers.

“There’s no better time to come to T-Mobile,” Mr. Hillabrant said the other evening when we met in downtown Silver Spring. He said the wireless subsidiary put on the market by its German parent, Deutsche Telekom, is a David versus the Goliaths of the wireless industry. As a result, the firm has to be a bit more nimble and creative in its marketing and product offerings.

At the same time, a merger with AT&T, one of the top two wireless carriers in the U.S., would expand the reach of both firms, and bring more fourth-generation, or 4G, wireless service to more users in more places, Mr. Hillabrant said. In the D.C. metropolitan area, T-Mobile can deliver download data speeds as high as 42 megabits per second; ditto for Baltimore. That’s great for getting movies on your phone in a hurry, said Troy Edwards, T-Mobile’s top communicator for the Eastern region, who sat in on the meeting.

Moreover, the T-Mobile network and service plans appeal to all sorts of consumers: Mr. Edwards noted that an estimated 1 million users of Apple Inc.’s iPhone are on the T-Mobile network, even though that firm doesn’t sell the product. These users have either unlocked their phones independently, a process called “jailbreaking,” or have bought unlocked iPhones from Apple at a hefty premium over the models subsidized by AT&T, Verizon and, now, Sprint Nextel.

Those iPhone users, Mr. Edwards added, are getting 2G wireless service from T-Mobile, yet they’ve come over. Other smartphones, such as the just-released HTC Amaze 4G, can take full advantage of the firm’s network and, presumably, deliver those blazing speeds.

Along with those speeds, Mr. Hillabrant said, is a little add-on program for most of the firm’s smartphones that lets users place and receive wireless calls over Wi-Fi networks. That may not sound like much until a user finds himself in, say, Brazil, as Mr. Hillabrant did recently. “I had people coming over to borrow my phone,” he said, because he could make and receive calls when other visiting users couldn’t.

What about that merger? If it’s approved, Mr. Hillabrant said, current customers’ contracts will be “grandfathered in,” meaning they won’t be switched to different, or higher-priced, AT&T Wireless plans overnight. If the merger doesn’t happen, T-Mobile will seek to remain competitive in the market.

One of the things I like about T-Mobile, at least as Mr. Hillabrant discussed it, was a somewhat proactive approach to customer education. A number of T-Mobile’s smartphones are based on Google’s Android operating system, and the Android models I’ve tested from other carriers have been rather poor on battery life. Buy some smartphones from T-Mobile and you can add extra power via external batteries or other accessories, keeping your phone ready for action.

Also, Mr. Hillabrant said, the firm offers some prepaid options for smartphone users, which makes it easier to control costs of the devices. Smartphones and the data services they provide are rather attractive, until a Brobdingnagian bill arrives to dampen the enthusiasm. Prepay for your service and the surprises are less damaging, I’d guess.

What will happen with the proposed merger, which is being opposed in court by the U.S. Department of Justice, among others, is anyone’s guess. But the fact that T-Mobile is still scrapping out in the marketplace is a positive thing, I believe. The more competitive options in the market, the better.

Email mkellner@washingtontimes.com.