John Legere and T-Mobile want to make buying a smartphone more like shopping for a used car. And they mean that in the best possible way.
On Wednesday, the company announced a new "test drive" program in which would-be T-Mobile customers can try out an iPhone 5s for seven days to decide whether they want to the carrier to provide their wireless service. And if they do sign up with T-Mobile, they can take advantage of another new program introduced Wednesday: Subscribers to T-Mobile's Simple Choice plan will be able to stream music from popular streaming services without it counting against their data plan. In addition, T-Mobile plans to launch a subscription-based radio service with Rhapsody next week.
The three moves are part of T-Mobile's ongoing Uncarrier program in which it tries to unsettle rivals like AT&T, Verizon, and Sprint--and spirit away some of their customers--by taking on some of the standard practices of the wireless industry. This year alone, T-Mobile has offered to pay users' early termination fees for jumping ship from other carriers and it's dropped overage fees. The moves have helped T-Mobile attract 17 million switchers since the company launched its Uncarrier campaign by doing away with two-year contracts last spring.
"Customers in the wireless industry are experience wireless like never before," Legere said before an appreciative crowd of T-Mobile customers and employees Wednesday night, as he pointed out that rival companies had responded to T-Mobile's moves by adopting many of the same practices he's championed.
T-Mobile has been busy strengthening its own networking, noting that it now offers Wideband LTE in 16 markets and plans to cover 100 million people with Voice over LTE by the end of 2014. But that networking news won't be what people talk about when discussing the latest steps in T-Mobile's Uncarrier campaign.
Test drive an iPhone
Instead, people will likely focus on programs like the T-Mobile Test Drive. Starting you'll be able to sign up with T-Mobile to receive a fully functioning iPhone 5s for a week. (True to its boundary-pushing reputation, T-Mobile is calling this a "seven-night stand" with all the double entendres that phrase can inspire.) The phone will arrive in the mail, and you'll get a chance to see how it performs on T-Mobile's network in the areas where you spend the most time. When the seven days are up, you return the phone to a nearby T-Mobile store; the company will helpfully point out where the nearest locations are when you get your test phone.
"The buying process [for smartphones] is worse than for used cars," said Mike Sievert, T-Mobile's chief marketing officer. "And yet, we don't question that this is how the wireless market operates."
The test drive program is likely to be embraced by anyone who's ever fretted about whether a carrier's coverage truly extends to where they work and play. (As someone who moved to a new house only to discover that his wireless carrier had a dead zone that started on the front porch and extended straight to the backyard, I can assure you this is a very legitimate concern.) And while the test hardware is limited to T-Mobile's partnership with Apple, even Android users can get a sense of the relative strengths and weaknesses of T-Mobile's network in their area after a week-long test drive.
There are caveats, of course. Households are limited to one test drive per year, so don't count on pulling off that caper where you spend a year getting wireless service on T-Mobile's dime. Still, don't fear that T-Mobile is going to pounce if that test drive iPhone 5s isn't back in its possession right as those seven days expire: there will be "a little bit of a grace period," Sievert said.
"We want to make this a great experience for our customers," he added.
T-Mobile is planning for at least 1 million people to take a test drive this year. And if it turns out there's even more of a demand, Legere says the company will expand the program.
Let the music play
T-Mobile's decision to stop counting music streaming against its users' data plans should resonate as well, especially among its current customers who tend to use more data than subscribers to other wireless networks. Legere, who peppered Wednesday night's talk with stats almost as much as with his usual profanities, says that T-Mobile customers use 69 percent more data than the average Verizon customer and double the data that AT&T customers consume. Still, according to Legere's figures, people are worried about running into the upper limits of their data plan: around 40 percent of mobile users limit their streaming due to concerns about blowing past their limit.
T-Mobile's Music Freedom program figures to alleviate that concern. Users with a Simple Choice plan from T-Mobile will be able to access Pandora, Rhapsody, iHeartRadio, iTunes Radio, Slacker Radio, Spotify, Samsung's Milk Music, and a forthcoming Beatport music app from SFX without it counting against their data plans.
Eagle-eyed music lovers will spot some noteworthy omissions from that list, including Beats Music, Rdio, and Google Play Music All Access. Legere counters that the supported services account for 85 percent of music streaming. Even so, T-Mobile says it's open to adding more streaming services to Music Freedom. On the Music Freedom website, the company has set up an area where you can give feedback on the services you want added to program. If there's enough of a groundswell of support, presumably T-Mobile will add it to the ranks of streaming services that won't count against your allotted data.
In addition to launching Music Freedom, which begins immediately, T-Mobile is teaming up with Rhapsody to launch unRadio. The streaming service offers ad-free music, lets users skip all the songs they want, choose their own music, and replay songs. unRadio, which launches Monday, boasts a catalog of more than 20 million songs.
Simple Choice customers paying for 4G LTE data service will be able to access unRadio for free. Other T-Mobile customers can pay US$4 a month for a subscription; everyone else will have to pay $5. unRadio will be available for both iOS and Android and on the web.