Ask Maggie: Will AT&T ax T-Mobile phones?

This week Maggie clears up rumors that AT&T will require T-Mobile customers to get rid of their existing smartphones postmerger. Also: Advice on LTE phones, and gauging 3G data usage for an iPad 2.

The $39 billion proposed merger of AT&T and T-Mobile USA won't close for at least a year, but some T-Mobile customers are worried about what the potential changes might mean for them.

In this week's Ask Maggie column, I clear up confusion around whether T-Mobile USA customers will be forced to upgrade their handsets after AT&T completes its acquisition. I also offer my prediction on whether new LTE smartphones that will be introduced later this year will have similar battery life issues to the HTC Thunderbolt. And I offer some advice to new iPad2 customers on selecting the best Verizon Wireless 3G data plan.

Ask Maggie is a weekly advice column that answers readers' wireless and broadband questions. If you've got a question, please send me an e-mail at maggie dot reardon at cbs dot com. And please put "Ask Maggie" in the subject header.

T-Mobile customers: Will AT&T force me to get rid of my T-Mobile phone?

Hi, Maggie,
In reply to your Signal Strength "Getting out of my T-mobile contract" post on March 25th , I'm a little fuzzy on the details. I read an article earlier this week in which an AT&T spokesman stated that current 3G T-Mobile subscribers will have to change phones (at some point) because T-Mobile's 3G network uses a different frequency than AT&T's 3G service. I assume that means AT&T plans to move the current T-Mobile 3G customers onto AT&T's 3G frequency so that they can take advantage of enlarging the network. Your post didn't mention this, so I am wondering how much truth there is to it.

Thanks,
Jeff

Dear Jeff,
I apologize for not fully clarifying this in my earlier column. Last week's question was really about whether T-Mobile customers would be able to get out of their current contracts after the merger closes.

But your question is more about whether you'll still be able to use your existing T-Mobile phone on AT&T's network after the deal is finalized. The short answer to this question is "Yes."

Before I get into explaining how this will work, let me first say that there has been some misinformation out there on this topic. I double-checked with AT&T on this issue, because I had heard similar reports, although I never saw this directly attributed to an AT&T representative. Anyway, Mark Siegel, an AT&T spokesman, assured me that when (and if) AT&T closes the deal with T-Mobile, AT&T will not force customers to upgrade their phones.

"After the deal closes, (T-Mobile customers') phones will still work and they will be able to keep their existing plan," Siegel wrote in an e-mail. "It's too early to comment beyond that. We will be finalizing and sharing other details once the transaction is completed."

That said, you are correct that AT&T and T-Mobile use different radio frequencies for their 3G services. So how will this work if AT&T needs T-Mobile's spectrum for its 4G LTE service?

There are a couple of options. Some of the T-Mobile 3G phones in the market right now already have radios that support multiple frequencies. While T-Mobile's phones are optimized for the frequency bands that T-Mobile uses for its service, the phones also have radios that will allow the devices to roam on GSM networks overseas and within the U.S., a T-Mobile handset expert told me recently at the CTIA trade show. So theoretically, AT&T could switch T-Mobile customers to a different frequency band of spectrum without requiring customers to upgrade their handsets.

But what's more likely to happen is that AT&T will gradually move customers off T-Mobile's AWS spectrum onto AT&T's existing spectrum when these customers naturally upgrade their devices.

Here's how it will work: Once T-Mobile customer contracts expire, AT&T will stop selling T-Mobile devices and will instead offer those customers AT&T phones and service plans. Eventually, once all the T-Mobile contracts have expired and customers have moved over to AT&T handsets that operate on whatever spectrum AT&T wants to use, AT&T can use the T-Mobile AWS spectrum for its LTE service.

Wireless carriers do these types of migrations all the time when they upgrade their networks to newer technology. For example, the move from analog to digital radios required customers to get new handsets and to use different spectrum in some cases. The move from 2G to 3G also required new handsets that often used different spectrum bands.

Related links
• Ask Maggie: Can I cancel T-Mobile post-AT&T merger?
• AT&T and T-Mobile: Wireless megamerger (roundup)

I'm not going to tell you that these technology migrations are always painless for customers. There could come a point when some T-Mobile customers, who would like to continue using their old handsets, are forced to buy a new phone and upgrade to an AT&T service plan. But for most customers, who generally upgrade their phones every 18 months to two years, the transition is likely to be a nonevent.

I think what will irritate customers more is the fact that pricing and flexibility in the service plans will likely change. AT&T hasn't announced how it will price services once the merger is complete. But today AT&T's plans are more expensive and offer fewer options than T-Mobile's service plans. For example, AT&T no longer has an unlimited data plan option for smartphones, whereas T-Mobile does offer unlimited data.

Also, T-Mobile's entry level data plan is $5 a month less than AT&T's least expensive smartphone data plan. T-Mobile also offers customers different pricing based on a one-year or two-year contract. And it offers options for customers not interested in a contract at all. AT&T has far fewer service options for customers.

I hope this helps.

Better battery life for LTE phones?

Dear Maggie,
I know that I want an LTE phone and have been contemplating buying the HTC Thunderbolt. But I have been hesitant because I have read that the battery drains so quickly. Do you think that the other LTE phones to be released in the next few months might hold a charge longer before the battery dies, while still being relatively thin?

Thanks for your advice,
Ben

Dear Ben,

I talked to CNET Reviews Editor Bonnie Cha about your dilemma. Bonnie is CNET's smartphone expert, and she tests all these devices for battery life (among other things). We both agree that most of the first generation LTE smartphones will likely have battery life issues. The main reason is that LTE phones have an extra radio, and the more radios added to a phone, the more power it consumes. Specifically, LTE phones must support 2G and 3G radios as well as a Wi-Fi radio and GPS, in addition to the LTE radio. All these different radios can put a strain on the battery. And because these are high-end devices, they also have other bells and whistles, such as high megapixel cameras and larger and sharper displays. Again, these added features and capabilities often consume more power.

That said, Bonnie notes that the HTC Thunderbolt shipped with a particularly small battery for such a high-end smartphone. For example, the HTC Evo 4G, which is similar to the Thunderbolt, has a 1,500mAh battery while the Thunderbolt sports a 1,400mAh battery. According to spec sheets, batteries for some of the newer LTE phones will be bigger.

"The upcoming Droid Bionic will ship with a larger, 1,930mAh battery, so we could see better results then," Bonnie said. "Still, using 4G definitely puts a strain on things, especially if you're using the mobile hot spot feature--so having a charger handy or an extra or extended battery would be a good idea."

Handset manufacturers are working to improve battery life on their latest phones. As a result, my guess is that later generations of LTE smartphones will likely have improved battery life.

At the CTIA trade show last week, I talked to Tim O'Brien, vice president of marketing for LG Mobile Phones, about battery life issues. LG is making a push in 2011 with its smartphones. And it's developing an LTE smartphone called the LG Revolution for Verizon Wireless.

He said that LG has a separate division focused on improving battery technology, but he said even within the handset division the company is constantly looking for ways to make more efficient use of power within the device. For example, LG has developed display screens that offer more brightness but consume less power. Advances in processor technology also help device makers develop products that use power more efficiently.

But improving battery life is a constantly moving target. As handsets get more sophisticated, they consume more power. O'Brien said the goal at LG is to make sure that even as new power hungry features are introduced, users don't have to alter their behavior when it comes to recharging their battery.

"People should be able to get through the day taking videos, using the Web, checking e-mail, etc. on their smartphones," he said. "And then they can recharge their phones overnight. Our goal is to get at least that amount of charge for a phone and then push it to longer and longer lasting batteries."

So my advice in a nutshell is that if battery life is a major concern for you, you should wait for the next generation of LTE smartphones.

What does 1GB a month get me on the iPad2?

Hi, Maggie,
I have a new iPad2 that has 3G service from Verizon Wireless. I want to be able to access the Internet when I am away from home. But I don't have a feel for which data plan would be enough for me. The 1GB per month plan for $20 seems low, but I don't want to pay for more than I would use. Can you give me an idea of what 1GB would allow me to do?

Thanks,
Dana

Dear Dana,
Verizon Wireless offers a tool to help you gauge how much data you might need per month. It asks you how many e-mails you send per day; how many Web sites you check per day, and how much time you spend streaming music and video each day. Then it calculates for you your estimated usage for the month.

Keep in mind that streaming media, such as music and video, will eat through data much more quickly than basic Web surfing or reading and sending e-mail.

I used the Verizon data calculator to get an idea what 1GB of data per month would allow you to do. According to the tool, streaming music for an hour a day every day would eat up about 1GB of data per month. Streaming high-resolution video for 10 minutes every day would eat up about 1.74GB of data per month. But you can stream low-resolution video for about 1 hour a day and use only 1.35GB of data per month.

So my suggestion to you is to check out the calculator to get a rough estimate of what you think you might need. If you are using your iPad 2 mostly at home and you only need the 3G service on occasion, you can probably go with a lower data plan, since much of your usage will be on your home Wi-Fi network.

The good thing about these data plans is that you don't have to sign a contract, and you can turn the service on and off whenever you like. You can also add more data or dial it back, depending on your usage needs. So you can start out with the 1GB per month service. And if you need more capacity per month, you can bump it up to 3GB the next month.

"You can always buy more data," Verizon Wireless spokeswoman Brenda Raney told me when I asked her what she would recommend. "So starting small is probably a good idea."

 

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