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Can prepaid carriers quench consumers' smartphone thirst?

A poorer quarter and market pressures are squeezing many prepaid carriers, which could make their smartphone future less certain. Can they continue to compete against the bigwigs?

water glass
Josh Long/CNET

Relief is a little iffy for contract-free customers thirsting for smartphones.

Weak quarterly earnings for prepaid carriers, like leader MetroPCS, TracFone, and Cricket-owner Leap Wireless, are making the ability of these second-tiered carriers to act effectively as alternative smartphone providers to the big-four operators a little murkier.

Why? As CNET Senior Writer Roger Cheng noted, the overall growth of tier-two customers is slowing--even dropping, in Cricket's case--and in addition, smartphone-seekers appear to be signing on to other options, including prepaid plans with the major carriers like T-Mobile, or dropping down to government-subsidized feature phones in response to financial difficulties brought about by the recession.

Making the situation even trickier for the prepaid gang is the Catch-22 that more smartphone subscribers are exactly what their businesses need.

Smartphones are by far the bigger moneymaker in a lineup composed mostly of feature phones, since they let the carrier convert the customer to a higher monthly plan for unlimited talk, text, and data, usually between $45 and $60 per month rather than a cheaper $30- to $40-per-month rate. (Virgin Mobile is the notable exception, with a $35 smartphone option in addition to its $45 and $55 plans.)

Thirsty for smartphones
It's not just the bottom line driving these carriers' urge to inflate the smartphone portfolio. In the last fiscal quarter, 107.7 million smartphones shipped worldwide, with Android phones comprising nearly 50 percent of the total handsets.

The carriers themselves are well aware of their customers' demand for smartphones in general, and for Android in particular. Meeting with CNET in March, MetroPCS director of handset product management Tony Lau said it's Android phones that customers want, and cited Android and the 4G LTE data network as the carrier's two focus points.


Virgin Mobile

Boost Mobile

Cricket Wireless

Smartphone users

As it stands, Sprint-owned Virgin Mobile has the highest percentage of smartphone users out of the four prepaid carriers that CNET polled, about 30 percent. MetroPCS and Cricket Wireless each quoted that 25 percent of their user base owns smartphones, and Boost Mobile, also owned by Sprint, comes in at roughly 15 percent. By comparison, AT&T enjoys a 50 percent smartphone-using subscriber base, an AT&T spokesperson told CNET. T-Mobile's number is roughly 30 percent adoption, according to a carrier spokesperson.

Weak lineups, little 4G
The thirst for smartphones is evident in the carriers' ever-expanding portfolios, but some seem to be doing better than others at capturing high-powered and compelling phones. Virgin Mobile recently scored a hit with the Motorola Triumph, a smartphone that boasts a 4.1-inch screen, a 1Ghz processor, HD video capture and playback, and a front-facing camera all in a new, relatively sleek package. The other two Android phones--the LG Optimus V and Samsung Intercept--are adequate but unremarkable, and the lineup includes a rather stale BlackBerry, as do Virgin Mobile's competitors. (See Virgin Mobile's phone portfolio.)

Boost Mobile's best phone is the Samsung Galaxy Prevail, a polished Android 2.2 touch-screen model that covers the basics well and has a surprisingly good 2-megapixel camera. The BlackBerry Style (reviewed for Sprint) is another option for style-centered Boost, as well as that ubiquitous midrange BlackBerry 8530. (See Boost Mobile's phone portfolio.)

Fifth in the U.S. cell phone market behind T-Mobile, MetroPCS should be leading the charge, and it did to some extent when it launched America's first 4G LTE market and cell phone, the Samsung Craft feature phone. Since then, MetroPCS did release the Samsung Galaxy Indulge, its first 4G smartphone. The carrier has that same old BlackBerry and several other Android phones besides, including two versions of the Huawei Ascend, and the LG Optimus M, but the new addition of the Huawei M835 drags the lineup down.

Where are the up-to-five LTE-enabled smartphones that MetroPCS' Tony Lau promised CNET we'd see from MetroPCS by the end of 2011? We're still waiting. Since MetroPCS is the only prepaid carrier with any established "4G" network, this is its opportunity to shine. Instead, the lineup is beginning to stagnate. Even if it's not the fastest network around by a long shot, by not offering more 4G-capable phones, many of its smartphone customers are stuck using Metro's 2.5G network, since it skipped 3G entirely. (See MetroPCS' phone portfolio.)

Meanwhile, Cricket's smartphone portfolio currently leans on just two phones, the Huawei Ascend and the BlackBerry Curve 8530. However, it'll also get the Ascend successor, the Huawei Ascend II, as well as its own, non-4G version of the Samsung Galaxy Indulge and the LG Optimus C. (See Cricket Wireless' phone portfolio.)

Smartphone impediments
Bulking up a lineup is easier said than done. Prepaid carriers tend to be extremely sensitive to price, so the phones they offer off-contract (and unsubsidized) have to fit the expectations of their generally more cost-cautious customer base. The prepaid carriers' most advanced smartphones aren't cheap; most cost between $200 and $300 for the hardware alone, compared with about $200 for usually much more advanced (and heavily subsidized) phones offered by the postpaid carriers.

Samsung Galaxy Prevail (Boost Mobile)
Josh Miller/CNET

In addition to price constraints, prepaid carriers also must contend with tighter options. Since their sales volume is also significantly smaller than those of tier-one carriers, they have less leverage with phone makers when it comes to negotiating new phones for their portfolios. With their sheer volume of subscribers, U.S. leaders AT&T and Verizon will get the pick of the litter and can negotiate for exclusive access to certain models and designs.

MetroPCS' relationship with Huawei earns it some first-run Hauwei smartphone models in the U.S. (they seem to often later wind up at Cricket). It's possible that Virgin and Boost grabbed the swanky Triumph and Galaxy Prevail, respectively, thanks to parent Sprint's existing relationship with hardware makers.

It's true as well that prepaid carriers don't necessarily want to mimic the big four. Given their price promise, there may also be an understanding that customers are looking for smartphone competence, not necessarily top-of-the-line product; and an affordable, flexible all-in-one plan may trump glitzy hardware more often than not.

Assuming the above is true, it raises the question: is the prepaid model well-suited for smartphones? I'd argue yes. Not only is a healthy smartphone trade crucial for the prepaid carriers' continued growth, Virgin's Triumph, Boost's Galaxy Prevail, and even MetroPCS' 4G Galaxy Indulge prove that no-contract carriers can also cultivate quality handsets. In fact, as more basic Android smartphones begin supplanting the more sophisticated feature phones, opportunities should expand, since the stock Android OS is a relatively reliable and cheap solution to insert into midrange hardware.

However, a word of caution: if these prepaid carriers are to pursue the smartphone market, they'll need to be careful to skip Android duds and to refresh their basic BlackBerry offerings. It would be interesting to see the original Windows Phone hardware included as well, for instance something like the HTC 7 Pro. MetroPCS in particular must continue investing in its so-called 4G network or potentially lose out to rivals' stable 3G networks.

Prepaid carriers must also continue to understand, and anticipate, that in the face of rapid technological advance, carriers who don't aggressively tend to their smartphone lineup will see the gap between tier-one and -two products widen, and watch as more of their customers satisfy their smartphone thirst elsewhere.