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  • Cricket, MetroPCS vying in prepaid race

    Cricket wins data speed test - or does it?

    By Jeff Gelles
    Inquirer Business Columnist

    They've been called "cheap chic," and enjoyed a particular surge in popularity during the worst days of the economic downturn. Still, prepaid wireless services remain a niche product, with special appeal to customers on a tight budget and those who want - or need - to avoid a contract with a major carrier.

    But that doesn't mean those customers want to forgo all the latest bells and whistles, such as Web access, smartphone apps, and video. And those data-intensive demands are what set the stage for Philadelphia's latest battle of the prepaids, which pits Cricket Wireless against MetroPCS, the other local prepaid service that boasts its own wireless network.

    Cricket is "10x faster than MetroPCS," according to the tag line of Leap Wireless' latest TV commercial for its Cricket brand. And the company has been eager to share results from an evaluation conducted last month by MobileNet Services Inc., which confirm the company's assertion that its data-download speeds were an order of magnitude faster than MetroPCS's when tested on two phones sold by both carriers, the LG Optimus and the Huawei Ascend.
    On Cricket, the two phones averaged download speeds of about 1 megabit per second - comparable to the download speed you can expect, say, on a Verizon iPhone, according to wireless analyst Roger Entner of Boston's Recon Analytics. By contrast, MetroPCS's versions of the two phones averaged about 100 kilobits per second.

    Case closed? Not completely - and therein lies a story about the rapid and confusing evolution of mobile-data technology. I'll explain more in a moment, but it boils down to this: A different test might have shown MetroPCS on top, at least in some places.

    What the test showed. MobileNet designed the test according to Cricket's specifications, says Eugene Powell, vice president of the Irvine, Calif., engineering firm. It examined data speeds, upstream and downstream, around 80 cell sites across the Philadelphia region where the companies had comparable signal strength.

    What explained the difference in data speeds? A difference in network technology.

    On MetroPCS, the two phones operate on a version of CDMA technology known as 1xRTT. On Cricket, they operate on a later version of CDMA called EVDO - a system designed to complement CDMA voice transmission with higher-speed data.
    Given the contrast, Powell acknowledges, the results were essentially a foregone conclusion. "It was exactly what we expected," he says.

    Andy Cook, regional general manager for Cricket, says he is happy even if he isn't surprised. "When the test results came back, we were sort of expecting it, and we were very pleased at the 10-times differential," he says.
    Even if the San Diego company knew what to expect, Cook says, the third-party testing offers a marketing opportunity for Cricket, which has about six million customers, to distinguish itself from MetroPCS.

    "We sell similar devices and have similar rate plans, and got feedback that our phones were operating much faster," Cook says. "We want to let consumers know that when you buy a smartphone with Cricket, you're going to have a smartphone on a smart network."

    What the test overlooked. It's true that most phones that MetroPCS offers operate on the slower 1xRTT network while, Cook says, all of Cricket's run on EVDO. But MetroPCS has made one thing clear: Its plan is to skip EVDO and go directly to LTE, a faster fourth-generation, or 4G, technology.

    MetroPCS announced in November that it had "launched commercial 4G LTE services in the Los Angeles and Philadelphia metropolitan areas." On Wednesday, its store on Broad Street at Temple University offered two LTE phones for sale, including a $300 Android-based Samsung Galaxy Indulge.

    How fast are LTE phones? Officials at MetroPCS, a Dallas company with about eight million subscribers, did not respond to requests for comment.

    But Entner says the answer is "blazingly fast" - 5 to 10 megabits per second, or about five to 10 times as fast as the EVDO network used by Cricket and by Verizon iPhones. (Like MetroPCS, he says, Verizon sells only a handful of phones that work on its own new LTE network.)

    "They leapfrogged," Entner says of MetroPCS. "If you're interested in data, MetroPCS's 4G network should be faster than Leap's 3G."

    Cook questions how built-out MetroPCS's 4G network is - a fair point, since its website coverage map shows its 4G service vanishing east of Cherry Hill and west of King of Prussia and Radnor.

    "Cricket has a complete, 100 percent 3G network - everything you see on our map," Cook says.
    Still, with some of its phones in some places, MetroPCS would likely have landed on top.

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    This article was originally published in forum thread: Cricket, MetroPCS vying in prepaid race started by MCF-News View original post
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