The 'Uncarrier' Can't Shake 'Uncoverage' Image

T-Mobile has a long way to go to convince consumers it can go toe to toe with the nation's largest wireless carrier when it comes to network coverage.

A new survey from NPG Group, first reported by FierceWireless, finds that only 2% of AT&T, Sprint and Verizon Wireless customers think T-Mobile is the top carrier for network coverage and speed. When non-Verizon Wireless customers were asked the same question, 30% of them picked Verizon.

Overcoming the perception that its network is not up to the task is a challenge for T-Mobile as it tries to pull customers away from its larger rivals. The smallest of the U.S. major carriers has long been known for offering more affordable phone plans, while Verizon for years has emphasized the extent and reliability of its network in advertising.

Its long-running “Can you hear me now” campaign, focusing on coverage, has more recently been replaced by ads declaring Verizon “America’s largest and most reliable 4G LTE network.” T-Mobile in April sued Verizon over advertising highlighting its lead in the rollout of LTE service. It recalls AT&T’s court fight against Verizon five years ago over Verizon's ads featuring maps showing a big advantage in 3G coverage.

“Wireless network coverage maps have always been, to use a highly-technical term, 'crap,” noted Karl Bode of Broadband Reports, in relation to the T-Mobile-Verizon litigation. “They're traditionally already initially based on fantasy, and they're historically made ever-more fantastical through carrier marketing.”

Marketing is where T-Mobile is really making its push, under famously combative CEO John T. Legere, to win more customers over to its network. As part of the company’s “Uncarrier” strategy launched in March 2013, offering contract-less service plans, it last week began allowing people to test drive its phone service before making a purchase.

Potential customers who sign up online are sent an iPhone 5S, with unlimited minutes and data for a full week. At the end of the week, customers need to return the phone to a T-Mobile retail store. If they’re happy with the service, they can buy a new iPhone 5s or any other phone at regular price.

Brad Akyuz, director of NPD's Connected Intelligence service, notes that T-Mobile’s Uncarrier pitch has been resonating with consumers. He points out that the company has increased its postpaid subscriber base by 3.5 million people in the last four quarters compared to 4.9 million for the other three major carriers combined.

“If the carrier can persuade those potential customers on rival networks to test drive its network for free, there is a good chance it will maintain the momentum it’s been enjoying for the last 12 months,” he wrote in a recent blog post. T-Mobile has also added a new service called “Unradio” with Rhapsody to provide unlimited streaming with no advertising for $4 a month (or free for Unlimited Data customers).

One thing that may not help T-Mobile change the perception of its network, though, is its long-rumored merger with Sprint. The nation’s third-largest carrier fared little better than T-Mobile in the NPD survey in views about its network, and it ranked last among the four major operators in Consumer Reports’ latest ratings of cell phone service. It received “dismal marks” for value, voice, text and 4G reliability.

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