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T-Mobile's 4G LTE Network to Launch This Month, First Test Results

T-Mobile is finally lighting up its 4G LTE network, today announcing that it will launch in late March. Although the carrier is the last of the Big Four in the U.S. to offer blazing fast speeds, T-Mobile says its 4G LTE network will blanket as many as 100 million customers by mid-2013, and 200 million by year's end. The provider's first two LTE phones are the BlackBerry Z10 and the Samsung Galaxy Note II.

We asked T-Mobile why its phones will be any better than the competition and were among the first to take its 4G LTE for a test drive.

To get a taste of what T-Mobile's network has to offer, we tested a Samsung Galaxy Note II running on an unloaded 4G LTE macro site. The handset recorded download speeds as high as 58.8 Mbps and uploads as high as 25.5 Mbps. Of course, those numbers are skewed, because there were no other users on the network. However, according to carrier representatives, T-Mobile has network spectrum to spare; users should enjoy an impressive 4G LTE experience at launch.

Right now, Verizon Wireless is the top dog when it comes to LTE in the U.S., covering more than 480 markets with availability to more than 275 million people. AT&T is a distant second with 155 LTE markets followed by Sprint, which has 67 LTE markets. However, when you travel outside of an LTE coverage zone on Verizon, you immediately drop down to the carrier's 3G network. And that's where T-Mobile says it has a strategic advantage. Currently, T-Mobile customers rely on the carrier's 4G HSPA+42 network for high-speed data connectivity.

While T-Mobile's older HSPA+42 network can't match LTE's upload speeds, its download speeds aren't that far behind Verizon and AT&T. That means that when a user leaves an area with LTE coverage, they will be seamlessly switched over to T-Mobile's HSPA+42 network rather than dumped to a slower 3G connection. In AT&T's case, users drop from the carrier's LTE network to its HSPA+21 network, while Sprint users drop from 4G LTE to 3G. 

Verizon's handsets also currently require two chips for its networks, one for 3G and the other for 4G LTE. T-Mobile, on the other hand, will be able to offer phones with a single chip for both its HSPA+42 and LTE networks. Why does that matter? Two words: battery life. Two network chips on a device drain more power than a single network chip on a device. We can't wait to see how long T-Mobile's 4G LTE phones last on our battery test.

According to T-Mobile, the 2011 failed sale of the carrier to AT&T has a silver lining. When the deal fell apart, AT&T was forced to give T-Mobile $1 billion worth of spectrum. T-Mobile then acquired spectrum from Verizon. With the recent purchase of MetroPCS, T-Mobile is flush with spectrum, which means not only can it support more users than ever before, but that those users should have a significantly better experience.

That jury is still out on whether consumers will be willing to move to T-Mobile. The carrier is counting on shoppers to be attracted by its unlimited $70 monthly 4G data plan with no annual contract. Users pay a higher upfront cost for new phones in favor of lower monthly bills than AT&T, Sprint and Verizon. The proof will be in the performance of the network and just how quickly T-Mobile can grow its LTE footprint.