For $55, What Kind of LTE Experience Does MetroPCS Deliver?

The race to deploy Long Term Evolution Networks is just getting underway and MetroPCS (s pcs) holds the distinction of being the first U.S. carrier to sell an LTE handset. For $55 a month, MetroPCS offers unlimited voice, messaging and 4G web access; an additional $5.00 per month adds unlimited 4G video on demand. I’ve spent some time reviewing the Samsung Craft — a $300 dual-mode handset that uses CDMA for voice and LTE for data — to get a feel for the MetroPCS 4G network at this price. The verdict? It’s generally for folks that are new to mobile broadband.

MetroPCS first launched LTE in Las Vegas back in September, but the carrier recently lit up its 4G network in the Philadelphia area near my home office, so I traveled a good way into the coverage area found on the MetroPCS website. I often had the full number of signal bars with my 4G testing, although the signal fluctuated up and down, just like any mobile broadband service I’ve ever used. The first thing I did was to run a series of speed tests.

Since the browser of the Craft only has limited Flash (s adbe) support and there’s no app store for the device — this isn’t a full featured smartphone — I relied on the HTML mobile speedtest page of DSLReports. Multiple tests in a several locations yielded a fairly narrow range of results: The average download speed reported was around 700 kbps with approximately 200 milliseconds of latency. Video playback on YouTube (s goog) didn’t offer any high quality version, so the Craft was only downloading low-bandwidth vids, which it did with no buffering.

These results remind me of what I experienced on Verizon’s (s vz) 3G network a few years back, before the carrier rolled out the EVDO Rev. A upgrade. The MetroPCS LTE network is also far slower than T-Mobile’s HSPA+ network I’ve been using most of this year; it’s not uncommon for my phone, which isn’t capable of full HSPA+ speeds, to see downloads in the 4 Mbps range, or roughly six times faster than LTE on MetroPCS.

Since there aren’t yet voice standards for LTE networks, MetroPCS is relying on CS fallback for voice. That means the Craft uses a CDMA network for voice, but LTE for data. You might think that would allow for simultaneous voice and data, but that’s not the case. I called the Craft phone while it was downloading a web page and the little 4G symbol on the phone quickly reverted to a 1X when the phone rang, and there was no way for me to switch back to the browser while on the call.

I can’t say I’m surprised, nor have my expectations been let down by the results. Stacey noted the intended audience for MetroPCS’ new LTE network when it first launched, saying:

MetroPCS customers aren’t really looking for the next hot Android or iPhone. They’re looking for access to Facebook, Twitter and most importantly, online video, without having to sign a contract with a carrier. According to Tom Keys, COO of MetroPCS, about half of them use their phone as their primary Internet connection, and about 90 percent of them use data on their handsets.

Folks looking for a no-contract deal and basic web services such as email, social networking and the occasional video or media-filled website will find this LTE network refreshing. After all, current MetroPCS customers have no 3G option; prior to the LTE launch, all MetroPCS data was hampered by slow 2G speeds, except for a few select metro areas due to a lack of roaming agreements. I ran bandwidth tests at my home office and never saw speeds surpass a painful 100 kbps, for example.

While the MetroPCS LTE network is based on 4G technology, the infrastructure MetroPCS is using keeps speeds in the range of older 3G networks. Current customers on the MetroPCS network who’ve been living with a 2G network will be happy with LTE, especially at this price. But data-hungry consumers already addicted to iPhones (s aapl), Android or MiFi devices will likely jump on faster — and more expensive — data networks available now from Sprint (s s), Verizon, AT&T (s t) and T-Mobile.

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