T-Mobile (NYSE:DT) is tripling the capacity of its 3G high-speed packet access (HSPA) network, which could mean near-home-broadband speeds for its laptop data customers. But it might also result in its customers eating up their monthly allotment of data much more quickly. Today T-Mobile revealed it will start selling its first HSPA+ USB dongle on Sunday with the same data plans–and their associated data caps–it offers for its regular 3G access service.
T-Mobile will extend its Even More and Even More Plus WebConnect plans to the HSPA+ service, which will initially be available only in Philadelphia, the location of its first commercial HSPA+ network, but will expand to other markets throughout 2010 as it completes network upgrades. With a contract and device subsidy, customers can pick between a plan with a 5 GB cap for $60 a month or with a 200 MB cap for $40 a month. Without contract and subsidy, the plan prices drop by $10 a month each. Even compared to the other Tier I wireless operators, T-Mobile has sizable penalties for going over those caps, to the tune of 20 cents per MB. That means a customer going 1 GB over would encounter an additional $200 in fees on his or her monthly bill. Exceeding the cap on an HSPA+ network, however, will be far easier than on a typical 3G network.
HSPA+ will boost theoretical downlink carrier capacity on the T-Mobile HSPA network from 7.2 Mb/s to 21 Mb/s, though the actual throughput customers expereince will likely be only a handful of megabits per second, depending on how many users are in the cell, distance from the tower and the amount of congestion in backhaul network. But compared to the speeds T-Mobile customers experience today, a few megabits would be a windfall. An independent test of 3G networks in 8 of the largest markets by Root Wireless found average download speeds on T-Mobile’s current 3G network hovered around 200 kb/s. A study commissioned by PCWorld using different methodologies clocked T-Mobile’s average 3G download speeds at 868 kb/s. A tripling of either one of those data rates would suddenly open the world mobile broadband to much higher-bandwidth applications like streaming video, which could quickly eat up any data cap.
While T-Mobile’s overage penalties might seem arbitrary, the upper limit of its data cap may not be. Clearwire (NASDAQ:CLWR), which runs a even higher-capacity WiMax network and has no data caps, reported that average customer consumption amounted to about 7 GB a month. So clearly every customer isn’t going to download a Terrabyte of data if left to their own devices. But it only seems logical that as T-Mobile boosts the capacity of its 3G network, many of its customers will try to test its limits.