T-Mobile's LTE ambitions get real: network expansion, the BlackBerry Z10 and an OTA update for the Galaxy Note II

AT&T's failed acquisition was the best thing to ever happen to T-Mobile. As a consequence of the failed merger, the fourth place wireless carrier received AWS spectrum in over 100 markets, a cash payout in the billions and an extensive roaming agreement with Ma Bell. All of which pushed the last place carrier into a stronger competitive standing. Now, as it nears the completion of a merger of its own devising with MetroPCS, the operator's gearing up to make good on its LTE promise. Starting today, an over-the-air update will begin rolling out to existing Galaxy Note II handsets that enables the previously dormant LTE radio. Which, if you've been keeping close tabs on Magenta's LTE plans, falls right on schedule with its previously announced 2013 deployment timeline.

But that's just the beginning of a greater transition for the network. Already, T-Mobile's begun to refarm its 1900MHz spectrum, surprising and delighting iPhone owners on the network with sudden access to 4G (HSPA+) speeds -- this, the result of freed up 2G spectrum. Additionally, a $4 billion modernization program is already underway aimed at updating (not increasing) the network's existing cell sites and enhancing HSPA+ signal strength with better antennas and hardware. Add to that the planned buildout of an LTE network, part of which encompasses a migration of MetroPCS spectrum (merger pending) into its own LTE holdings, and you're looking at a very bright future for an operator widely considered to be both an underdog and value provider.

The LTE spoils won't go to all comers, though. At least for the time being, it appears that T-Mobile's restricting its LTE offerings to the high-end and offering subscribers devices like the Note II and BlackBerry Z10, the latter of which will launch LTE-ready by month's end. It's not that T-Mobile wants to withhold LTE from its greater sub base -- indeed, it aims to make a broad swath of its portfolio HSPA+42 / LTE capable -- but it's taking a measured approach to LTE adoption and focusing on devices the tech savvy, social media-addicted set would covet.

TMobile's LTE ambitions get real network expansion, the BlackBerry Z10 and an OTA update for the Galaxy Note II

So what speeds can you realistically expect from T-Mobile's nascent LTE build out? Well, judging from a micro-cell site the company let us test out in New York City, we'd say its new network is showing familiar signs of life; speeds we commonly saw when originally testing AT&T's LTE network. Although we did regularly see LTE speeds averaging at just under 60Mbps down and 18Mbps up, the company stressed that that performance could best be construed as an eventual endpoint. What subs are more likely to see when LTE finally goes live are speeds in the range of 10 to 20Mbps down and 8 to 12 Mbps up. Keep in mind that's with the ability to fall back onto T-Mobile's HSPA+42 network, thus keeping the experience consistent -- a luxury CDMA-based networks like Verizon can't provide its customer base.

Will any of this change T-Mobile's US fortunes? That remains to be seen. But with a plan to bring LTE to 100 million subs by mid-year and over 200 million by the close of 2013, the carrier's certainly got a long road ahead. At the moment, it's taking baby steps by enhancing and supplementing its network safely and slowly so as not to create bottlenecks and dampen the consumer experience. So kudos to Magenta for that, but without a concrete date on an LTE launch, it's all just promises, promises and encouraging speedtests from an LTE network free of congestion. Here's to hoping T-Mobile pulls it together and creates a real four-way 4G horserace.