Looks like we’ll see a T-Mobile iPhone (with LTE) this spring

We won’t have to wait long to see that long-awaited T-Mobile-branded iPhone. In an interview Reuters at CES 2013, T-Mobile USA CEO John Legere said the iPhone would begin appearing on store shelves in the next three or four months.

Though Legere and T-Mobile haven’t said explicitly which Apple(s aapl) device or devices the carrier would sell, the timing would put T-Mobile in line to retail the current-generation iPhone 5 a good four to five months before the smartphone is likely to be refreshed this fall. There’s also the off chance that T-Mobile might be a candidate for the rumored “cheap iPhone” Apple is supposedly developing.

Mobilize 2012 Neville Ray T-Mobile
Neville Ray, CTO, T-Mobile (c) 2012 Pinar Ozger [email protected]

What’s more, T-Mobile probably wouldn’t have to sell the iPhone as a mere 3G device as many international operators and smaller U.S. carriers are forced to do. T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray revealed at T-Mo’s big CES event that he would have a good portion of his LTE network online by mid-2013. Couple that with Ray’s rapidly accelerating HSPA+ network upgrade around the country, and T-Mobile will be able to support all of the iPhone 5’s connectivity capabilities in many of its markets at launch. Not bad for a carrier that couldn’t get anything more than a 2G signal to the iPhone just six months ago.

T-Mobile originally planned to launch LTE in the second half of this year, making it the last U.S. operator to deploy the latest generation mobile broadband technology. T-Mobile is still behind its primary competitors, but management has apparent lit a fire under Ray’s engineering team. At CES, Ray said T-Mo’s first LTE systems would go online in Las Vegas in the next few weeks, which would put him five months ahead of schedule.

The iPhone won’t be the only device benefiting from T-Mobile’s accelerated LTE plans. Samsung's Galaxy S III MiniThe Verge is reporting that T-Mobile will soon offer an LTE version of the Samsung’s popular Galaxy S III smartphone. Though The Verge didn’t name a launch date, the device could hit shelves well in advance of the actual LTE launch since T-Mobile could activate its LTE radios at any time with a simple over-the-air software update.

T-Mobile had a big CES. In addition to the LTE and iPhone revelations, T-Mobile made multiple updates to its technology and service plans.

  • My colleague Kevin Tofel wrote about T-Mobile’s plans to take unlimited smartphone plans contract-free, answering one of T-Mobile customers’ biggest gripes. T-Mobile is moving to an unsubsidized model, meaning customers will either pay full freight for their devices, bring their own phones or buy them in installments. Since contracts are supposed to cover carriers’ upfront subsidy costs, enforcing contracts with no subsidy makes little sense. It will be interesting to see if T-Mobile moves away from contracts completely as it phases out subsidies this year.
  • T-Mobile revealed its network is now high-definition-voice compatible, which means it can support a much higher call quality than current cellular voice systems. Three current devices – the Galaxy S III, the HTC One S and the Nokia(s nok) Astound phone – will support the HD features, but there are also some big limitations to its initial appeal. As PC Mag’s Sascha Segan explains, HD calls will only work between T-Mobile devices that both have the HD client, and so far T-Mo’s technology is incompatible with any of the HD codecs other carriers are working on.
  • In order to encourage devices other than smartphones onto is network, T-Mobile is offering 200 MB of free data each month for two years on select Windows 8(s MSFT) laptops. Called 4G Connect, the program could get really interesting if T-Mobile expands it tablets, providing a big incentive for consumers to buy 4G versions of the iPad and other slates.
  • T-Mobile has upgraded its HSPA+ network to support iPhone frequencies in four more markets: Denver, Los Angeles, San Diego and Virginia Beach, Va. The network refarming is now complete in 46 cities covering 126 million people. The reconfiguration is key to T-Mobile supporting the iPhone’s data capabilities, and at its current pace should be largely complete at the iPhone’s launch.