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T MOBILE US INC (TMUS), Sprint Nextel Corporation (S): Wireless Underdogs Keep Setting the Industry’s Pace

T MOBILE US INC (NYSE:TMUS) The big boys don’t always set the pace of the race. AT&T Inc. (NYSE:T) and Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE:VZ) are America’s largest telecoms by a wide margin. Each owns about 100 million subscriber accounts, while third-place alternative Sprint Nextel Corporation (NYSE:S) has just 55 million. Even further back, T MOBILE US INC (NYSE:TMUS) sits at 40 million customers.

Ma Bell and Big Red are giants of the trade, longtime Dow Jones Industrial Average (INDEXDJX:.DJI) components, and generally the only two American wireless services that matter in many respects.

But you rarely see the dueling titans injecting much innovation into their business models. That seems to be a job for smaller players — like Sprint Nextel Corporation (NYSE:S) and T-Mobile.

The latest example comes from T MOBILE US INC (NYSE:TMUS), which is changing the way Americans buy wireless devices. The company got started with its so-called “Uncarrier” program earlier this year when it stopped subsidizing handset prices. Instead of a big up-front discount, T MOBILE US INC (NYSE:TMUS) customers now pay a down payment followed by two years of monthly bills. It all adds up to the full price of simply buying the handset without a contract. In return,T MOBILE US INC (NYSE:TMUS) won’t charge any fees for leaving the service, so long as you pay what you owe on the handset. It’s kind of like the traditional car-buying experience, scaled down to fit in your pocket.

T-Mobile USA CEO John Legere, presenting a new service plan. Image source: T-Mobile.

Like so many times before, Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE:VZ) and AT&T Inc. (NYSE:T) sort of followed suit. Both giants now have their own versions of smaller subsidies and easier handset upgrades. This may soon be the standard model across all major carriers, but it started small.

And T MOBILE US INC (NYSE:TMUS) is still pushing that envelope. If you’re still jonesing for a zero-dollar upfront payment, Magenta’s summer promotion gives you any handset with no money down.

You still have to pay the full price over the next two years — something like $20 a month for high-end models — but the initial sticker shock just disappeared. If this experiment works out, T-Mobile could make it the new normal.

And a few months later, I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Dow Jones Industrial Average (INDEXDJX:.DJI) members following suit — again.

Verizon Communications Inc. (NYSE:VZ) and AT&T Inc. (NYSE:T) do have advantages that T MOBILE US INC (NYSE:TMUS) and Sprint Nextel Corporation (NYSE:S) just can’t match.

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