T-Mobile CEO John Legere said today Apple’s presence was felt at the fourth-largest carrier way before it started selling the iPhone last year.
Behind the scenes, he said Apple insisted that T-Mobile improve its network quality, conversations that led T-Mobile’s executives to prioritize modernizing its network.
“My lead came from trying to get the iPhone,” Legere said. “They’re tough, but I think that they had a big impact on us.”
Legere made the comments today at the GeekWire Summit in Seattle, where the executive spoke freely about how he’s turning the Bellevue, Wash.-based carrier around.
T-Mobile’s chief is known for being outspoken, sometimes even bombastic, but he was especially unscripted tonight. He touched on a range of topics, from how much time he spends on Twitter to his opinions on Amazon’s Fire Phone and industry consolidation. He also discussed consolidation in the wireless industry and recent rumors about a possible buyout offer from French telecommunications company Iliad.
But on the subject of Apple, it’s indisputable how far things have come between T-Mobile and Apple, even if Legere was surprised by the perception that the two companies have formed a special bond recently.
“Did you just hear that we have a great relationship with Apple,” he said, jokingly, in response to GeekWire’s Todd Bishop.
But take a look at how far things have come.
For years, T-Mobile was not allowed to sell the iPhone. Instead, it lured customers, who had bought an iPhone from other carriers, mostly AT&T. From outside appearances, the ice started to thaw last year in March 2013 when T-Mobile announced it finally was selling the iPhone. It was Legere’s first move as part of the “Un-Carrier” movement, marketing tactics aimed at disrupting the industry.
Then, in June, T-Mobile announced the Test Drive, which gave customers seven days to try out an iPhone 5S. Even more impressive, Apple announced last month that T-Mobile was going to be its first partner in the U.S. to enable phone calls over WiFi when cellular connections are poor or not available. The announcement was made by Apple’s Phil Schiller as part of the unveiling of the iPhone 6 and the iPhone 6 Plus.
The iPhone was high on the list of Legere’s priorities when he joined the company, so doing what Apple asked was a no-brainer. “A few months before I took the job at T-Mobile, I had a list of things I thought should be done, but a blind man could know what T-Mobile needed to do.”
On that list: Get more spectrum, improve data speeds, re-launch the brand, and “get the iPhone.”
That was a “do not pass go, do not collect $100″ scenario,” he said, adding that without the iPhone, store traffic was “incomplete,” as in people weren’t even walking in. After ticking off many of those things on the list, he’s already seeing the impact.
Subscribers are up, and in August, T-Mobile gained 2.75 million gross additions to beat the company’s second-best ever month by 10 percent. (Legere declined to provide numbers for September at the Summit, but did say that they have not yet overtaken Sprint, a goal that the company has set for this year). Legere is also expecting to see a bump from the iPhone 6, a bump that is larger than a carrier with 15 percent market share should logically get.
No, he didn’t likely sell more iPhones than AT&T, he said, but “We were the biggest share-taker in the event.”