Solavei, Now Offering BlackBerry Z10, Beats T-Mobile Out of the Gate

Solavei, on Feb. 11, became the first U.S. carrier to begin selling the BlackBerry Z10 smartphone. T-Mobile had been hoping for the distinction.

T-Mobile said it was hurrying to be the first U.S. carrier to offer the BlackBerry Z10, but Solavei, the unusual contract-free carrier that pays its subscribers to bring new members on board, beat it out of the gate. Solavei announced Feb. 11 that subscribers can now order an unlocked BlackBerry 10 through GSM Nation for $999.

While Verizon Wireless and AT&T plan, like T-Mobile, to sell the newest BlackBerry smartphone, not one of them has yet pinned down a sales date, though Verizon has said it will sell the device for $199 with a two-year contract. T-Mobile is expected to offer the phone unsubsidized, though a price tag equal to Solavei's would be surprising.

"We believe in giving our members access to the latest phones and wireless capabilities,” Ryan Wuerch, founder and CEO of Solavei, said in a statement.

Solavei launched in September 2012 and now has more than 120,000 members, many of whom receive a monthly payment from the carrier, which rewards subscribers for every three friends that sign up for the service and stay signed up for two months. When friends of friends sign up, the original friend also makes money. In its first four months, Solavei says that it paid out more than $5 million in "member commissions."

"Instead of spending millions of dollars on advertising for brand awareness or using retail stores to distribute its services, Solavei relies on its members to share the service and directly compensates them for their efforts," the carrier explained in its statement.

On Jan. 30, BlackBerry—which until that day had been called Research In Motion—introduced the Z10, which features a 4.2-inch touch-screen, and the Q10, which pairs a 3.1-inch display with a QWERTY keyboard. The phones are the first to run the BlackBerry 10 platform—a new, from-scratch platform that the company says will carry it through the next decade and which is largely expected to about-face the company from the edge of ruin toward something nearer to its former glory.

Early reviews of the Z10 and the BlackBerry 10 platform have been, on the whole, excellent—the OS feels smart and efficient, and the on-screen keyboard is easy to type on and a fast learn that quickly adapts to its user. One soon spends more time accepting predicted words than actually typing.

An excellent device, however, isn't a guarantee for sales. As tech editor Charles Arthur expressed in his Guardian review, there's a chance that BlackBerry could wind up "a bit like Palm with the Palm Pre, where everyone thought that the interface was great, but they didn't actually buy it."

However, in countries where the Z10 is already on sale—it arrived in the U.K. Jan. 31 and in Canada and elsewhere Feb. 5—BlackBerry says that people are buying it.

BlackBerry CEO Thorsten Heins, in a Feb. 6 statement, said that sales the day before were "the best day ever for the first day of a launch of a new BlackBerry smartphone." In Canada, he added, sales were "more than 50 percent better than any other launch day in our history" and in the U.K., BlackBerry saw close to three times its best-ever performance for the first week of sales for a smartphone.

The phone's arrival in the United States has been due to the lengthy testing processes the carriers need to conduct.

Frank Sickinger, T-Mobile's head of business sales, told Bloomberg Feb. 7 that the Z10 was "more stable than we anticipated," and T-Mobile hoped to be first "out of the gate." If it's possible to speed up the launch date, said Sickinger, "We will do that."