Editor’s Corner—T-Mobile is setting a low bar for its initial 5G efforts

Mike Dano

A T-Mobile executive said this week that the operator’s forthcoming nationwide 5G network will initially provide speeds that are 25% to 50% faster than those it currently provides on its 4G LTE network. However, he explained that those speeds would increase over time with the addition of new technologies, just as the speeds of LTE have improved over the past several years.

Those comments—by Karri Kuoppamaki, T-Mobile's VP of radio network technology development and strategy, and reported by PCMag and others—don’t really come as a surprise. T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray offered similar comments in February when he laid out the operator’s 5G plans for the remainder of this year.

Nonetheless, the comments are worth noting considering a 25% boost over current speeds doesn’t really sound like “the most transformative technology of our lifetime,” as Ray boasted a year ago when he announced that T-Mobile would offer nationwide 5G services by 2020.

However, T-Mobile’s 5G efforts are largely confined to its existing spectrum holdings; the carrier has made it clear that the bulk of its 5G deployments will occur over its 600 MHz spectrum, low-band radio waves that are ideal for transmitting signals across long distances but not for transferring lots of data quickly.

And that’s why T-Mobile has been so vocal about its desire to get more millimeter-wave spectrum. Unlike low-band spectrum, mmWave spectrum can transmit huge amounts of data, albeit over much, much shorter distances. T-Mobile has been working to acquire mmWave spectrum licenses—it bought a big chunk of 28-31 GHz mmWave spectrum in Ohio in February and has been urging the FCC to release more mmWave spectrum in upcoming auctions—but so far T-Mobile’s mmWave spectrum holdings pale in comparison with those of AT&T and Verizon. Indeed, Sprint too owns a huge trove of high-band spectrum in the 2.4 GHz range, which analysts have said may offer the ideal balance between capacity and coverage in 5G.

Thus, it’s no surprise that T-Mobile is setting a low bar for its initial 5G speeds considering Verizon has said its initial fixed wireless 5G service, running over its mmWave spectrum at distances up to 2,000 feet, will offer consistent in-home broadband speeds of 1 Gbps.

Moreover, T-Mobile’s 5G efforts are in some ways hindered by the carrier’s own success in improving its existing LTE network. For example, through the application of a variety of advanced technologies like carrier aggregation, higher-order MIMO, LAA and 256 QAM, T-Mobile has raised its LTE speeds to up to 500 Mbps, as noted by PCMag. So now T-Mobile engineers are stuck with the unenviable task of making a brand-new technology dramatically outperform a mature and significantly improved existing technology.

All this 5G noise may be why T-Mobile and Sprint are reportedly nearing the final stretch in their merger negotiations. As Verizon and AT&T move forward with their respective 5G rollouts, T-Mobile may be getting concerned that it won’t be able to effectively compete in the ongoing (and seemingly endless) “our network is better than yours” argument in the wireless industry. A merger between Sprint and T-Mobile would give the combined carrier a pretty compelling 5G story that stretches across wide geographic areas in 600 MHz and dense urban areas with 2.5 GHz.

But even if Sprint and T-Mobile reach a merger agreement in the next week or so, they may not close that transaction for another year, even if the Department of Justice decides not to move against the deal. And then, when the merger closes, the companies will still have to begin the process of merging their networks.

So no matter what happens, T-Mobile’s engineers will need to be prepared to end 2018 and possibly enter 2019 on their own, without much mmWave spectrum or any 2.5 GHz spectrum.

And that’s probably why T-Mobile’s Kuoppamaki is saying that “it's kind of irrelevant what [the speed] number is going to be on day one, as it will improve over time.” — Mike | @mikeddano

"Editor's Corners" are opinion columns written by a member of the Fierce editorial team. They are edited for balance and accuracy.