T-Mobile aims for 300M by 2023 with 2.5 GHz

T-Mobile this week is celebrating the milestone of reaching 200 million people with its 2.5 GHz spectrum six weeks ahead of schedule. The next big goal is to cover 300 million people with 2.5 GHz by the end of 2023, but is it really going to take that long?

T-Mobile President of Technology Neville Ray was asked that question during a New Street Research investor conference on Monday. The short answer: Maybe not, but Ray isn’t giving away his strategies for shortening that timeframe.

T-Mobile acquired a boatload of 2.5 GHz spectrum with the Sprint merger, one in which T-Mobile made a lot of promises that Ray said it’s keeping, if not improving upon. T-Mobile’s been layering that spectrum and capacity on top of the 600 MHz spectrum it’s already deployed for 5G, giving it a stronger layer of coverage nationwide.

Similar to how 5G in the lower bands isn’t that much different for rivals AT&T and Verizon, it’s the same story for T-Mobile, albeit for different reasons. Ray talked about the role that carrier aggregation will play in changing that.

The 2.5 GHz spectrum provides a real differentiator in speed from 4G LTE. T-Mobile has been targeting 100 megahertz of that spectrum to be deployed nationwide and according to Ray, it’s years ahead of the competition. In many markets, it’s already achieved that goal.

Verizon has 60 megahertz and AT&T has 40 megahertz of 3.7 GHz C-band spectrum, and they can’t move forward with that until matters are settled with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA). For the time being, they’re kind of stuck in a rut, and while they’re pressing for a resolution by early January, there’s no guarantee of that.

Meanwhile, it’s full speed ahead for T-Mobile at 2.5 GHz. In 2022, T-Mobile will extend its 2.5 GHz footprint from a population of 200 million to 250 million, and by 2023, it will reach 300 million people with Ultra Capacity 5G. “By the time we’re at 300 million, our competition has publicly stated they will try and get to where we are today, so that’s a very distinct advantage,” Ray said.

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The first 200 million people covered, or POPs (points of presence) in wireless industry lingo, primarily consists of urban and to some degree, suburban areas, as well as a smattering of rural environments.

But to get to that next 100 million people covered, “that’s a massive undertaking,” because the geography really starts to “thin” from a POPs standpoint, Ray said. To put that into perspective, moving from 200 million to 300 million POPs requires five times the geographic coverage area, “so that’s a lot of sites and work that has to happen,” he said.

2.5 GHz/600 MHz carrier aggregation

One of the things T-Mobile has been working on for well over a year now is the ability to pair 600 MHz spectrum on the uplink with 2.5 GHz on the downlink. That extends the reach and in-building coverage capabilities by up to 30%, according to T-Mobile’s tests. Having that low- band capability to extend the reach of mid-band is very important, Ray said.

It gets a little dicey when trying to decipher exactly when and where that’s going to be available for end users. The network will be fully upgraded by the end of this year to support that carrier aggregation combination, he said. The handsets will be receiving the upgrades over the air, in the form of software updates, going into 2022, but he wasn’t’ real specific on that timing. Some handset upgrades may get done this year, but the initial emphasis is on the network. “I think the handset piece is going to follow in Q1 of next year,” he said.

With the updates, the vast majority of 5G handsets will be able to support the more advanced capabilities, although he acknowledged some early 5G handsets will not be compatible.

“Not everybody will need it,” he added. If someone is in a tremendously strong 2.5 GHz coverage area, they won’t need that kind of aggregation, but when out in the cell edge where that 2.5 GHz coverage starts to “fall away,” the aggregation with 600 MHz will lift it up, according to Ray.

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The way Ray sees it, there’s little dispute that T-Mobile is the 5G network leader. The advantage that Verizon has historically had and maybe to a lesser extent, AT&T, is the reach and consistency of experience on LTE.

“We’ve been looking to level that playing field and it’s a multi-year path,” he said. While T-Mobile has made huge inroads, “we still have some work to do.”  

Need for speed

Of course, the actual speeds that consumers experience depends on their location, but the expectation is for 400 Mbps on average for those on 2.5 GHz spectrum. That might not sound far-reaching today, but when they put the plan together three and a half years ago, “we were pinching ourselves” because it sounded so incredible, he said.

Looking back even further in time: “I was so proud when we were in GPRS days when we did 128 kilobits,” he quipped. “And here we are doing hundreds of megabits per second. It’s an incredible transition,” but depends on a great team, radios, vendors, product and spectrum.

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About that spectrum: T-Mobile has 160 MHz on average in the 2.5 GHz layer. It picked up 40 MHz in the C-band auction, but that’s in the second tranche, which won’t be available until 2023. The balance is AWS and PCS spectrum, and T-Mobile has a “huge wealth” of PCS spectrum, as many will recall from T-Mobile and Sprint coming together.

What it’s deploying now for 5G is not just 2.5 GHz but AWS and PCS as well. Leading up to the availability of that C-band spectrum, T-Mobile can convert more of that Sprint PCS spectrum to 5G.

Ray said he’s confident the situation on the C-band spectrum will get resolved over time, and T-Mobile is supportive of the industry in terms of ensuring the aviation concerns can be addressed and mitigated. In the meantime, it has AWS and PCS assets that are mostly used for LTE, and that’s part of the balancing act of migrating more customers over to 5G.