T-Mobile lines up more small cells and fiber backhaul for 5G

T-Mobile this week offered further evidence the company is preparing its network for the launch of 5G network services. Specifically, the nation’s third-largest wireless network operator announced the expansion of a deal with Crown Castle to add more small cells to its network, and it also said it now has fiber backhaul nationwide to support 5G.

The moves are important for T-Mobile as the operator works to install new equipment on its towers to support the launch of 5G New Radio network technology in its 600 MHz spectrum and millimeter wave spectrum later this year. T-Mobile earlier this year said its network vendors Ericsson and Nokia will build a 5G network across the carrier’s 600 MHz, 28 GHz and 39 GHz spectrum in 30 cities—including New York, Los Angeles, Dallas and Las Vegas—during 2018. In recent weeks, T-Mobile has added a price tag to those efforts: It announced $7 billion worth of 5G equipment purchases split evenly between Nokia and Ericsson.

But those equipment purchases are just part of T-Mobile’s work to upgrade to 5G services. The company also said it will expand its existing agreement with tower company Crown Castle to deploy additional small cells within its existing footprint and light up small cells in new markets.

“This agreement expands our long-term partnership with Crown Castle,” said T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray in a release. “By installing additional small cell locations, our customers will have an improved wireless experience with LTE and as we migrate to 5G.”

Crown Castle, for its part, made an early bet on the small cell market, investing billions of dollars into deploying the devices and connecting them to fiber. Today, it counts 60,000 total small cells on air or under contract.

However, Crown Castle and T-Mobile did not say how many small cells their new agreement covers. T-Mobile in February announced it would embark on a “significant” program to deploy 25,000 small cells in 2018 and early 2019. “This is on top of the approximately 18,000 small cells and DAS nodes already rolled out as of the end of 2017,” the company said at the time.

T-Mobile’s move to small cells is part of an industry trend. A recent report from industry trade group CTIA said that the number of small cells in the United States will grow from 13,000 in 2017 to 86,000 this year—a 550% increase—and to more than 800,000 by 2026.

RELATED: Editor’s Corner—What the small cell market looks like in 2018 (Hint: It looks good)

Separately, T-Mobile’s executives said earlier this week during an investor event that the company now has the backhaul in place for 5G. “TMUS has agreements with 52 fiber providers, most of which have been renegotiated to provide dramatic increases in capacity with minimal cost impact given the competitiveness of the fiber market,” wrote the analysts at Wells Fargo in summarizing the comments by T-Mobile’s management. “TMUS noted its current fiber footprint is essentially already ready for a full nationwide deployment.”

Fiber backhaul has been described as a critical element in the deployment of 5G network technology, because it will essentially carry all the data traffic collected from each 5G cell tower and then will route it through the nation’s core internet network to its destination.

Verizon, AT&T and other have discussed their efforts to deploy their own fiber resources in order to handle that backhaul traffic. T-Mobile, since the company does not own its own wired network assets, must ink contracts with fiber owners such as Zayo to backhaul the 5G traffic generated from its cell towers.