T-Mobile says 5G mmWave deployments ‘will never materially scale’

T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray says that millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum won’t benefit many consumers. Much of the hype around 5G has centered on mmWave technologies, which operators Verizon and AT&T have focused on in delivering enhanced mobile broadband to wireless subscribers.


But, pointing to Verizon’s recent 5G network launch in parts of Chicago and Minneapolis, Ray wrote in a blog post that mmWave won’t be able to deliver on the promise of 5G because it doesn’t travel far.


“Millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum has great potential in terms of speed and capacity, but it doesn’t travel far from the cell site and doesn’t penetrate materials at all,” Ray said. “It will never materially scale beyond small pockets of 5G hotspots in dense urban environments.”


T-Mobile’s 5G deployment strategy has hinged on prioritizing coverage over speed or capacity. Ray noted that the company has a portfolio of low-band spectrum that can offer wide area coverage. T-Mobile acquired licenses to 30MHz of low-band spectrum in the 600 MHz spectrum band for $8 billion in 2017 for its 5G deployments.


T-Mobile CEO John Legere has said in the past that the carrier will deploy 5G on all its spectrum bands, including its 28 GHz and 39 GHz airwaves. But, compared to its competitors Verizon and AT&T, T-Mobile has a relatively small number of mmWave spectrum licenses. The company only has 200MHz or more LMDS (28-31GHz) spectrum in 9 of the Top 25 CMA markets, according to AllNet Insights & Analytics. But T-Mobile also participated in the most recent FCC auction for mmWave spectrum, and has indicated that it’s interested in acquiring more mmWave spectrum.


Ray noted T-Mobile will deploy its mmWave spectrum in “dense urban areas and venues where large numbers of people gather.”


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But much of T-Mobile’s “5G for all” strategy will require regulatory approval of its merger with Sprint. Sprint has anchored its 5G plans on mid-band spectrum.


“Sprint has the critical middle layer of 2.5 GHz mid-band spectrum, which provides the balance of coverage and capacity that enables a seamless and meaningful 5G experience. Mid-band spectrum is key to providing an ideal mix of coverage and capacity for 5G networks,” Ray said.


Sprint has deployed its 2.5 GHz spectrum to around 70% of its cell sites, and it has more than 25,000 mini macros and strand mounts deployed across the country. The carrier also completed the world’s first over-the-air 5G data transmission using 2.5 GHz and Nokia’s Massive MIMO technology on the carrier’s live network.


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Should the FCC approve the merger with Sprint, the resulting “New T-Mobile” company will utilize the combined mix of spectrum bands to deliver 5G to consumers across deployment scenarios, Ray said, including rural environments.


“The New T-Mobile will utilize its low-band and mmWave spectrum, along with Sprint’s mid-band spectrum to deliver a broad and deep truly nationwide 5G network,” he said.


T-Mobile and Sprint are hoping for the merger to be approved by the second quarter of 2019. After recently pausing the merger “shot clock” for a third time, the FCC has less than 60 days to make a final decision on the merger.