T-Mobile’s Ray: It’s game on – and btw, voice on 5G is coming

While his team at T-Mobile is going gangbusters deploying 2.5 GHz for 5G across the country, T-Mobile President of Technology Neville Ray hinted at a few things coming in 2021 that will make 5G an even better service.

Ray and his colleagues at T-Mobile spent much of the last seven years leveling the playing field in LTE and now T-Mobile, with its 5G spectrum in low, mid and high bands, is positioning itself to take the network crown in 5G.

But some features common to LTE still have not yet made their way into full 5G service availability, according to Ray, who provided an update at the virtual Oppenheimer 5G Summit on Tuesday.

Before getting to the nitty gritty on those features, Ray established why T-Mobile is making such a big deal about its coverage advantage in 5G.

When carriers make their claims of “nationwide 5G” coverage, that's generally marketing speak for 200 million people covered. Verizon, whose “go-to” 5G strategy involves millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum, got there with about 400,000 square miles of 5G coverage using dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS). AT&T didn’t announce a number but appears to have about 600,000 square miles. Adding those two together works out to about 1 million. T-Mobile’s 5G coverage today is about 1.4 million square miles, he said.

“Just between us and Verizon today, that’s a million square miles of coverage differential, so if you think about 5G coverage, the leadership … advantage that we put in place, it’s game on. Verizon has a lot of work ahead of them to catch us. And of course… I love that, because I chased that Verizon coverage map for much of my career,” be it in UMTS or LTE, and the table’s finally turned. Because T-Mobile now has the assets and a different strategy, “we have now established a meaningful coverage lead in 5G.”

The speeds on T-Mobile’s Extended Range low-band layer – which equates to its 600 MHz spectrum – are more than double the average LTE speeds, he said. It’s in the 90 to 100 Mbps range on average – that doesn’t mean it’s what everyone gets in every geography, but it’s far better than what LTE can do, he added.

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Folks are turning on their 5G iPhone 12s and seeing the 5G icon in far more places with T-Mobile than with its rivals and they're getting an experience that is markedly different than what they would get with LTE, according to Ray. That’s worth noting because many analysts point out that low-band 5G doesn’t offer that much of a lift compared with LTE due to the nature of the low-band spectrum. Experiences improve markedly, however, with mid-band spectrum.

Verizon is using DSS to claim a nationwide 5G coverage layer, and Ray reiterated his belief that DSS is still not ready for prime time, with interference issues. “It’s not a perfected technology yet,” he said. “Bottom line, the performance on a DSS layer isn’t really, can’t really be that much different from what you have on your LTE layer. It’s almost as bad as the 5G E thing that AT&T did, where they told folks there’s 5G when they were on LTE.” Without coverage, “what can you do with 5G?”,” he added.

What’s coming in 2021

Everybody talks about 5G being super advanced, but a lot of capabilities available in 4G LTE are not yet available for 5G, either in the network or the handsets.

Carrier aggregation for 5G bands is one of them. T-Mobile wants to aggregate its low-band and mid-band layers together in 5G, and that feature is coming in early 2021. The OEM device rollout on that is going to be a “little staggered,” he said. It looks as if across the OEM suite – and “I can never predict what will happen with one of the OEMs” – it’s a 2021 event. “I know we’ll have handsets that can support those capabilities and features in the first half, even in the first quarter of 2021.”

Those kinds of things are important. Regarding Voice on New Radio, or VoNR, “we’re working really hard with our vendors,” on that. “We have voice on LTE. Why wouldn’t we have a solution on 5G that can offer voice services? We’ll probably be the first company that drives that.”

Verizon is adding hotspots and "deep stovepipes" of millimeter wave on top of LTE, but that doesn’t compete with a rich network and all the services they can offer with the layer cake approach, according to Ray. “When we go in, we go all in, and I think we’re the first company on Standalone [5G]. I suspect we’ll be the first company to support VoNR and voice services on the 5G layer," he said.

T-Mobile was one of those that pushed hard into VoLTE, which it had to do because it needed to refarm spectrum away from 3G and into LTE. But there’s no reason VoNR should be as "bumpy" to implement as VoLTE. (There are still places in the world that use UMTS or GSM for voice.) 

“Everything we do is VoLTE. There’s a little bit of UMTS and GSM left in our network but very, very little,” he said.  

T-Mobile expects to be at 100 million covered people with 2.5 GHz by the end of this year, and it’s the first real mid-band layer for 5G in the U.S., made possible by the merger with Sprint, which brought the 2.5 GHz to the table. The goal is to double that, to 200 million, or a nationwide layer of mid-band in the U.S. by the end of 2021.

The thing that takes the most time with the deployments is getting the permits from local jurisdictions, even though the bulk of the work involves adding or swapping equipment on existing infrastructure, such as towers and rooftops. That can take anywhere from six weeks to a year at times, he said.

RELATED: T-Mobile CEO touts mid-band spectrum lead in 5G

An army of tower climbers, engineers and technicians have been out there touching sites across the country for months now, and “I’m incredibly proud of that team. We’ve kept them safe and healthy throughout the pandemic,” but if he’d been asked back in March if they would be able to keep this pace, it would have been doubtful.

Yet thanks to the team and to jurisdictions going online with permitting, they’re now starting to work on over 1,000 sites a week, and that’s a mix of 2.5 GHz and 600 MHz and some other projects. It's the highest level of production from a network team that "I’ve ever seen in my career.”    

Through the merger with Sprint, T-Mobile gained access to a national average of 150 megahertz of 2.5 GHz spectrum and a lot of that is still being used for LTE. When it first started repurposing sites, it was using 40 and 60 megahertz for 5G, and that’s TDD.

As it exits the year, it’s adding more and in some markets even 100, but it’s starting to move to the 80 megahertz average. “Long story short, what we’ve seen already with the 60 megahertz … call it a 50 megahertz average, we’re seeing speeds approaching 300 Mbps.”

Moving into 2021 as more spectrum gets added, that mid-band layer becomes incredibly powerful, and on a standalone (SA) 5G architecture, that boosts performance even more. That’s where things really start happening in the space that will be much different than with LTE, according to Ray.