T-Mobile cites progress in 5G voice, but it's a slog

Good old voice services continue to pose challenges for wireless engineers, even though voice is at the core of what made cell phones so popular in the first place and they've had several generations to get the hang of things.

“We always seem to forget to bring voice along with the next generation of technology,” T-Mobile President of Technology Neville Ray mused during the company’s third-quarter earnings call on Thursday. “We’ve done it multiple times now.”

Part of the reason voice is so much tougher than data is it’s not very forgiving. It requires a consistent link and doesn’t tolerate the kinds of glitches that are acceptable when transmitting data. If it’s not working, people will notice.

T-Mobile was first out of the gate with a national 5G standalone (SA) network, which doesn’t require LTE as an anchor like 5G non-standalone (NSA) does. But it would like to quit relying on LTE for voice services altogether.

T-Mobile launched Voice over New Radio (VoNR), aka 5G voice services, in parts of Portland, Oregon, and Salt Lake City, Utah, in June of this year, and during Thursday’s call, Ray said they now have 5G voice “live in several markets.”

Fierce reached out to T-Mobile to clarify which markets he was referring to and will update with any new information.

T-Mobile isn’t the only one struggling with VoNR. Dish Network, which launched its 5G SA network earlier this year, has acknowledged challenges as well; it plans to offer VoNR more broadly in coming weeks.  

Meanwhile, Ray said he believes T-Mobile is in a leadership position globally when it comes to voice service over 5G.

“We continue to test, we continue to optimize. Why is that important? It’s important because we want to have all of our traffic, all of that customer experience on a 5G lane. Today, we have to drop our customers down off of that 5G lane onto LTE,” he said.

“We’re making progress,” but they still have work to do. “I’m not going to say it’s where we want it to be yet, but I’m confident that over the next couple of quarters, we will materially expand that footprint,” he said. 

New 2.5 GHz ready to roll

On the flip side, the deployment of the 2.5 GHz spectrum that T-Mobile just acquired sounds relatively easy in comparison.

T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert said it’s the first auction where the winning bids, when they’re ultimately assigned, will be ready when they “flip the switch,” so to speak. T-Mobile already deployed the radios on 13,000 towers that will reach 45 million people by the end of this year.

“It's almost immediate because the radios are there,” he said, noting that they’re not allowed to transmit into the 2.5 GHz white spaces that they just won at auction until the final spectrum assignments by the FCC. But he expressed confidence in the FCC getting the process completed. 

T-Mobile acquired Sprint’s treasure trove of 2.5 GHz spectrum in 2020, and that spectrum gave the “un-carrier” a significant headstart (two years, by Sievert’s estimation) over its rivals in the deployment of mid-band spectrum for 5G.

A big part of the network integration with Sprint was not only decommissioning sites but incorporating “literally thousands upon thousands of Sprint sites” into the T-Mobile network, Ray said. The latter refers to what they call “keep sites,” and the majority of that work is now complete, he said.

In the past quarter, a lot of decommissioning occurred and “keep sites” were upgraded and brought on air, he said. “It was just a cracking quarter for us, with all the 5G build. Really, really pleased to have the vast majority of all of that work behind us and now we can move on with that continued expansion of coverage and performance of 5G.”  

“I think last quarter was the busiest network quarter in the company’s history,” Ray said. “I don’t think we’ve ever seen the level of delivery and performance on decom, on new sites, on modernization. It was a remarkable set of performance characteristics.”

In its earnings release, T-Mobile said its cash purchases of property and equipment, including capitalized interest, in 2022 are expected to be between $13.7 billion to $13.9 billion, an increase from prior guidance of $13.5 billion to $13.7 billion, reflecting T-Mobile’s accelerated buildout of its nationwide 5G network and purchases of high-speed internet routers.