Verizon, T-Mobile defend 5G spectrum strategies

The 5G strategies of Verizon and T-Mobile couldn’t be more different, as executives from both carriers presented updates to their rollouts this week.

Of course, much of it boils down to the spectrum they bought at auction and on the secondary markets: Verizon in one corner with a stash of millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum, and T-Mobile in the other with vast holdings of 600 MHz and – through a very public two-year battle to merge with Sprint – all of Sprint’s 2.5 GHz spectrum. T-Mobile also holds mmWave spectrum and Verizon has lower-band spectrum, but those are not, currently, the biggest stars of the show.

Verizon, for its part, is digging in its heels when it comes to high-band millimeter wave, despite critics who say its deployment costs are too high and the signal range too limited. As T-Mobile’s Neville Ray quipped Tuesday when referring to his rival’s 5G tag line: “Verizon’s built right… I think the question is, built where?”

Verizon: mmWave as differentiator

A lot of successes have happened since Verizon first launched a 5G network accessible with 5G smartphones in April 2019, when it turned on its Ultra Wideband (UWB) mobile service in Minneapolis and Chicago, according to Nicola Palmer, chief product development officer at Verizon.

(Incidentally, Palmer said she’s been impressed at the progress made in 5G between the timing of the device and network. In prior technology generations, there was always a question of when the devices would be ready for the networks; in 5G, the gap has narrowed considerably.)

Verizon now offers UWB in 36 cities with peak speeds close to 2 Gbps. But it’s more than just speeds, she said during Informa’s Big 5G event on Wednesday. Verizon’s 5G network will be able to handle up to 1 million connected devices per square kilometer and eventually up to 100 times more connected devices per kilometer than it’s able to do with 4G.

Verizon isn’t ditching its 4G network, by any means. It still points out the breadth and depth of its LTE network, something even T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert acknowledged during an investor conference last week (while vowing to steal the 5G network crown.) Verizon says it’s perfecting the deployment of its mmWave technology since the early days, when even its own engineers underestimated the distance signals could travel.

By using reflections, trajectories and other factors, “we were getting much more out of millimeter wave than even some of our engineers thought,” Palmer said, noting a pivot to newer deployment models for mmWave. Verizon recently completed outdoor repeater trials with a startup called Pivotal, which expands mmWave coverage and performance.

Verizon this past summer also completed a proof-of-concept trial of Integrated Access Backhaul (IAB) with Ericsson using millimeter wave, which will allow engineers to deploy cell sites faster.

Speaking to the economics, Verizon has said its capital spending in 2020 will remain in the range of $17.5 billion to $18.5 billion despite issues related to Covid-19.

“Verizon has the wherewithal and financial strength to put behind a rapid deployment, so our responsibility is to make sure we do it as efficiently and quickly as possible,” she said.

The reason Verizon continues to be bullish on mmWave is it’s a differentiator, she explained. Some 5G deployments aren’t as good as 4G, and that happens due to the spectrum that’s being used and how the network is engineered. “For us, we wanted 5G to really be the ‘G,’” or the generational change. “It’s got to be something different and that’s what we’re deploying.”

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As for where it’s deployed – and Verizon is closing in on parts of 40 markets with UWB – “we go where the usage is,” she said, which explains the deployment in highly dense urban centers. Verizon also is on track this year to deploy dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) technology, which will give it nationwide 5G coverage by sharing spectrum with 4G LTE in lower bands. “We’re going to keep building and bring the benefits to customers,” she said.

T-Mobile not reliant on DSS

During his appearance at the same conference a day prior, T-Mobile President of Technology Ray said his competition, especially Verizon, is forced to rely on DSS to bring broad 5G coverage to customers, but DSS also means limited capacity. “Our strategy is to build 5G with free and clear spectrum and utilize DSS as another tool in our toolbox, deploying only where it makes sense,” he said.

T-Mobile started in a completely different place, with low-band spectrum for 5G. “Now everyone is playing catch-up and embracing the layer cake approach that we pioneered,” he said. Millimeter wave has its place, but given the economics and physics, “you don’t build a large-scale 5G network with it. You build 5G with a low-band, broad connectivity layer,” which is what T-Mobile is doing with 600 MHz, where it’s getting peak speeds of 1 Gbps. On top of that is its layer of mid-band 2.5 GHz spectrum.

“I’ve been at T-Mobile for 20 years, and we’ve never had such a strong spectrum position, and now we have the resources we need to fulfill our promise of accelerating the delivery of meaningful 5G,” he added. Thanks to the combination with Sprint, the new T-Mobile controls 319 megahertz of sub-6 GHz low and mid-band spectrum nationwide, which is nearly double that of AT&T and nearly triple that of Verizon. T-Mobile also has more than 1,100 megahertz of mmWave spectrum, which is more than AT&T, he added.

RELATED: AT&T joins Verizon in making hay over T-Mobile’s 5G spectrum cache

T-Mobile already is rolling out 2.5 GHz at a furious pace, lighting up more than 90 cities and towns across the country. By the end of the year customers will find mid-band 5G in thousands of cities and towns, and “we are targeting nationwide mid-band coverage by the end of 2021," Ray said. 

Ray didn’t hide his pride in being the first operator to launch a national 5G Standalone (SA) network, which doesn’t rely on LTE in the core. For a lot of the truly generational 5G use cases to come to fruition, it requires a SA core. T-Mobile already is seeing a ton of interest from the developer community, he said.

One of the more exciting areas is wearables, where only 5G can provide the kinds of low latency and throughput to make a difference. That’s opening up industrial use cases in VR/AR as well as consumer applications in gaming and other areas.

Throughout the Covid pandemic, it’s become increasingly clear that many people lack adequate broadband services, many in rural areas. Ray was asked about T-Mobile’s fixed wireless access (FWA) aspirations. That’s an area T-Mobile committed to address through its combination with Sprint – it’s looking at serving more than 10 million households, and he expects early inroads in that in 2021.

As for open Radio Access Network (RAN) initiatives that are embraced by many operators throughout the industry, T-Mobile is supportive but it’s not a major driver right now. Ray said T-Mobile will get to it when the opportunity makes sense.

In the meantime, it’s busy pushing out its 5G network with its mid- and low-band spectrum – and Verizon remains steadfast on its high-band plan. The FCC's quiet period for the C-band auction began this week, so operators are mum on that, but it represents the nearest term opportunity for Verizon to acquire precious mid-band spectrum for 5G at auction. The C-band auction starts December 8.