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CCA Fall 2013: T-Mobile US looks to keep pressure on with ‘un-carrier’ strategy; courts rural partners

LAS VEGAS – T-Mobile US is looking to maintain its remarkable 2013 turnaround with plans to continue attacking what it terms consumer “pain points” as well as broadening its network capacity and scope.

Speaking at a keynote address at this week’s Competitive Carriers Association event in Las Vegas, T-Mobile US CTO Neville Ray explained that the carrier will keep pressuring larger rivals through its aggressive marketing and network push, tactics that have at least in the near-term paid off handsomely for the nation’s No. 4 carrier.

Ray highlighted the carrier’s “1.0” and “2.0” moves, which included the launch of its Simple Choice plans earlier this year followed by its Jump device financing program. The Jump program seemed to really ignite its rivals, with Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobility rolling out similar programs, and Sprint reportedly set to do the same this week.

Looking to keep its rivals on their toes, Ray hinted that “3.0” of its strategy was in the on-deck circle and would again look to soothe consumer dissatisfaction with wireless services. In addition, while not providing any insight into the current third quarter, Ray did say that the carrier was seeing continued “momentum” from its break out Q2.

Befitting the “T” in his title, Ray spent most of his speech on topics of spectrum and network, echoing other speakers at the event regarding the importance of the planned auction of 600 MHz spectrum licenses scheduled for 2014. Ray noted the auction, which many in attendance did not expect to happen before 2015, is the “biggest event in the wireless industry for the next 10 years, and that it was of upmost importance that it is handled to ensure increased competition in the wireless space.

As such, Ray tapped into the thoughts of most attendees in lobbying for separating out sub-1 GHz spectrum holdings when regulators look at license concentration challenges. This is seen as an important topic leading into the planned auction of 600 MHz spectrum licenses scheduled for 2014, though many in attendance don’t expect that complicated auction to happen until at least 2015.

Ray explained that it was “bullshit” to not consider spectrum in the sub-1 GHz band more valuable to higher-band spectrum holdings.

“I know because I don’t have it,” Ray said, though he did note that T-Mobile US did have one lower 700 MHz license covering Boston that it picked up from the MetroPCS acquisition. “Every engineer in the room understands the capabilities of this spectrum. … This is one final chance to level the playing field.”

T-Mobile US, along with many operators and CCA, have lobbied for the Federal Communications Commission to limit the amount of spectrum AT&T and Verizon Wireless an acquire in the 600 MHz band, noting that those two operators already control in excess of 80% of all sub-1 GHz spectrum licenses. That spectrum is valued for both its propagation and in-building coverage characteristics.

In throwing out recommendations for the 600 MHz spectrum, and backed with a recent FCC filing – jointly filed with Verizon Wireless – Ray said T-Mobile US is pushing for the auction to include at least 70 megahertz of paired spectrum – 35 megahertz for both the uplink and downlink – using FDD technology. Some operators have been asking for spectrum to be set aside for TDD operations, which combines spectrum into a single band, allowing the technology to mediate dynamically how the spectrum is used.

Ray also drew a round of applause when he championed the need for a single band class for the 600 MHz space, something that tripped up the 700 MHz spectrum band. The 700 MHz challenges look to have perhaps come to a conclusion with AT&T reporting late last week that it would work with the FCC on unifying access between Band Class 12 and Band Class 17.

Ray also threw open the door to potential partnerships with rural operators looking to expand the reach of their own networks. T-Mobile US’ ongoing network migration is providing the carrier with a unique spectrum and technology position that could prove beneficial to some operators. That includes the use of LTE services across the 1.7/2.1 GHz band, which differs from LTE deployments by Verizon Wireless and AT&T Mobility (700 MHz) and Sprint (1.9 GHz), as well as expansion of its HSPA-based services in the 1.9 GHz band.

“Don’t’ forget T-Mobile,” Ray said. “We have a huge network. Not the scale of the bigger guys, but we have capacity. I have a big truck and can carry a big load. .. We are here to help.”

Sprint made a similar pitch to CCA members earlier this year, with CEO Dan Hesse announcing plans to enable LTE roaming as well as allow for roaming between the carrier’s current LTE service running in the 1.9 GHz band and those of carriers that are looking to rollout LTE services in the 700 MHz, 850 MHz and 1.9 GHz bands.

Verizon Wireless for its part has also looked to work with rural carriers in rolling out LTE services through its LTE in Rural America program. That program, which counts more than a dozen participants, allows rural carriers to lease 22 megahertz of spectrum in the upper 700 MHz band to power an LTE network. In addition to the spectrum, carriers can also tap into Verizon Wireless for core services that will allow tight integration with Verizon Wireless’ nationwide LTE offering. Verizon Wireless also agrees to not build out its LTE network in partner markets to compete with the offering.

As for continued fine tuning of its network operations, Ray said the carrier was on track to deliver 200 million potential customers covered with LTE by year end, and that it was moving toward migrating all MetroPCS CDMA voice traffic to its HSPA-based network in the 2014-2015 timeframe, a move that will allow the carrier to free up more 1.9 GHz spectrum to support HSPA-based services.

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