Midband spectrum strategies: T-Mobile US

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T-Mo serves up the layer cake

Editor’s note: This is the second in a series of three stories laying out the national mobile network operators’ plans for midband spectrum. The first, on Verizon’s position, can be read here.

T-Mobile US has been building out its 2.5 GHz in fast and furious fashion, and it is reaping the benefits in 5G coverage and performance. Mike Sievert, president and CEO of the company, has said that the company has a “years-long” advantage over AT&T and Verizon in the midband. “It’s pretty stark,” he said on the company’s most recent quarterly call.

Aurora Insight CEO Jennifer Alvarez, drawing on her company’s data from global measurement of spectrum use, says that Aurora has seen a two-pronged strategy from T-Mobile US: First, the deployment of its 5G coverage layer with 600 MHz spectrum, with which it staked a “nationwide coverage” claim and extended into small, rural or remote markets around the country. “We literally saw 600 MHz 5G in Amarillo, Texas,” Alvarez says. Since last fall and into this summer, she continues, Aurora has seen T-Mobile US increasingly shift its 2.5 GHz spectrum from LTE to 5G.

T-Mobile US plans to cover 200 million people with its “Ultra Capacity” 5G midband service by the end of the year and as of this week, has announced a new “5G UC” icon will indicate when a device is making use of that spectrum. As of the end of the second quarter, it was at about 165 million – just 35 million covered POPs away. “We’re super close,” said T-Mo President of Technology and network guru Neville Ray on the company’s quarterly call in July. “I’m very confident about our ability to hit the 200 million” – which, he pointed out, is the baseline number of covered POPs for a “nationwide” marketing claim. T-Mobile US, he said, has a target of having 100 megahertz of 2.5 GHz spectrum deployed, on average, across its footprint – even more than the 60-80 megahertz of its 2.5 GHz holdings that it has deployed today.

“When you compound the footprint and the spectrum available, obviously, we have a massive lead” over AT&T and Verizon, Ray said. “AT&T and Verizon will try and match what we will do this year by the end of 2023, when they get more C-band spectrum available in the second tranche. Of course, we get C-band spectrum at the end of 2023, too. … Our goal is to be at 300 million covered POPs by the end of ’23 and to double that spectrum position from 100 megahertz of mid-band to 200 megahertz. … Our plan is to have all of that [160 megahertz of 2.5 GHz] deployed for 5G, plus additional mid-band from our AWS and PCS holdings, to set us up for an incredible leadership position that AT&T and Verizon will spend many years trying to match.”

Ray elaborated in an April blog post about T-Mo and the midband, making the case that even once Verizon and AT&T get their full allotment of C-Band spectrum in 2023, that “The depth of mid-band 5G spectrum T-Mobile will deploy cannot be matched.”

“C-band spectrum is great. We bought a bunch of it, too. But spectrum obeys the immutable laws of physics. The higher the frequency, the shorter the distance it can travel and the more easily it is blocked by objects,” Ray wrote. He said that 2.5 GHz has higher maximum allowed output power, which will help T-Mobile US deliver on its home wireless broadband ambitions with improved uplink performance and help with operating margins and cell edge performance. T-Mobile US “conducted extensive RF simulations and analysis as well as material field testing to assess C-band performance across various geographies and topographies,” according to Ray, and found that while C-Band performs well in dense urban environments where sites are close together, “performance is lower in other environments.” T-Mobile US estimates that C-band will require 50% more cell sites “for meaningful and continuous coverage” and that in-buliding C-Band systems might require 4x the densification needed for 2.5 GHz coverage.

Karri Kuoppamaki, T-Mobile US’ vice president of radio network technology development and strategy, said that the carrier’s 5G buildout so far “clearly illustrates our dedication to not only build the best, fastest, most solid 5G network, but more specifically to utilize the midband frequencies that we have available to us to serve our customers in the best possible way.”

“In all bands, there are two aspects that are important: One is the capacity and the other one is coverage. Coverage is driven by things like, what is the frequency band that is being used, what is the base station equipment and the device specifications, what is the operating environment, performance margins, FCC rules, RF propagation characteristics and so on,” Kuoppamaki explained. “In midband spectrum – specifically, 2.5 GHz and C-Band — these factors, for the most part, net out to be the same, [with]very little difference between the two bands — leaving the better propagation characteristics of 2.5 as the primary driver of its coverage benefit over C-Band.”

He is quick to note that T-Mobile US will ultimately use both 2.5 and C-Band as middle layers of its cake. T-Mo spent just over $9.3 billion C-Band auction to acquire 142 licenses in 72 PEAs, an average of 40 megahertz of spectrum that it bought selectively in areas with a population of about 225 million people.

Kuoppamaki says that in particular, as T-Mobile US moves forward, its strength in the midband will benefit the company as the industry transitions not just to 5G, but to 5G Standalone.

“If you want to truly meet the vision of 5G, you need to deploy Standalone 5G,” Kuoppamaki said. “To deploy Standalone 5G, you need a lot of capacity and capability, so that it provides the experience that’s expected of it.” T-Mobile US launched its SA 5G network last year. At the time T-Mobile US commercially launched 5G SA in August 2020, it said that the switch increased its 5G coverage by 30% — because it was then only limited by the reach of its 600 MHz spectrum, while its 5G NonStandalone implementation had depended on its midband LTE spectrum. Since then, though, it has focused on bolstering its midband coverage.

“We feel like our spectrum assets, particularly in the midband, give us the advantage to move into SA much faster than the other guys can do,” Kuoppamaki said, pointing out that the move to SA requires dedicated 5G spectrum – ideally, in multiple bands – because the wholly-5G architecture does not leverage existing LTE spectrum as an anchor.  “I think T-Mobile is in a unique position to do things that other people can’t do, in the short term, in terms of the Standalone domain,” he added.

Another factor that is important in how T-Mo is playing its midband cards is its build-out advantage, Kuoppamaki said. He offered up the fact that T-Mobile US plans to cover that 200-million POP milestone with 2.5 GHz this year and around 300 million POPs by the close of 2023 — while Verizon aims to hit about 175 million POPs in the 2023 timeframe and AT&T has planned to reach 100 million POPs in ’23 and do most of its C-Band deployment spend in 2022-2024. T-Mo’s two main competitors will be about two years’ behind its midband deployments, by the carrier’s reckoning. 

Given the depth of T-Mobile’s other midband options, it’s perhaps not a surprise that CBRS is just nice-to-have. T-Mobile US bought just eight Priority Access Licenses in the CBRS auction, all in major urban areas. Kuoppamaki says that as T-Mobile US rolls out small cells, CBRS is “a good band to be included” and that the carrier has done so to a certain extent. But he makes clear that building a substantial macro layer of 2.5 GHz is T-Mobile’s priority, over which additional bands can be layered “as and when needed.”

Looking for more insights on the midband spectrum landscape? Check out the RCR Wireless News webinar featuring Aurora Insight, Analog Devices and LitePoint, and download our editorial report: Minding the Midband: Trends, momentum and deployment in the U.S.

About Author

Kelly reports on network test and measurement, as well as the use of big data and analytics. She first covered the wireless industry for RCR Wireless News in 2005, focusing on carriers and mobile virtual network operators, then took a few years’ hiatus and returned to RCR Wireless News to write about heterogeneous networks and network infrastructure. Kelly is an Ohio native with a masters degree in journalism from the University of California, Berkeley, where she focused on science writing and multimedia. She has written for the San Francisco Chronicle, The Oregonian and The Canton Repository. Follow her on Twitter: @khillrcr

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