T-Mobile will build its upcoming 5G network across the United States by using parts of the $8 billion in low-band 600MHz spectrum it recently acquired, even as it continues to expand its existing LTE coverage.
The company’s 5G strategy, which includes leveraging multiple spectrum bands to deliver nationwide mobile 5G coverage, was unveiled in an announcement on May 2 by John Legere, T-Mobile’s president and CEO. The carrier’s 5G network is also being designed to enable high bandwidth and massive throughput in urban areas using a combination of mid-band and millimeter wave spectrum, according to the company.
The plans, according to Legere, contrast with those of major competitors including AT&T and Verizon, which are building their 5G networks differently by using high-band spectrum and planned fixed 5G sites to distribute cellular coverage. T-Mobile’s 600MHz 5G network instead promises increased radio efficiency, lower latency, handling for more devices, and improved battery life and reliability, according to the company. T-Mobile argues that its low-band 600MHz spectrum capabilities will be easier to deploy across its existing nationwide macro network, while competitors will be hamstrung by technical needs such as requiring so many small cells to provide signals that it will be unwieldy to provide broad coverage for users.
“The carriers are using 5G to either distract from how badly they’re losing today or to give their shareholders some hope they can compete with Big Cable,” Legere said in a statement. “Their ambitious vision for Fixed 5G to replace home internet will never provide mobile 5G coverage. It makes no sense.”
Competitors “are approaching 5G much like a series of hotspots in select cities—with 5G coverage that will completely disappear once customers step outside these limited 5G zones, meaning their 5G experiences disappear, too,” said Legere.
Ultimately, 5G will use all the available spectrum bands to provide services to consumers, Legere said in a video posted on T-Mobile’s website as part of the announcement. “Unlike the other guys, I’m not claiming this is right around the corner this year or next. 5G standards are still being defined, and there’s a lot of work to do, but it will be here in the next two or three years.”
As part of its 5G plans, T-Mobile said it will also help drive 3GPP certification for 5G in the 600MHz spectrum to assure compatibility and service quality.
The carrier said it expects to deploy 5G nationwide in a large swath of unused spectrum as 5G standards are defined, chipsets are delivered and equipment comes to market. T-Mobile’s 5G rollout is expected to begin in 2019, with a target of 2020 for full nationwide coverage, according to the company.
Several IT analysts told eWEEK that while T-Mobile and its competitors have recently been making announcements about upcoming 5G service, those plans are still years from being fulfilled and much still must happen for the realities of 5G to crystalize.
“5G as a ‘market-techture’ is now in full swing,” Bill Menezes, a mobile analyst with Gartner, wrote in an email reply to an inquiry. “Coming only a few days after AT&T indulged in its own version by announcing ‘5G Evolution’ as its term for LTE-Advanced network capabilities, it’s clear that at least some of the U.S. carriers plan on putting a marketing twist on 5G the same way they did by pushing to label pre-LTE technologies such as HSPA as ‘4G.'”
At the same time, though, telecommunications organizations, including the international Groupe Spéciale Mobile Association (GSMA), have said that 5G spectrum specifically includes the use of sub-1GHz spectrum bands, while also noting that the Federal Communications Commission says that 600MHz could be used to drive 5G in the United States, said Menezes.
In the end, it’s not about which spectrum they are using, but whether it can support the services that customers are demanding, he added. “If T-Mobile can show that type of performance on a fully loaded commercial network, it can call the service whatever it wants.”
Another analyst, Charles King of Pund-IT, said that while the company’s 5G plans are still several years away from being delivered, “it would be a mistake to underestimate T-Mobile which has under CEO John Legere consistently gained share and flummoxed competitors by embracing unconventional strategies and initiatives.”
With that in mind, “it’s hard to tell whether T-Mobile’s 5G effort is premature or prescient, but the company has turned similar past efforts into market and mind share gains,” said King.
Rob Enderle, principal analyst at Enderle Group, agreed.
“T-Mobile is the nightmare that never ends for AT&T and Verizon,” said Enderle. “If they pull this off, instead of T-Mobile chasing Verizon and AT&T it could be both those vendors being talked about in past tense. This is a race for who becomes the next AT&T and given how fast T-Mobile is moving, if they get ahead AT&T and Verizon will never catch up.”
Another analyst, Jan Dawson with Jackdaw Research, has a different view, however.
While T-Mobile’s technical plans for 5G and the use of low-band spectrum are novel, the carrier still lacks a huge asset that is held by both AT&T and Verizon—the company doesn’t offer its own home broadband and TV services.
Calling it a “big strategic weakness,” T-Mobile will be under increasing pressure to pair up with a provider that can offer those services so it can continue to appeal to new customers who want bundled services, said Dawson. “Other carriers are pursuing 5G in a form which could replace home broadband services where deployed, but T-Mobile won’t be going down that route at least in the beginning, which means it will likely still need a merger with a cable or landline telecoms provider somewhere down the line to be competitive in bundled services.”
5G is expected to offer as much as 50 times the throughput of current 4G LTE and latency that will drop into the single milliseconds. It’s also expected to play a significant role in the rapidly growing internet of things (IoT) as the number of connected devices creating traffic over the world’s wireless networks continues to grow.
AT&T began its own 5G field trials in the summer of 2016, along with partners Ericsson and Intel, after conducting its own lab development and testing.
International standards for 5G networks are still being developed by 3GPP (3rd Generation Partner Project), which gave the go-ahead to the 4G LTE standard. In March 2015, the 3GPP rolled out a tentative timeline for 5G that doesn’t show a standard for the technology being approved until 2020, though that hasn’t stopped networking technology vendors and component makers from making moves to embrace 5G.