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Since both of its larger competitors have live 5G networks, T-Mobile could easily be on the defensive relative to Verizon and AT&T — but that’s never been the case with the scrappy carrier. During T-Mobile’s fourth-quarter 2018 results call with analysts today, executives maintained that they’re ready and excited for the launch of the company’s nationwide 5G network, with mixed but generally positive news on the state of its 5G towers and handsets.
The major message is that the carrier is going to rely heavily on low-speed but long-distance 600MHz towers to deploy 5G initially, while making no reference to midband frequency service and only brief mention of high-speed, short-distance millimeter wave 5G. Overall, T-Mobile said it has “standards-based 5G equipment deployed to six of the top 10 markets, including New York and Los Angeles,” with a major focus on 600Mhz hardware.
Responding to questions from analysts, T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray said the company is adding “thousands upon thousands of new sites with 600Mhz capability,” already leading to the highest network capacity and lowest tower congestion in the company’s history. Because of recent buildouts, 2,700 cities and towns across 42 states already have 600MHz service for LTE handsets, with the ability to switch those towers over to 5G when the handsets are available.
Unfortunately, the 600MHz towers’ actual performance remains a question mark. Ray said the carrier has a national average of 30MHz of spectrum in the 600MHz range, though he conceded that this sliver of spectrum will wind up being split between LTE and 5G users, a situation that may persist “into 2020 and beyond.”
Ray described preliminary 600MHz testing results as “strong,” promising that 5G “speeds are going to be on top of LTE” — a low threshold that really should go without saying. Separately, CEO John Legere said that T-Mobile is working to hit a median nationwide 5G speed of 450 megabits per second, such that half its customers will actually see speeds faster than that. That’s roughly comparable to Verizon’s 5G Home service, which has already launched in parts of four cities with promised base speeds in the 300Mbps to 600Mbps range.
On the millimeter wave front, where numerous small cells are needed to provide service, Ray said the carrier already has 21,000 small cells deployed today, with another 20,000 planned for late 2019 and early 2020. Nothing was discussed about millimeter wave speed advantages, though the company suggested at last month’s CES in Las Vegas that it would achieve 2 or 3 times faster speeds and superior latency with millimeter wave small cells. During the call, T-Mobile said it couldn’t comment on current millimeter wave spectrum auctions due to a government-imposed quiet period.
Asked about 5G handset availability, Ray suggested that some T-Mobile 5G phones will be available in the first half of 2019, but phones with both 600Mhz and millimeter wave support are “strong possibilities” for the second half of 2019. This implies that T-Mobile will soon be in the same situation as AT&T, which has told consumers to plan for “5G” and “5G+” services and devices based on different supported 5G radio frequencies.
T-Mobile notably had no 5G handsets to demonstrate or announce at CES, instead relying on base stations for generally unimpressive demos. The company has previously said that it will release an unnamed Samsung 5G phone, and it named Intel as a partner for 600MHz 5G services.
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