T-Mobile is turning 5G expectations upside-down today by announcing an upcoming 5G network on its new, low-frequency 600MHz spectrum—a band nobody thought would be used for 5G any time soon.
"We're going to build this big fat freeway across the US for 5G, and we don't think anyone else can do it at this time," T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray said.
Enter the Spin Zone
This is tech news, but it's also impressive spin. You need a ton of context to understand why, so stick with me here.
Verizon and AT&T have been claiming 5G leadership based on their upcoming rollouts of pre-5G home internet, which T-Mobile has been disparaging for months. ("We're not a fiber or coax broadband displacement business," he sniffed.) Ray wants T-Mobile to be a big player in mobile 5G. That tech won't be ready until 2018, but T-Mobile still wants to make clear that it's in the 5G game. Thus today's announcement.
AT&T and Verizon are also predominantly setting up 5G on very high frequencies, the currently little-used "millimeter wave" bands at 28GHz and 39GHz. Those bands can't cover long distances, but they allow for extremely high speeds. But it also means 5G networks will rely on 4G LTE to cover larger areas for years to come. That's one of the reasons 4G LTE technology keeps advancing.
"Why are we in millimeter wave today on 5G?" Ray said. "Because it was available."
T-Mobile was the only big carrier to win fresh nationwide airwaves in the recently concluded 600MHz auction. Some of it is available right now, and T-Mobile is going to build a predominantly rural LTE network on that. But much of it is occupied by TV stations that have 2.5 years to vacate. So T-Mobile is going to have new 600MHz spectrum opening up all the way into 2019.
If you have a swathe of completely clear spectrum in 2019, you should probably use the freshest technology on it. That means 5G.
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But this also opens an avenue for T-Mobile to attack AT&T's and Verizon's spectrum choices.
"Their low bands are congested and full of gunk," Ray said, and millimeter wave can't cover more than "hot zones" in dense cities. "What are you going to do with the rest of the U.S., how are you going to bring 5G business and capability and services? Millimeter wave isn't going to cut it," Ray said.
T-Mobile: Age of Ultron?
5G's advantages in low-frequency spectrum won't be as obvious as they are in higher bands, just because there isn't a lot of spectrum to sling around. Up in millimeter wave, 5G networks can use hundreds of megahertz at a time. Down in 600MHz, T-Mobile will be using 31MHz on average. You'll get somewhat faster speeds with 5G than with 4G, but that change may not be dramatic.
That's a big part of why other carriers around the world haven't been talking about 5G in low-band spectrum. When you've already invested millions in building out 4G on your lower bands, there isn't a huge incentive to switch 4G networks to 5G there, at least initially. But, as I said before, it makes more sense to go with the newest technology in fresh spectrum.
T-Mobile's greatest initial opportunity will be in machine-to-machine and sensor connections rather than phones, Ray said. 5G networks can handle many more connections per sector than 4G networks can, so there's the potential for an internet of … well, almost everything, T-Mobile VP of engineering Grant Castle said.
"Only with 5G, with some of the reduced signalling and the other changes they've done, you can get things with a 10-year battery life that are really small and cheap," he said. "I think we're going to Lo-Jack the crap out of everything we own. I'm going to throw a sensor on it and never lose it again."
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