AT&T-Straight Path Deal Becomes Verizon-Straight Path Deal (May 11, 2017)
T-Mobile this morning announced plans to roll out 5G services nationally starting in 2019 on the 600MHz spectrum it acquired in the recent FCC auction. T-Mobile is here taking a different tack from the other US operators and many international operators, which are instead using high-band millimeter wave spectrum to test and eventually roll out 5G. T-Mobile’s approach is very much more incremental in nature, not providing the kind of dramatic speed and latency benefits which have been associated with previous generational shifts in mobile, in contrast to the fiber-replacement services being tested by AT&T and Verizon. On the other hand, T-Mobile will be able to claim that it has widespread 5G coverage long before the other carriers, which will have to roll out the infrastructure-dense high-band version much more slowly. There’s a danger that T-Mobile’s more modest ambitions for 5G set low consumer expectations for the technology and that other carriers will have to work hard to raise those expectations with their own rollouts, and there’s a certain irony to the prospect of T-Mobile building a network with the broadest coverage but lower speeds given its current reputation for providing a fast but not ubiquitous LTE network. Some of the other non-speed-related aspects of 5G will still be realized, which should allow T-Mobile to launch some interesting new IoT services, which will helpful as its growth from phones continues to slow. See also my longer comment for media here.
The FCC recently held an auction of spectrum to be freed up by broadcasters and made available for wireless services, in the 600MHz band, which is well suited to long-distance and in-building coverage. T-Mobile was the only wireless carrier among the big winners, with the two largest carriers having cleaned up in the previous auction, and a cash-constrained Sprint sitting this one out too (AT&T did win licenses worth $900 million, but T-Mobile spent $8 billion). The other big bidders were DISH, which spent nearly as much as T-Mobile ($6.2 billion), and Comcast, which recently announced its wireless service based on Verizon’s network but could eventually launch its own network. Though T-Mobile has always crowed about how much spectrum it has per customer, that was always more of a reflection of its smaller number of customers rather than a massive spectrum trove, and it lacked low-band spectrum. It has now made big strides in solving that problem, and plans to put at least some of that spectrum to work right away (though much of it will be unavailable for several years while the broadcasters go through the process of vacating it, with much of that unavailable spectrum covering the densest markets). It’s also worth noting that no phones in the US today support the 600MHz band – that support is likely to come early next year with a new Qualcomm modem, so even if T-Mobile does put a third or so of its new spectrum to work this year, it won’t do anyone any good until then. So, if you’re a US wireless customer today, none of this makes any difference for now, and it’ll only make much of a difference a year or several down the line if you’re a T-Mobile customer (or in limited cases an AT&T customer). Or as and when Comcast and DISH decide to put that spectrum to use.
Though 5G standards haven’t been finalized yet, it’s already clear that some major networks will be running in much higher frequency bands than previous generations of technology, and specifically in what’s known as the millimeter-wave bands between 30 and 300GHz, mostly in the lower part of that range. As such, spectrum in those bands has suddenly become much more valuable, and companies are starting to snap it up. AT&T already bought some earlier this year and now is spending $1.6 billion to buy up a holding company which owns a decent chunk of it. Straight Path hadn’t actually been putting it to use as required by its purchase contract, and so has been forced by the FCC to hand it over to someone else, precipitating a sale process. Given how little spectrum is available generally, this is a decent price for an increasingly valuable asset, and it will likely increase interest in other holders of higher-frequency spectrum, including DISH. We’re still very early in the 5G rollout phase, but we’re going to see lots more purchases like this (including some of actual businesses rather than mere holding companies) over the next couple of years as the big existing players and some new entrants line up 5G spectrum.
T-Mobile Continues to Boost Capacity for Customers with LTE-U Launching in Spring 2017 – T-Mobile (Feb 22, 2017)
T-Mobile has been touting LTE-U as a potential extension of its current LTE capabilities for several years now, but needed FCC permission to begin actually deploying the technology, which operates in some of the same bands as WiFi. It now has that permission and will apparently begin rolling out the technology to customers in the Spring, though none of the devices currently in T-Mobile customers’ hands actually support LTE-U – those will start arriving later this year, CTO Neville Ray told me. The technical marketing lead for Qualcomm’s LTE and 5G modems tells me that devices carrying the new Snapdragon 835 chip and X16 LTE modem will support it. So until there’s widespread adoption of new devices capable of supporting the technology, and widespread support in the network, this isn’t going to have much consumer impact. In the meantime, there’s good marketing fodder here about being first (as with Verizon’s 5G announcement earlier).