T-Mobile CEO Likens 5G Push to an Arms Race

T-Mobile CEO John Legere is known for his combative quips about the competition, so it comes as no surprise that on this week’s earnings call with investors that Legere likened the current push for 5G to an “arms race.”

True to form, the T-Mobile CEO blamed competitors AT&T and Verizon for instigating the race. He said that they are just trying to recapture their network brands by defining 5G as something that is only attainable by them because of their millimeter wave spectrum (mmWave) holdings.

But Legere reasserted T-Mobile’s claim that it will be the first operator in the U.S. with a nationwide footprint because it is the only operator to secure a sizeable footprint of low-band spectrum. Low-band spectrum is considered prime spectrum because it has better propagation and can carry a signal further than high-band spectrum. T-Mobile spent nearly $8 billion on spectrum licenses in the FCC’s 600 MHz incentive auction last year and is now in the process of incorporating that spectrum into its network.

During the call, CTO Neville Ray provided some additional details on the company’s 5G plans. Ray said that the company has added coverage in the 600 MHz spectrum in 586 cities and towns nationwide and will continue to do that in 2018. He noted that the company has accelerated its 600 MHz rollout, which will increase capex costs by $300 million to $400 million. But he added that the investment will “set the stage” for the operator’s 5G network because the existing equipment is 5G-ready, meaning it will only need a software upgrade to make it compatible with 5G once the full 5G standard is complete, which is expected to occur this summer.

Ray also said that he expects 5G will “ride along” with the 4G LTE network for the next four to five years, meaning that LTE networks will remain in existence for many years to come even as operators build out their 5G networks.

He also said that while AT&T and Verizon may talk about having 5G available in some markets later this year, those 5G deployments won’t make a sizeable difference to the competitive nature of the wireless market for at least another year.

Interestingly, T-Mobile didn’t spend much time addressing Sprint, which is also making claims about having a nationwide mobile 5G network in 2019. During the company’s fiscal 2017 third quarter earnings call earlier this month, Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure told investors that the company has a significant advantage over its competitors because it has such a large 2.5 GHz spectrum footprint (100 MHz in the 2.5 GHz band in the top 100 cities).

Noticeably absent from T-Mobile’s discussion of 5G is what role software will play in the company’s 5G network. Competitors AT&T and Verizon have both talked extensively about how they are virtualizing their networks and moving from a centralized network architecture to a distributed architecture. Both are also involved in many open source initiatives including ONAP.

In a brief exchange a year ago, Ray told SDxCentral that the company’s modern core architecture makes it less critical to move to a virtualized network than its competitors like AT&T and Verizon.

Millimeter Wave

Although T-Mobile executives have spent a lot of time downplaying AT&T and Verizon’s plans to deploy 5G using mmWave spectrum, the operator is going to use mmWave spectrum to supplement its 5G network.  Ray said that the company has a “big chunk” of mmWave spectrum. It is also hopeful that the FCC will make more of that spectrum available through an auction that will likely occur in 2019. Ray envisions using the mmWave spectrum in urban outdoor areas to enhance the company’s mobile 5G network.