By Neal Gompa
Just before the one-year anniversary of the launch of the “Uncarrier,” T-Mobile has announced the next round of network modernization upgrades. This upgrade cycle will bring LTE service to 250 million people by the end of 2014, and 300 million by the summer of 2015.
Back when T-Mobile first detailed its strategy for upgrading its network, it had noted that this strategy would be deployed to its entire network. However, it had only committed to upgrading the 35,000 GSM+UMTS cell sites it had at the time (covering 225 million people). That had later grown to 37,000 cell sites (covering 230 million people) through organic upgrades, and then 40,000 from the MetroPCS acquisition. That left about 15,000 cell sites covering 70 million people.
At this point, T-Mobile is nearly complete with its upgrade to 40,000 cell sites. The remaining 20 million people where T-Mobile hasn’t announced LTE service either has soft-launched service or is being tested right now and optimized before access is given to subscribers. Within the next couple of months, that service will be fully activated and announced.
As for the remaining 15,000 cell sites, T-Mobile will be upgrading them all using its AWS and PCS spectrum to support HSPA+ and LTE. Neville Ray noted at the Deutsche Bank 22nd Annual Media, Internet & Telecom Conference that the current upgrade plans do not involve 700MHz spectrum. While T-Mobile will deploy 700MHz spectrum as soon it gets the licenses from Verizon Wireless, the spectrum deployment will be a separate deployment and is currently useless for users until the company starts offering Band 12 LTE handsets in the fourth quarter of this year. Most likely, the 700MHz LTE deployment will coincide with activation of LTE-Advanced features on the network.
T-Mobile is known for beating its own estimates by a wide margin, so it is entirely possible that the company will be able to complete the upgrade of the remaining 15,000 cell sites by the end of the year. However, unlike the 40,000 cell sites it has upgraded already, these 15,000 cell sites do not have the necessary backhaul to support high capacity mobile broadband service. That means T-Mobile needs to work out agreements to get backhaul ready. This is likely the big blocker that caused T-Mobile to push out its estimated timeline. But with T-Mobile’s strong arrangements with a wide variety of backhaul providers, there should be no trouble getting the job done.
All in all, this is very exciting, as the elimination of 2G-only coverage areas will make T-Mobile into a truly viable national 4G competitor against Verizon and AT&T.