Even as T-Mobile forges ahead with its 5G network rollout, the proportion of LTE data traffic supported by its 600 MHz spectrum more than doubled in the last 12 months, a new Tutela report shows.
Granted, at around 4% overall, it’s still small compared to T-Mobile’s much greater reliance on mid-band 1700 MHz Band 66 (48%) and 1900 MHz (31%) for LTE, but Tutela analyst Chris Mills cited the impact of T-Mobile’s widespread and aggressive 600 MHz rollout.
As the report shows, T-Mobile’s 600 MHz continues to be mostly a coverage band rather than capacity.
“Even though there are far more people accessing that 600 MHz spectrum - its usage has doubled in a year - it’s still a relatively small proportion of the overall data traffic for T-Mobile,” Mills said, which is what he expected and largely how T-Mobile has positioned its use of the low-band frequencies.
In locations with the heaviest data usage, such as urban and downtown areas, T-Mobile’s “still relying very heavily on that mid-band [LTE] spectrum.”
Mills attributed the increased LTE traffic load on 600 MHz largely to more compatible handsets coming on the market in the last year, as well as additional site deployments. Currently T-Mobile has more than 80 devices (including tablets) that support 600 MHz LTE.
In Tutela’s 2020 U.S. State of Mobile Experience report, carriers’ respective network performances were within eyesight of one another, with T-Mobile and Verizon both delivering the best consistent user experience. Verizon still topped the leaderboard for coverage and median download speed, while T-Mobile won for upload, and was first alongside AT&T for latency.
Coverage is one area that Verizon continues to dominate nationwide, with a score of 730 out of 1,000 across technologies including 3G, versus T-Mobile at 486. The report still separates out Sprint and T-Mobile but looking at the combined new T-Mobile, the operator’s coverage score jumps to 615, closer to AT&T’s 656 score.
This year’s report ranked ‘Excellent Consistent Quality’ – a metric that T-Mobile and Verizon tied at 83.4%. This measure means a connection is suitable for more intensive applications like HD video calling, mobile gaming or high-quality video streaming.
The consistent quality metric is designed to show how frequently users get results above a certain threshold. As for the driver of this result, an operator may have a higher peak speed but sees more congestion on their network more frequently, according to Mills. Consistency across other metrics like latency and reliability are also factored in.
Interestingly, when looking at a regional breakdown of the excellent consistency score, T-Mobile won in several states where the operator made some of its biggest and early investments in 600 MHz for LTE, he noted. That includes Wyoming, which is home to T-Mobile’s first 600 MHz LTE market of Cheyenne. Other state wins that correlate with its early 600 MHz deployments include Oregon, Maine, and Texas.
“You can see the improvement in the places where T-Mobile’s put the most into 600 MHz,” Mills said of T-Mobile’s regional wins. “But states where maybe [T-Mobile] didn’t have such a coverage issue before, I don’t think it’s made as much of a difference.”
T-Mobile first started its rapid 600 MHz LTE deployment in 2017, when it had on average about 31-megahertz nationwide. In July of this year the FCC officially wrapped up the 39-month repacking process, meaning broadcasters were cleared and relocated from the band.
To be certain, T-Mobile is only devoting a portion of its 600 MHz holdings to LTE as it dedicates part of the spectrum for the coverage layer of its nationwide standalone 5G network. T-Mobile says it’s 5G network covers more than 7,500 cities across 1.3 million square miles. With standalone 5G, T-Mobile no longer relies on an LTE core.
It’s also deploying mid-band 2.5 GHz from Sprint for 5G to deliver both coverage and capacity, today announcing 121 new locations.
Meanwhile, T-Mobile’s increasing share of 600 MHz airwaves have come into focus for less favorable reasons of late – as rivals AT&T and Verizon recently raised concerns about the growing depth of new T-Mobile’s low- and mid-band assets.