T-Mobile deployed additional 600 MHz spectrum in two days after getting it on loan from Dish Network and others amid the COVID-19 crisis, according to analysis by Opensignal. This doubled capacity and 4G LTE speeds in major markets, showing a successful example of collaboration within and between the wireless industry and government during the pandemic.
On March 16, T-Mobile announced Dish, Comcast, Bluewater Wireless, LB Holdings and Omega Wireless were lending their 600 MHz spectrum for 60 days in markets where it could be rolled out quickly. The FCC granted access to additional spectrum so carriers could handle potential increased network demand as COVID-19 cases continued to rise in the U.S. and large portions of the country fell under stay-at-home orders.
Less than three days from the announcement, Opensignal observed changes in T-Mobile’s use of the 600 MHz band as the operator started to put the additional spectrum to use. Opensignal analyzed the top 100 CMAs and at the start of March found that T-Mobile on average used 10.2 MHz of 600 MHz spectrum for 4G in 84 markets. By the end of the month that increased to 26.6 MHz for 4G in 89 markets.
By March 18, four days after getting the spectrum, T-Mobile had deployed additional 600 MHz in 76 of the top 100 CMAs. Within just 10 days the operator turned on spectrum in 85 markets, increasing average bandwidth by 2.6 times, according to Opensignal.
In 32 markets, T-Mobile boosted the amount of 600 MHz spectrum for 4G twice - increasing first from 10 MHz to 20 MHz, and then again to 30 MHz.
The capacity boost made an impact on T-Mobile’s performance right out of the gate, according to the analysis, which saw average 4G LTE download speeds increased significantly from day one for users on T-Mobile’s network in those markets. When connected to the 600 MHz band, average download speeds rose from 9.9 Mbps at the beginning of March to 20.2 Mbps by the end of the month.
T-Mobile hasn’t put all of the spectrum it has access to into use yet, so it still has more capacity it could deploy right away if necessary, Opensignal noted.
“This analysis shows how, with an incredibly rapid set of actions, the U.S. telecom industry came together to create an impact that benefited millions of Americans,” wrote Francesco Rizzato in the analysis. “Typically, the approval and deployment of new spectrum is something that can take years so for this to be achieved in a matter of days makes it all the more impressive.”
Spectrum boost did what it was supposed to
The effort between T-Mobile, Dish and others, in conjunction with the FCC, did exactly what it was supposed to do, Roger Entner, founder and analyst at Recon Analytics, told FierceWireless.
“The people who had spectrum and didn’t use it got together with the people who used it and they went to the FCC, the FCC said yes,” Entner noted. “All of this worked really, really well.”
No surprise though, Entner said, in terms of T-Mobile’s deployment speed since it already has the gear to support 600 MHz and the spectrum was added via a software upgrade. Doubling or tripling the amount of bandwidth should and did result in speeds going up by two or three times, he noted.
“It’s simple math,” he said. “And that was exactly what was intended.”
In the span of less than a week, the FCC authorized multiple carriers, including T-Mobile, AT&T, U.S. Cellular, and Verizon to access additional spectrum during the pandemic, much of it lent by Dish. On a call with Chairman Ajit Pai last week, service providers said cellular usage was up by 10-20% and reiterated that networks were holding up well to shifts and increases in demand.
“[The FCC] moved extremely quickly and expedited that very swiftly. All of the people did the right thing,” Entner said. “From that perspective, it’s one of the shining examples of where companies that are typically rivals are setting aside differences for the greater good, and the government’s not dragging their feet, by simply saying yes.”
Entner expects AT&T and Verizon will see similar speed improvements based on the amount of additional spectrum they each got access to.
Implications for spectrum deployment after COVID-19?
T-Mobile’s ability to quickly roll out additional 600 MHz and the FCC’s quick action to authorize the use doesn’t necessarily mean the industry will see the same in the future in terms of putting spectrum to use.
Since closing its merger with Sprint last week, T-Mobile is working to utilize its new 2.5 GHz spectrum. T-Mobile President of Technology Neville Ray tweeted last week that the company is already deploying midband 5G spectrum in Philadelphia. A week prior, the FCC granted permission to allow T-Mobile to use the 2.5 GHz spectrum in the city to start assessing how the spectrum works with T-Mobile’s own 5G New Radio (NR) set up.
However, unlike turning on the 600 MHz in just a couple of days with a software upgrade, Entner said turning on Sprint’s spectrum for T-Mobile users is going to be more complicated. He explained that Sprint’s backbone and core network is very unique and not standard. It has to work with Boost, the former Virgin Mobile and Nextel, making “the core network a little bit difficult to work with.”
The FCC’s recent rapid pace too was a result of the current situation, Entner believes, and doesn’t mean there will be greater urgency to authorize spectrum access down the line once the crisis is under control.
“I think Chairman Pai and the FCC administration are aware of the severity of the situation and are doing everything they can to help Americans be connected,” he said.
In a March note to investors, Wells Fargo indicated that the coronavirus crisis could highlight how important additional spectrum is to operators.
“Once this crisis passes, we believe the heavy demand on wireless and wired networks will shine the light on the need for additional spectrum allocation and continued programs to support push-out of broadband into rural areas to lessen the digital divide,” wrote Wells Fargo analyst Jennifer Fritzsche.