T-Mobile’s Neville Ray reveals 5G playbook: Move fast on 2.5 GHz, 600 MHz

T-Mobile now has an “incredible asset base” and Ray wants to realize that as fast as possible. (T-Mobile)

T-Mobile President of Technology Neville Ray revealed his 2020 playbook during the Wells Fargo Virtual 5G Forum on Thursday. But first, he had to explain what happened on Monday, when the operator experienced an hours-long service outage.

Most of the problems had to do with VoLTE calling, triggered by a fiber outage in the Southeast. A series of events followed to compound the situation. Ray earlier explained in a blog post that T-Mobile worked with its IP Multimedia Subsystem (IMS) and IP vendors to add permanent additional safeguards to prevent it from happening again.

On Thursday, he said about 20% of the normal call volume was lost on Monday but the data services mostly stayed up. A lot of work has been done since the outage to harden the network. “It’s not good enough,” he said. A lot of third parties are involved, but “it’s our network, and it’s our service… We have to do better.”

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It intends to do better in terms of competing in the market against AT&T and Verizon. For years, T-Mobile’s network ranked below its bigger rivals. Now, it boasts a national 5G network built on 600 MHz, and it’s in the enviable position of deploying a boatload of 2.5 GHz spectrum acquired from the Sprint transaction.

Neville Ray T-Mobile
Neville Ray

“This year is going to be a big year for us. My playbook … simply is to get as much 600 and 2.5 rolled out as is humanly possible this year and next,” Ray said. He looks at the additional time required to close the Sprint transaction—it took about two years—as time lost, and “I want to regain that time.”

In fact, asked what keeps him awake at night, he said it’s all about moving faster. T-Mobile now has an “incredible asset base” and he wants to realize that as fast as possible. “It’s an incredible opportunity,” and after 20 years at T-Mobile and 25 years in the U.S. wireless industry building networks, this marks the first time he’s been in this kind of spectrum position—and the competition doesn’t yet have a path to match it for some time.

Mid-band and global 5G race

In the U.S., “we have a lot of work to do,” he said, noting he recently talked with a number of colleagues and peers in the industry about what’s going on in Asia, and “these guys are moving at such a pace in China and South Korea … we have a lot of catch-up to do.”

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Even though T-Mobile boasted about its 5G network before the Sprint transaction was complete, with the new T-Mobile, 5G will finally arrive in a meaningful way in the U.S., he contends. The competition has made statements about 5G, but the reach and impact thus far has been very limited.

“We’ve all made and my competition has made a lot of statements about 5G, what launched and when it launched. But the reach and impact of that has been very, very limited today. Very limited in terms of coverage availability, the customer experience, you name it. This year, that will change,” he said, thanks to T-Mobile, which is seeing speeds of 300 and 400 Mbps averages on 2.5 GHz spectrum that’s not evenly fully tapped, so a year from now, the results will be “remarkable.”

He noted that T-Mobile now has more millimeter wave spectrum than AT&T. “We’ll continue to evaluate millimeter wave options. I love it as a capacity layer, that top layer of the cake,” with interesting things in the fixed broadband replacement/displacement space, where Verizon has played pretty hard. Millimeter wave is also great for backhaul, he said.

Ongoing negotiations with Dish

At the start of the COVID-19 crisis in the U.S., T-Mobile hustled to get additional 600 MHz spectrum from other license holders to help meet demand for wireless broadband.

The Keep Americans Connected pledge comes to a close at the end of this month, and many of those deals will fall away. Some partners did agree to work together on a longer term. For example, T-Mobile struck a three-year paid spectrum lease arrangement with Columbia Capital venture capital firm, and that includes some big markets.

RELATED: Dish reluctantly extends its 600 MHz spectrum loan to T-Mobile

Asked about the status of T-Mobile’s 600 MHz lease arrangements with Dish Network on a longer term basis, Ray said: “We continue our work with Dish and the DoJ,” and he’s pleased to see that “we’re going to close with Boost at the end of the month.” However, the spectrum lease arrangement with Dish is not connected to that.

“We continue a negotiation with Dish and with the DoJ on if there’s something there that’s of mutual benefit to both companies. Watch this space. We’ll see where that one goes,” he said

Ray was quick to talk up the importance of the low band 600 MHz spectrum, however. That low band layer is critically important and “for us, everywhere now I can add a 2.5 site, I’ve got an underlying 5G network.”

T-Mobile has been an active participant in FCC proceedings leading up to the C-band auction, which is set for December 8. The CBRS auction in July will provide some mid-band spectrum for 5G, but it's not as attractive for wireless operators as the C-band. It will take time to clear the C-band, however, so T-Mobile is going to have a lead on mid-band for some time.

“I think these guys [Verizon and AT&T] are going to muster everything they can from their balance sheets to go to war on C-band. They have no choice,” he said.

With the Sprint combination, T-Mobile now has more cell sites than anyone else, and its plan is to deploy on 85,000 sites. It’s now got about 110,000 sites, so it needs to whittle that down, something the tower companies are well aware of. T-Mobile works with the three major public tower companies, American Tower, Crown Castle and SBA Communications.  

“I don’t need everything I have today. They all know that. But we are doing a lot of work,” adding radios to existing sites and identifying new sites where it wants to add radios.