T-Mobile’s Ray summons ‘patience’ when it comes to open RAN

T-Mobile has been less enthusiastic about the open Radio Access Network (RAN) space than its wireless rivals, but that doesn’t mean it’s disinterested. It’s just waiting for the ecosystem to develop.  

That’s one of the take-aways from Neville Ray’s appearance at a UBS investor conference on Friday where he reviewed the “un-carrier’s” progress in deployment low-, mid- and high-band spectrum for 5G. He also reiterated T-Mobile’s two-year head start over its peers.

“We just have to be patient,” said Ray, T-Mobile’s president of Technology, about the move to open RAN. “The ecosystem in O-RAN is going to take some time to develop. You look at the radio business today and you have three major incumbents, right? One of them Chinese. It’s a massive scale game and it’s a complex business... There’s massive R&D in this space to future-proof your networks. There’s a whole debate about who built and developed this stuff and who owns the IP. We see that almost every day… That’s not just the radio vendors,” but Qualcomm and many others that are involved.

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When he started building out T-Mobile’s massive network in combo with Sprint's last year, O-RAN capability couldn’t meet or match the basic needs. “Those capabilities were simply not there, let alone future proofing,” he said.

“We’re supportive,” and if competitors and new entrants want to push on O-RAN, that’s great, he said. “I’m trying to drive those pieces which I know will deliver and secure material benefit for this company, and O-RAN doesn’t necessarily help" or support in a meaningful way those opportunities.

Everybody looks at O-RAN, the pricing, the capital and the potential for differentiation, and “I think it’s a question mark. We just have to see how it develops. But we’re there. We’re watching. We’re all for open standards and capabilities, absolutely. But right now, I think we just have to be patient” and let the ecosystem mature.

“It’s going to go through a massive journey,” he said, noting that when he started deploying radios many years ago, there were a lot more infrastructure vendors to choose from. Today, a lot needs to be figured out as new entrants compete against scaled competitors.

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Ray likes to talk about the spectrum layer cake that T-Mobile is developing for 5G, from the 600 MHz Extended Range piece, to mid-band 2.5 GHz and the high-band millimeter wave (mmWave.)

He pointed out that T-Mobile isn’t relying on dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS), which AT&T and Verizon are using. T-Mobile is using spectrum it acquired in the 600 MHz incentive auction.

DSS relies on spectrum sharing between 4G LTE and 5G, and that isn’t going to provide the same speeds that 5G provides without DSS. “It’s a shared spectrum story,” and that has performance impacts. “It’s pretty disappointing,” he said.

T-Mobile’s mid-band Ultra Capacity layer, which showcases 2.5 GHz, covers 140 million people, with plans to reach 200 million people by the end of 2021. That will allow it to have a nationwide claim on 2.5 GHz, and that allows 5G to “really come to life,” with average speeds of 300 Mbps, which continue to increase.   

“More and more customers every day are starting to feel and benefit from that experience,” he said, which is noteworthy given that at last check, T-Mobile doesn’t provide the specificity on its coverage maps for customers to find out exactly where they can access the 2.5 GHz spectrum.

So far, it’s not seeing an impact on vendor supply from chipset shortages for that equipment. “We’re all watching this space,” Ray said, but “we are benefiting from very large, multi-billion dollar deals that we’ve had in place for some time on 5G that we refreshed fairly recently.”

Plus, it’s enjoying a “very steady growth state” on 600 MHz and 2.5 GHz and the associated equipment. “Right now, we’re in a very good place.”

The ambition for 2021 is to get the 60 to 80 MHz deployed in markets to 100 MHz, as it combines the Sprint and T-Mobile customers onto one network. It’s already at 100 MHz in some markets, but it varies across the country. That 100 MHz is the objective for the end of the year, with speed goals of more than 400 Mbps. It has an average of 160 MHz of 2.5 GHz nationwide.

“The great news is that before our competition really gets started on this mid-band deployment, we’re going to have a powerhouse network out there, with nationwide coverage," he said.

Both Verizon and AT&T will have access to C-band spectrum for 5G at the end of this year as the incumbent satellite operators move off the spectrum, but between them, their footprints are going to be nowhere near the 200 million PoPs that T-Mobile will cover, he said.