T-Mobile busy testing 5G but not on the fixed wireless bandwagon: CTO

Neville Ray
T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray says most of T-Mobile’s small cell activity is focused on outdoor high-traffic areas.

T-Mobile US CTO Neville Ray reiterated his disdain for the fixed wireless 5G model that Verizon has been pursuing—saying at this point in time, “I am not a huge believer” in that model—but that doesn’t mean T-Mobile is sitting idle when it comes to 5G.

Speaking at the Citi European & Emerging Telecoms Conference in London on Tuesday, Ray said T-Mobile is testing 5G and he believes there’s a lot of potential for true innovation in the wireless industry, including with things related to virtual reality and eyewear, but mobility won’t come in earnest until the next decade.

“We’ve done a huge volume of 5G testing, we have 5G radio, 28 GHz, all those pieces,” he said. “We’re trialing, testing, doing all the things,” he added, noting Verizon announced some larger scale trials this year.

But “every business case piece of work I’ve seen put in front of me doesn’t math at this point in time. The costs of deployment, the density of deployment” and the challenges associated with 28 GHz and propagation, especially for the home, are just too much.

“It’s a pretty tough model. I don’t think I’m alone in that," Ray added.

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Most operators outside the U.S. scratch their heads at the thought of the 28 GHz broadband displacement being a really good 5G case, Ray explained.

“Don’t get me wrong,” he said. “I think there’s a plethora of really exciting 5G stuff that will come, I just don’t think that’s a great place to start.”

The wireless industry has been about innovation and over the past 10 years transformed the way people live their lives, and he sees 5G doing that again in the next 10 years.

“We will see 5G radio displace 4G radio,” Ray predicted, and the new radio will be more efficient spectrally with better latency. That doesn’t mean 5G won’t be in low band spectrum though.

“I think Sprint has this phrase of 2.5 is the new low band of 5G. Complete BS. 5G is going to move across all spectrum bands over time. You cannot cover the U.S. with 2.5 GHz spectrum,” he said. Ray expects the industry will have to deploy 5G into all bands over time.

RELATED: T-Mobile boasts of 979 Mbps tests on LTE network, mobile 5G tests reaching 1.8 Gbps

Ray also took the opportunity during the discussion to make a dig (or two) about Verizon, which recently declared it has the largest small cell deployment in the country.

“I always say, well, how many have you got?” he quipped. “Somebody please ask them for me and then we can have a debate.”

Most of T-Mobile’s small cell activity is focused on outdoor high-traffic areas and making the macro network more efficient. It has contracted with suppliers that are securing fiber assets for the operator across the country.

Last year, it turned up about 1,000. It has a pipeline of about 20,000 nationally and “we’ll go build several thousand of those this year,” he said, but the idea is to have a supply from which it can draw as needed. “This isn’t hand to mouth, we’re looking at ’18 and ’19 and getting the pipeline started.”

That’s on top of the outdoor distributed antenna system (DAS) network, of which T-Mobile has more than 12,000 nodes, which he described as being like first-generation small cells.

Asked about the prospect of the cable industry getting more competitive in wireless, Ray said it will be interesting to see what Comcast does this year on the back of the Verizon MVNO they secured several years ago. It’s not the first time to see Comcast come into wireless with an MVNO offering. “We’ll see,” he said.

For the cable guys, Charter or Comcast, there’s a belief their customers already use a lot of Wi-Fi. T-Mobile is probably one of if not the most knowledgeable carrier about Wi-Fi interaction, he said, but folks might be underestimating how much a wireless device will move onto a macro cellular network even when it can sense Wi-Fi. The technology to glue those networks together is really key in order to steer and control traffic.

Long story short, “I think there’s some technology barriers that they need to work through,” he said. “It will be fascinating to see what they do. Comcast are really good marketeers … That was a joke. Clearly there’s going to be more competition coming,” but probably with a marginal impact in 2017.