T-Mobile will support MetroPCS' VoLTE but won't rush to expand it

One major question regarding T-Mobile USA's planned merger with MetroPCS (NYSE:PCS) is what will happen to the latter's pioneering voice over LTE deployment. The answer is that T-Mobile plans to support MetroPCS' VoLTE customers but not do much more with the technology for awhile, according to a company executive.

MetroPCS became one of the first mobile operators in the world to deploy VoLTE when it launched service this summer in the Dallas-Fort Worth market, and last month the operator pledged to have VoLTE in all 14 of its LTE markets within the next six months. T-Mobile will continue supporting those deployments after the merger closes, likely in the first half of 2013, T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray told FierceBroadbandWireless.

There was media chatter "that we were going to remove VoLTE from the offering going forward, and that's not the case," said Ray. "We'll support what Metro's done on the VoLTE side on the combined network, and that's not a large number of customers today, but we'll make sure there's service ubiquity for their customers that come across."

MetroPCS' focus on VoLTE has been driven by quite tight spectrum constraints, which, in turn, means the operator needs to shift customers off of its older, less efficient CDMA network and onto the more spectrally efficient LTE network.

T-Mobile does not have the same constraints, however. "We're not in a huge rush on VoLTE because we have such underlying strength on HSPA and GSM voice, and we're not in desperate need of driving that spectral efficiency to get away from a very inefficient voice path on a technology like CDMA," said Ray.

"For us, the situation going forward is to continue to evaluate our path and roadmap on VoLTE. We'll make sure that we leverage every ounce of what the Metro team has pioneered and done," he said.

Ray noted that despite all of the hype surrounding VoLTE, the technology is still in its very early stages. "VoLTE will become mainstream, but it's not going to be for a couple of years," he said, adding, "It will be primarily driven by the CDMA-LTE camp."

T-Mobile intends to decommission 90 percent of MetroPCS' macrocells, which indicates this merger is really all about spectrum rather than coverage. Ray agreed, saying, "The coverage is highly overlapping."

MetroPCS currently covers some 100 million POPs, while T-Mobile's next-generation footprint extends to 220 million POPs, with about 285 million covered with GSM, he said.

T-Mobile intends to continue operating MetroPCS' extensive distributed antenna system (DAS) deployments. There are about 6,000 DAS nodes "that we want to keep and get upgraded to HSPA and LTE for a great capacity and depth-of-coverage benefit," said Ray. "They bring a lot of capacity and spectrum reuse with their DAS systems in some of these core urban markets."

As part of its $4 billion network modernization project announced earlier this year, T-Mobile expects to bring on 10x10 MHz LTE service in 2013, and that offering will be available to the MetroPCS customers that T-Mobile acquires. "We will look to have available, as soon as we can after close, a broad and rich set of HSPA/LTE-capable terminals so the Metro customers are afforded great device selection and choice," said Ray.

But the ultimate goal is to offer 20x20 MHz LTE, which will be enabled by combining T-Mobile's AWS spectrum with MetroPCS' AWS spectrum. The combined company can start lighting up 20x20 MHz LTE service in 2014 and have the service rolled out in markets where it is supported by the end of 2015, said Ray.

T-Mobile's parent, Deutsche Telekom, has been running some 20x20 networks in Germany, where the technology has shown peak speeds north of 140 Mbps with downlink averages at about half of that. "We're not saying that's where we'll be, but that's the opportunity that's afforded" by 20x20 MHz LTE, said Ray.

He noted current LTE deployments in the United States offer average downlink speeds around 10 Mbps, give or take, and said T-Mobile expects its initial 10x10 MHz LTE deployments will outpace that rate "because we have great network density."

Some 90 percent of what T-Mobile considers "primary markets" will have enough spectrum for 20x20 MHz LTE once the merger is complete, said Ray. And even in the markets where it is not gaining MetroPCS spectrum, T-Mobile has a path in mind for achieving 20x20 MHz LTE.

T-Mobile has been heavily involved in spectrum swapping and acquisitions this year, most recently agreeing to a swap with AT&T (NYSE:T) involving 1900 MHz PCS licenses and one 1700 MHz AWS license. That proposed transaction, announced just this week, would result in the assignment and/or exchange of PCS and AWS-1 spectrum in 55 Cellular Market Areas in 17 states, with AT&T getting 5 to 20 megahertz of PCS spectrum in 54 CMAs and T-Mobile getting 10 to 20 megahertz of PCS spectrum in 43 CMAs.

"Our preliminary review further indicates that in 35 CMAs, AT&T and T-Mobile would exchange equal amounts of PCS spectrum; in 12 CMAs, AT&T would gain 10 megahertz of PCS spectrum; and in 8 CMAs, T-Mobile would gain 5 to 10 megahertz of PCS spectrum as a result of the proposed transaction," said the FCC. T-Mobile would also acquire 10 MHz of AWS-1 spectrum in Spokane, Wash., via the swap.

For more:
- see this FCC public notice

Special Report: T-Mobile USA and MetroPCS merge: Complete coverage

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