T-Mobile and Sprint executives have made bold claims that if they’re allowed to merge, the “New T-Mobile” will make improvements to the combined company’s LTE network that would bring much faster broadband options to rural communities.
“Together with Sprint, T-Mobile can create a deep, broad and nationwide 5G network that will cover nearly 96% of rural Americans by 2024,” according to T-Mobile, in a filing with the Securities & Exchange Commission in February.
But Shirley Bloomfield, CEO of NTCA, the rural broadband association, thinks this claim is a bit implausible. “This is certainly a lofty and commendable goal,” wrote Bloomfield in a blog posting. “In practice, however, this would require huge amounts of fiber backhaul that neither company currently possesses, as small cells must be placed very close to the customer (often within 300 to 500 feet) to reach the higher speeds contemplated by 5G—making the technology particularly impractical (and very expensive) for most rural applications anytime soon.”
Speaking with FierceWireless, Bloomfield reiterated the basic telecom wisdom “wireless needs wires.” She added, “You can’t do high-capacity without a fiber backbone. All the pieces have to work together. It’s easy to default to that pixie-dust theory that traffic will jump from cell tower to cell tower.”
Bloomfield is also skeptical of T-Mobile’s and Sprint’s interest in rural markets. Sprint has some presence in the Midwest, but T-Mobile USA has a reputation as more of an urban provider. She said neither company has much infrastructure in the areas where NTCA members operate. The NTCA represents about 850 rural telecommunications companies throughout the country. “In the areas where my guys are, you don’t have a lot of T-Mobile infrastructure,” she said. “Most of our members, when they do backhaul, it’s primarily AT&T and Verizon.”
One way to bring broadband to unserved rural areas and to bring faster broadband to other rural areas is to deploy fixed wireless access (FWA) technology.
Bloomfield said NTCA member companies are doing FWA using unlicensed spectrum, but it’s hard for them to afford to buy spectrum in the auctions. “Access to spectrum is hard to get unless you’re the really big providers,” she said. “Our guys can’t afford to bid for those.”
The NTCA, in October 2018, filed comments with the FCC, opposing the T-Mobile merger with Sprint. And it argues that T-Mobile has held valuable spectrum for many years and has had ample time to build out rural areas or make efforts to sell, lease or enter into joint venture arrangements with rural carriers to make use of its 600 MHz, 700 MHz, PCS or AWS spectrum, spectrum that is well suited for rural applications. It also claims that T-Mobile’s coverage is focused on cities, towns and the highways that connect them, and it has not to date demonstrated a rural commitment.
T-Mobile just recently announced an FWA pilot to connect around 50,000 homes of its subscribers to an FWA service on T-Mobile’s LTE network. The company said it’s targeting rural and underserved areas of the country and expects to be able to deliver 50 Mbps to residents. The service will cost $50 per month to subscribers who sign up for autopay, and will be free of data caps, annual service contracts, or equipment costs. T-Mobile had previously touted the Home Internet FWA service as a counter to the “cableopoly” and an option for rural areas.
But Bloomfield takes all of these claims with a grain of salt. She said when executives are trying to convince regulators to approve a merger, they need to check all the boxes. And, one of those boxes is probably: Will the New T-Mobile serve rural areas? “Not to be cynical, but if you haven’t paid attention to rural in the past, I find it illogical that you’re going to do that,” she said.