T-Mobile catches up with Sprint: Both carriers now cover 280 million POPs with LTE

T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) now covers 280 million POPs with LTE, according to CTO Neville Ray. The carrier had pledged to reach that coverage goal by the middle of this year, and thus appears to have reached that goal earlier than expected. 

According to T-Mobile executives, the company's LTE coverage expansion will eventually increase the number of markets where the carrier can operate a retail business--thus putting T-Mobile on firmer competitive footing with the likes of Verizon Wireless (NYSE: VZ) and AT&T Mobility (NYSE: T).

Ray, speaking during an appearance at the MoffettNathanson Media & Communications Summit, noted that the company's goal is still to cover 300 million POPs with LTE by year-end, which he said will let T-Mobile "take competition into more and more key areas of the U.S."

Ray said he is not sure how much T-Mobile will expand its retail presence into new markets this year, but that it will likely expand next year. T-Mobile has been "furiously" deploying its 700 MHz A Block spectrum, which covers 190 million POPs, Ray said. He noted that T-Mobile has cleared or has contracts to clear Channel 51 broadcasters to resolve interference concerns from more than 140 million POPs out of the 190 million, and has launched the spectrum in markets like Dallas; Detroit; Houston; Philadelphia; Tampa, Fla; and San Antonio, Texas, so far in 2015. Ray said the overall LTE expansion is a "massive incremental opportunity for this company."

T-Mobile CFO Braxton Carter said during the conference that T-Mobile's "selling footprint" of retail stores is only around 230 to 240 million POPs today, but that T-Mobile "will be relevant in a significant increase in population coverage in the U.S." thanks to the LTE coverage expansion. "It's just one adjacency of growth that we're very excited about in the future," he said.

Verizon and AT&T claim they now cover 308 million POPs with LTE. Sprint's (NYSE: S) LTE network now covers 280 million POPs.

Both T-Mobile executives also discussed T-Mobile's MetroPCS brand. Carter noted that the company now counts more than 11 million MetroPCS subscribers, and is planning a significant expansion of its MetroPCS markets and retail stores in the second half of 2015.

T-Mobile plans to shut down the legacy MetroPCS CDMA network on June 21, and Carter said that there are now fewer than 300,000 subscribers still on the CDMA network. The company still needs to shut down the legacy network in three major markets: Dallas, Miami and New York City.

Around 80 percent MetroPCS' spectrum had been refarmed and integrated into the T-Mobile network as of the end of the first quarter. Ray said that T-Mobile can integrate MetroPCS spectrum into its network very quickly and has already done some of that work in Dallas and New York.

Currently, T-Mobile has at least 15x15 MHz LTE deployments in 150 markets, which T-Mobile plans to expand to 200 by year-end. T-Mobile has also been repurposing decommissioned network gear as it shut down the legacy CDMA network, Ray said. "There's been a host of goodness that has come out of that combination," he added.

Following the collapse of Sprint's attempt to merge with T-Mobile, speculation has now turned to a potential combination of Dish and T-Mobile. In his comments, Ray noted that Dish Network (NASDAQ: DISH) has a strong mid-band spectrum portfolio that has better propagation characteristics than Sprint's 2.5 GHz spectrum. However, he noted that T-Moville already has a very strong mid-band spectrum portfolio and has 12,000 Distributed Antenna System nodes, so it is not in desperate need of capacity.

Carter said that T-Mobile would seriously evaluate any deal that could benefit T-Mobile shareholders. "We have a fiduciary responsibility to evaluate any strategic opportunity, and if it increases shareholder value in excess of what we see on a standalone basis, it would be something we would very much be inclined to do," he said.

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