For years, T-Mobile suffered from poor coverage in the U.S. Now in the 5G world, it’s shouting from the rooftops about its coverage – again and again.
At recent investor events, President of Technology Neville Ray took the opportunity to slam the competition, mostly Verizon, for their 5G coverage and talk up T-Mobile’s superiority in that department. After years of leveling the playing field on LTE coverage, T-Mobile is positioned to jump ahead of both AT&T and Verizon in 5G.
Today, he stepped it up a notch with a blog noting AT&T’s use of the “5G E” symbol, but focusing on Verizon’s use of dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS). According to Ray, DSS is useful in limited scenarios but not for providing an entire nationwide footprint. In fact, T-Mobile’s analysis of recent Ookla data shows Verizon with the slowest median 5G download speeds since October 2020.
“Verizon marketing their 5G as ‘5G Built Right’ is a disservice to customers who expect 5G to deliver meaningful speed and coverage at the same time,” Ray wrote. “And a woeful mismanagement of customer expectations.”
T-Mobile launched nationwide 5G about a year ago using its 600 MHz spectrum. Since the closure of the Sprint merger on April 1, it’s been aggressively adding 2.5 GHz to its repertoire, with an average 2,000 sites a month going into the upgrade process. By the end of the year, it expects to cover 100 million people with the 2.5 GHz deployment.
Verizon took a different tactic to 5G, focusing on millimeter wave (mmWave). It announced its DSS-based, lower band nationwide 5G rollout when Apple invited the carrier to the stage during the unveiling of the iPhone 12. But it’s the Ultra Wideband (UW) 5G service using mmWave spectrum where Verizon’s 5G service really shines, with speeds up to 4 Gbps under ideal conditions. That was also part of the iPhone 12 unveiling – the entire line-up supports mmWave spectrum bands.
The problem is, as Ray points out relentlessly, Verizon’s mmWave service is only available on a very limited basis. Verizon announced two more UW cities on Friday – Akron, Ohio, and Nashville, Tennessee – bringing the UW markets up to 57 with the goal of being in parts of 60 markets before the end of the year. But that coverage is still available just 0.6% of the time, Ray says.
In contrast, T-Mobile has deployed 5G over 1.4 million square miles and it covers 270 million people. “There is only one 5G leader in the U.S. right now,” Ray said during a Morgan Stanley conference on Thursday. Two days prior, at the BCG and New Street Research event, he had a similar message and said Verizon’s 5G covers about 400,000 square miles.
He also pointed to Verizon’s advertising. “We have been edgy on our advertising, but I think Verizon is in a difficult position, and I think it will come back to haunt them as their customers buy into iPhones and other 5G products now, and they see and open that box and get the experience behind it and can’t find Ultra Wideband in most geographies and areas, even where it is advertised,” Ray said.
Verizon has advertised its 5G as a “game changer,” with comedian/actor Chris Rock talking about how the “power of Verizon” meets the first iPhone with 5G. Verizon claims its UW offers the fastest 5G in the world, and it’s “now in more and more cities.”
Verizon is expected to “go big” in the FCC's C-band auction, where it can acquire mid-band spectrum for 5G, but some analysts think T-Mobile will have a one- to two-year head-start before Verizon can make headway with that spectrum.
Meanwhile, Verizon has the largest amount of mmWave spectrum and is using the aforementioned DSS, where low-band spectrum hosts both 4G and 5G services. It’s also using 3.5 GHz Citizens Band Radio Service (CBRS) spectrum, in both licensed and unlicensed forms, where available.
T-Mobile had some fun with Verizon’s latest advertising in what Ray described in his blog as exposing their “tricky marketing for what it really is.” (It’s worth noting that Verizon isn’t the only one that has been accused of tricky advertising as evident in this case involving the prepaid brand Metro by T-Mobile.)
T-Mobile is on the hook to provide 5G to 99% of the U.S. population within six years and offer average 5G speeds of more than 100 Mbps to 90% of the U.S. population. Expectations call for covering 90% of rural Americans with average 5G speeds of 50 Mbps, or up to two times faster than broadband on average.
Those commitments were tied to T-Mobile’s merger with Sprint, and executives are now playing them up for competitive reasons. Asked about the fixed wireless access (FWA)/cable replacement opportunity, Ray said T-Mobile will be able to offer its home internet product in “a lot” of its footprint.
“We’re already out there in many of these rural communities, bringing 5G when they’re in a DSL environment or a 2G or 3G wireless environment, even so the degree of change, it’s really going to start to resonate as we move through ’21,” Ray told Morgan Stanley’s Simon Flannery.
With 600 MHz and the 2.5 high-capacity, high-performing layer – which produces average download speeds of 300 Mbps and peaks up to 1 Gbps – “we’re going to take that to – I’m not going to say every small town in America – but pretty damn close,” Ray said. “That build is enormous. It’s tens and tens of thousands of sites at pace.”
Ray stressed that much of the new 5G deployment is on existing infrastructure, but it's not always smooth sailing. The company filed suit against the City and County of San Francisco because of delays in the processing of applications for infrastructure modifications. Light Reading reported the suit last week, noting that T-Mobile said it "encountered significant delays" in getting approvals for 27 different cell site upgrade applications. Local governments are supposed to act on applications within 60 days.
‘Game changer’ for consumers
During the Morgan Stanley event, Matt Staneff, executive vice president and chief marketing officer of T-Mobile, wouldn’t comment about whether there’s a “super cycle” smartphone event occurring, which some analysts were talking about before the pandemic. “It’s a bit of a mixed bag,” he said.
What’s different this year compared to prior years is that T-Mobile’s network is “best situated and suited right now” to take advantage of the iPhone, Staneff said. That’s happening at a time when consumers really need connectivity.
“That’s just a great story for us in the marketplace. So when you put together the capabilities of the new iPhone and what our network can do and the breadth and capacity that’s rapidly coming online from Neville and our value proposition on pricing where every plan gets access to it, and you don’t have to pay a premium to get access to the network, that’s going to be a game changer for consumers.”