T-Mobile's Ray on the upside of LTE Advanced and whether they will call LTE '5G'

Neville Ray, CTO of T-Mobile USA

Neville Ray

with Neville Ray, CTO of T-Mobile USA

In late February T-Mobile USA announced plans to launch LTE service in its AWS spectrum next year as it seeks to regain its competitive edge in the wake of AT&T's (NYSE:T) failed $39 billion acquisition of the carrier. FierceWireless Editor in Chief Sue Marek talked with T-Mobile USA CTO Neville Ray at Mobile World Congress in Barcelona, Spain, about the company's plans for LTE and LTE Advanced and how T-Mobile plans to stand apart from its competitors, many of which will have already deployed LTE by the time T-Mobile launches its service.

FierceWireless: When we talked at the Consumer Electronics Show, you talked about HSPA+84. Now that you have announced your plans to deploy LTE in AWS spectrum, are you skipping HSPA+84?

Ray: There was a lot of discussion about HSPA+84. At CES we were evaluating options at HSPA+84. We have never said when or how we would launch it. Our network modernization project now has us focusing on modernizing and we will roll out LTE at a fast pace.  

Regarding the HSPA+84 piece for us, we are taking our foot off the gas a little. We think the evolution of HSPA+ makes a ton of sense going forward. There is continued development on HSPA+. HSPA+42 is now pretty ubiquitous. There are a large number of operators now running HSPA+32.  

FierceWireless: With HSPA+84 you were concerned about getting devices. Is that still an issue?

Ray: The chipset guys, like everyone else, all have limited resources. So the chipset makers have been focusing on LTE. And I think that has led to HSPA+84 being less of a priority. We won't necessarily skip it. I'd like to see a world of emerging HSPA.... I'd like to see both HSPA and LTE co-exist.

FierceWireless: So HSPA+84 may be available in 2013 but that doesn't necessarily mean you will deploy it? But could you see a scenario where you deploy LTE in the AWS spectrum and HSPA+84 in the other spectrum and have LTE backwards compatible to HSPA+84?

Ray: Right. I definitely see HSPA+84 in the ecosystem. Why wouldn't I do that if the chipsets are there? Yes that would provide a better customer experience. Obviously this is dependent upon what happens with chipsets and devices. 

FierceWireless: I know you aren't a marketing executive, but when you deploy LTE, what are you going to call it? 5G?

Ray: [laughs].

FierceWirelessYou really pushed the envelope by calling HSPA "4G" before the ITU designated it as a 4G technology.

Ray: I come back to the fact that we were out there with a technology that was faster, superior and broader than a 4G technology that was being marketing 4G right and left. We still absolutely believe we had every right to call HSPA+ a 4G technology. The ITU agreed with us. AT&T lined up with us. Everybody finally decided to do it too.

LTE is a 4G technology. It will increase performance over 3G if deployed well. Some folks will say all LTE is 4G. But based upon some of the LTE I've seen, I'd disagree with that. You need great radio, you need backhaul and you need spectrum. Our position has always been that without all that what you really have is a 3G experience.

When you have an offering that is 3x, 4x or 5x faster, customers notice that. The experience on the device is very different.

FierceWireless: You said you plan to refarm your 1900 MHz spectrum, which is where your 2G subscribers are today. What are you going to do with all those subscribers? You have a lot of M2M customers on that 2G technology.

Ray: Well the good news is on the M2M piece is that the bandwidth they use is pretty small. We have never talked about retiring GSM.

FierceWireless: So you can refarm just a portion of the 1900 MHz spectrum?

Ray: Yes, we want to take a portion of that. In some markets we have 30 MHz of spectrum, in some markets we have 40 MHz of PCS spectrum. Our intent over time is to trim that down to a 10 MHz layer that could support basic GSM services and we also have to support our international roaming customers. Today only half of our traffic is on PCS. Most of our customers live on our AWS spectrum.

Our ambition and our intent is not to degrade the GSM experience at any level.

FierceWireless: Do you think you can entice people to migrate to LTE? Verizon recently said that only 5 percent of their base is on LTE. They launched their LTE service nearly 16 to 18 months ago.

Ray: I think Verizon's base is a CDMA base and they don't consume a lot of data. Half of our base is on HSPA and using smartphones. I think we will have strong migration to LTE. Plus the cost of HSPA handsets has changed dramatically. For us to migrate customers from GSM to HSPA is much easier today. It's going to be much easier for us because the prices of devices are coming down.

FierceWireless: You are going to deploy LTE Release 10, which is LTE Advanced. Do you plan to differentiate with LTE Advanced? 

Ray: No one has a Release 10 network today. Our intent is to deploy Release 10-capable equipment. The hardware we put in the field will be software capable for Release 10. There will be a lot of flavors of ... LTE-Advanced. Carrier aggregation is in LTE Advanced and that's a big deal. That may or may not make a big different to the customer experience. There are a whole host of advantages to LTE Advanced. Carriers may say they will do LTE Advanced but there's a lot to it--devices, backhaul, etc.   

For us, obviously, we are only now moving to finalizing our LTE equipment and we are pushing hard to get it Release 10-capable. When we talk to the chipset guys, they say there will be availability in the latter half of 2013, but it will be in higher-end devices. I think you will see more in 2014. 

FierceWireless: Have you picked your vendors for LTE?

Ray: We are close. I've been in big demand lately. I expect it to happen over the next few weeks.

FierceWireless: You are also the president of 4G Americas, and that group recently released a white paper discussing Voice over HSPA. Is that something you are looking at?

Ray: It's something I will push for. It's part of the HSPA roadmap.

FierceWireless: Is Voice over HSPA something T-Mobile might consider offering?

Ray: Possibly. We are still evaluating it. We are trying to move things forward on many fronts. We want to see a strong, vibrant, growing HSPA family of products. 

FierceWireless: Vendors are saying that they don't see demand for this.

Ray: Well it's still early. That's part of what 4G America does--it gets out ahead of things. 

FierceWireless: What about small cells? How do they fit into your deployment plans?

Ray: I think we are almost approaching macrocell saturation. In many markets it is tough to deploy more cell sites. The spectrum is saturated from a macro-level. I think a couple of things are happening. There is layering of networks with base station products. We have always had macrocells and picocells and we have always had some form of layering. So the concept of small cells isn't really new. What I do think is new with LTE is the feature set and capabilities of small cells. They are certainly more advanced. They can do self-organizing to move traffic into different layers.

I think small cells will come in time. But I don't see them having scale in the next 18 months. There are still problems, such as backhaul, for small cells.