T-Mobile should be first to market with ‘real 5G’: analyst

T-Mobile low-band spectrum holdings 600 MHz and 700 MHz (T-Mobile)
T-Mobile's low-band spectrum holdings will enable it to be the first U.S. carrier to deliver "real 5G," according to BTIG Research. (T-Mobile)

Although T-Mobile is behind in the early rounds, it should win the race to “real 5G,” according to a new report from BTIG Research. “We believe T-Mobile is best positioned to deliver real 5G,” wrote Walter Piecyk, an analyst at the firm.

“T-Mobile’s deep and unused low-band spectrum should enable it to launch real 5G before all of its peers,” he wrote, adding that investors should consider T-Mobile a primary 5G investment opportunity regardless of the outcome of its proposed merger with Sprint. Piecyk lauded T-Mobile for acquiring licenses to 30 MHz of low-band spectrum in the 600 MHz spectrum band for $8 billion in 2017. The spectrum was repurposed from TV broadcasters to lay the groundwork for 5G.

Other major U.S. operators will be relying on less capable spectrum and those alternatives can’t “match the speed at which T-Mobile could deliver 5G to the market on its existing low-band spectrum,” Piecyk wrote. “T-Mobile should be the first to market with real 5G and, if the Sprint deal is approved, will have the mid-band spectrum to further solidify their lead.”

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While T-Mobile’s low-band spectrum holding should provide the nation’s third-largest carrier with a head start on initial 5G rollouts, it will still need more mid-band spectrum to offer more robust services over time, according to Piecyk. “We believe T-Mobile would require more mid-band spectrum if the Sprint acquisition is not approved and possibly even with Sprint.”

If the $26 billion proposed merger with Sprint is not approved, T-Mobile would likely have to spend upwards of $20 billion on spectrum within the next two years, according to Piecyk. The merger review is currently on hold at the FCC due to the ongoing partial federal government shutdown. It won’t resume until Congress and President Donald Trump come to an agreement on a spending bill.

Meanwhile, other operators are already trumpeting their "first-to-market" 5G services. Verizon launched a 5G Home service in October 2018 in parts of Houston, Indianapolis, Los Angeles and Sacramento. In December, the company committed to doubling 5G Home speeds within six months. AT&T launched mobile 5G+ in a dozen cities in late December. 

Last week at CES, responding to a round of critics who were calling out AT&T for labeling its LTE Advanced service a “5G E” offering, AT&T Communications CEO John Donovan said was pleased to occupy beachfront property in his competitors’ minds after AT&T “frustrated” them by being the first to launch a commercial standards-based mobile 5G service.