T-Mobile to focus on LAA rollout in Q1 of 2018

T-Mobile 5G
LAA is going to help operators achieve Gigabit LTE on the way to 5G.

SAN JOSE, California—T-Mobile will focus on its LAA deployment in the first quarter of 2018, continuing to upgrade the small cells it’s already rolled out and installing a new modular solution that offers a single touch point.

“We’re doing software upgrades to cell sites and we’re doing software upgrades to phones,” said Mark McDiarmid, VP of network engineering at T-Mobile, on the sidelines of a Thursday Gigabit LTE demo here with Qualcomm. “That’s all running quietly in the background. The key thing for us was making sure we had a way of deploying LAA in small cells concurrent with the licensed spectrum.”

T-Mobile is using AWS and PCS spectrum for the LAA rollout, and that’s paired with unlicensed spectrum in the 5 GHz band, which is highly underutilized despite what some folks have said, according to McDiarmid.

T-Mobile unveiled plans Thursday to launch LAA on small cells this year to further densify the network for even more capacity and speed. Those efforts will intensify next year. 

Does that mean it’s ditching LTE-U? “We’re actually going to pause and flip,” McDiarmid said, to make sure it’s aligned on a standards basis with 3GPP and set up for many things that will happen next year and the year after with LAA, which is a big part of the Gigabit story.

Earlier this year, the “uncarrier” pursued the idea of building a novel modular cell solution that allows it to use the two licensed AWS and PCS bands, pairing 40 megahertz of licensed spectrum with 60 megahertz of unlicensed spectrum, creating 100 megahertz for a little box that’s fiber-fed.

T-Mobile says the LAA solution is well geared for high-traffic, highly congested areas in urban areas, like malls, stadiums and venues of that nature where a lot of people gather.

With the modular small cells, the idea was to meet the aesthetic needs of the jurisdiction and their own needs with a modular solution that doesn’t require going back to get new infrastructure approved. “It’s a little bit of a breakthrough in thinking,” he said, and it means there’s only one touch point.

T-Mobile started late last year with LTE-U, which was a more controversial technology than LAA in part because it wasn’t developed through the usual standards process, but both LTE-U and LAA tap into unlicensed spectrum. Earlier this year, the FCC approved the first LTE-U devices.

The fact that LTE-U didn’t go through the lengthy standards process was one reason it was expected to provide a time-to-market advantage to operators over LAA, but that didn’t really transpire to a significant degree. Several million handsets already have LTE-U in them, and they can be upgraded to LAA through software updates.  

RELATED: Editor’s Corner—With LAA’s uptick, was LTE-U worth the hassle?

Qualcomm’s senior director of marketing, Peter Carson, said his company will continue to support LTE-U, as it does many other technologies that are older but still get used. As long as a technology is deployed somewhere in the world and not the subject of a sunset, it gets supported. “It’s not an either/or choice,” he told FierceWirelessTech. “It’s a continuum.”

A lot of operators around the world don’t have enough licensed spectrum to get to Gigabit LTE, he said during a Q&A as part of the Gigabit LTE event. But with the LAA configuration and the Snapdragon X20, literally 90% of all operators could get to Gigabit LTE. That is very different than the picture without LAA, where only about 16% of all operators on licensed spectrum could get to Gigabit. “This is the great equalizer,” he said.