T-Mobile US is upgrading 1,000 existing sites per month and expanding its nationwide macro base station footprint by 30% during the “coming years,” according to Neville Ray, the operator’s president of technology.
“We’ve got about 65,000 macros today, as the old T-Mobile, and obviously a much bigger macro portfolio now as a combined business. We’re going to roll 2.5 [GHz] out to a big percentage of those, but we need those first 25,000 to 30,000 done fast, inside the next 18 months to two years,” he said at a digital investor conference.
That initial push to add that highly-coveted 2.5 GHz spectrum recently acquired as part of its merger with Sprint will cover the majority of the U.S. population and the country’s major metropolitan areas, Ray explained.
“We’re building 2.5 [GHz] at a good pace, that volume will be about 1,000 sites a month,” he said. “I’m adding radios antennas to existing facilities, and that rate will be 1,000 a month as we exit Q2. I’m hopeful I can turn it up from there.”
T-Mobile US is adding radios to existing sites in a span of five to 10 days, but the permitting, approval, and leasing process that has to occur before then usually takes months, Ray said. Those 2.5 GHz radios are going live alongside the nationwide 600 MHz 5G network that T-Mobile activated in December.
“There’s going to be a lot of activity at a furious pace as we move through the balance of the year. Thousands of sites will get upgraded in 2020,” he said. “Even during the COVID pandemic period here we’ve been able to continue to process our permits and get to work.”
Meanwhile, T-Mobile is in active discussions with tower companies to add an additional 15,000 sites to reach that goal of 85,000. The vendors and supply chain feeding into T-Mobile’s efforts also remain solid, according to Ray.
“We are out there, have been, all the way through the pandemic, building, adding that capacity and adding sites, and working with the jurisdictions so we have all the necessary approvals,” he said. “We are ramping in this environment, not actually slowing down in any manner or form.”
While those projects are underway, T-Mobile is also migrating all of its recently acquired Sprint customers over to its network. About 80% of current Sprint customers are already on compatible devices, according to the operator, and as the entirety of those customers are migrated T-Mobile will decommission redundant or otherwise unnecessary sites.
T-Mobile’s Spectrum Position
During the long fight to win approval for its merger, T-Mobile executives routinely trumpeted the spectrum position it would enjoy as a result of the deal and now it’s effectively making good on those claims.
“We have three times the sub-6 GHz spectrum that Verizon has post this transaction. Two times what AT&T has. That’s an incredible set of assets for us to go and drive the next level of competition,” Ray said. He added that the mid-band 5G footprint deployed in Philadelphia in one month is already two-and-a-half times greater than what Verizon deployed on millimeter-wave (mmWave) spectrum across the country during the last 18 months.
“It’s fascinating to watch this unfold because our competitors obviously spent a lot of time trying to convince everybody that 5G was synonymous with millimeter wave, and we’ve always been fans of millimeter wave as an augment,” CEO Mike Sievert said during the investor conference.
T-Mobile’s 5G network is “the highest capacity wireless network that’s ever been built” and “we have a fully funded business plan where we intend to plow $40 billion into capital over the next three years, $60 billion over five years, so we’re all over it,” Sievert said.
That spectrum position also factors into the operator’s plan to offer fixed broadband in about half of the country’s ZIP codes. “Essentially we’ll be selling our excess supply where we believe we will have more than any foreseeable growth forecast on mobile,” Sievert explained. “We could turn around and offer that in a capital-free business model already fully funded by the mobile business, and therefore something we can offer at a lower price.”
Pulling on that thread, Ray described T-Mobile’s 5G network as a factor. “5G is absolutely about generating great new consumer experiences, but we’re going to have an incredible factory that can spin off tons and tons of capacity and create the best output from that set of spectrum assets,” he said.
“The opportunity for us to go and displace and be disruptive in that cable space and everywhere else, it’s incredibly real for us.”