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5G

Here's why T-Mobile is avoiding the open RAN policy debate

The Open RAN Policy Coalition launched earlier this month with a veritable who's who of 5G members, including AT&T and Verizon.

T-Mobile – which is just weeks into its $60 billion, five-year buildout of 5G – was conspicuous in its absence.

The company did not respond to questions from Light Reading about why it is not among the members of the Open RAN Policy Coalition. But analysts widely agreed it's because open RAN technology isn't yet ready for prime time, and because T-Mobile doesn't want any more political drama.

"T-Mobile needs 5G yesterday," explained analyst Earl Lum of EJL Wireless Research. He said that T-Mobile's leading position on 5G spectrum – thanks to its merger with Sprint it now commands roughly double the amount of low- and midband spectrum that Verizon and AT&T do – may not last. Verizon is widely expected to dominate the FCC's C-Band spectrum auction, thus potentially equaling or surpassing T-Mobile's holdings. And Verizon has said it could put that spectrum to use as early as 2021.

That likely explains why T-Mobile is working overtime to put its lowband 600MHz and midband 2.5GHz holdings to use. The operator recently disclosed that it is upgrading its towers at the rate of roughly 1,000 per month.

And according to several analysts, open RAN is simply not yet ready to support that kind of buildout. As Heavy Reading analyst Gabriel Brown recently noted, integrated 5G vendors like Nokia and Ericsson are already on their second-generation 5G products, replete with bells and whistles like carrier aggregation and dynamic spectrum sharing. Open RAN, meanwhile, is getting its first real-world commercial deployment with Rakuten in Japan via 4G.

"This is the moment for them [T-Mobile] to seize," Brown explained, arguing that T-Mobile can't afford to wait for open RAN to be ready for three more months, much less three years.

House of cards
But speed-to-market isn't the only reason T-Mobile is avoiding the Open RAN Policy Coalition. There are also the political ramifications to consider.

The Open RAN Policy Coalition was founded in part to educate government officials about the technology – which seems backward considering there's already several legislative proposals in Congress and the Trump administration to throw billions of dollars at open RAN to create a US block against China's Huawei.

This has caused some consternation among analysts. "It is not clear what the implications of the ORAN policy alliance on Huawei would be," wrote the Wall Street analysts at New Street Research in a recent note to investors. "ORAN does not prevent Huawei from lowering prices further to win deals against ORAN 5G vendors. Further, China can set up their own competing open RAN initiative supported by low-cost China-based vendors. So while we believe the ORAN technology may have a major global impact in years to come on the economics and structure of wireless markets, it does not by itself cause a retreat by Huawei in terms of their global deployment footprint."

Whatever the goal of open RAN enthusiasts in the US, there's little incentive for T-Mobile to become entangled in the issue. After all, it likely spent all of its political capital securing support for its merger with Sprint. That effort featured an all-out lobbying push stretching from extensive stays in Trump hotels to a bevy of high-profile supporters to millions of dollars in lawyer fees to cover dealings with officials ranging from state attorneys general to federal antitrust officials.

Although T-Mobile did manage to squeak out a win from its two-year, full-court political press, the effort likely didn't leave much in the tank for an open RAN push that could conflict with its near-term 5G buildout plans.

That said, there's no doubt T-Mobile's network engineers are taking a close look at the technology. After all, T-Mobile's Karri Kuoppamaki admitted as much to Light Reading in March, before the close of T-Mobile's merger with Sprint.

And, as analyst Chris Nicoll with ACG Research pointed out, T-Mobile's absence from the Open RAN Policy Coalition doesn't hurt or help the association, and T-Mobile can join the effort later when its board is formed and its monetary goals are clearer.

Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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