5G and Beyond

How and why T-Mobile sidestepped mmWave 5G

T-Mobile launched the millimeter wave (mmWave) version of 5G roughly three years ago across parts of a half-dozen US cities. But the company has taken a far more pragmatic approach to supporting and promoting the technology when compared with rivals such as Verizon.

And that has allowed T-Mobile to sell cheaper phones than its competitors. Further, according to analysts, it might also allow the operator to avoid some supply problems.

"Millimeter wave has its place," T-Mobile networking chief Neville Ray argued last year. "But given the economics and physics, you don't build a large-scale 5G network with it."

That ambivalent attitude toward mmWave is clear in T-Mobile's current handset lineup: According to analyst Jeff Fieldhack with Counterpoint Technology Market Research, only about half of the phones T-Mobile sells support mmWave 5G. Verizon, meantime, requires virtually all of its 5G phones to support mmWave 5G (although the same does not hold true for its Visible prepaid brand, which sells a few non-mmWave models).

And as a result, some of T-Mobile's phones are significantly cheaper than those from its competitors. As Droid Life pointed out, T-Mobile's Pixel 6 Android smartphone costs just $599, though it does not support mmWave 5G. The version of the Pixel 6 that Verizon sells does support mmWave 5G, but it costs $699. The mmWave version sold by AT&T costs $739.

"We are also getting the feel with semi [conductor] shortages, device shortages, increased prices, there is even less of an appetite or need within T-Mobile for mmWave," Fieldhack told Light Reading. "Verizon, it seems, holds steady that it is simply a requirement."

Perhaps not surprisingly, a large portion of T-Mobile's customer base cannot access mmWave 5G. According to Counterpoint's estimates, Verizon counts around 500,000 5G subscribers who can't access the mmWave flavor of the technology. T-Mobile, meanwhile, counts 3.5 million non-mmWave 5G customers, across a much smaller customer base.

A shift toward midband 5G

Even when T-Mobile launched the mmWave version of 5G on its highband spectrum in 2019, it argued that "real" 5G can only be achieved "by using low, mid and high spectrum bands."

The operator quickly followed up its mmWave 5G launch by introducing the technology on its lowband spectrum at the end of 2019. Then, in 2020, it expanded 5G onto the midband spectrum it acquired from Sprint. Today, T-Mobile covers around 300 million people with its slower, lowband 5G service and around 200 million people with its faster midband 5G service. It does not offer details on its mmWave coverage area.

Through it all, T-Mobile has argued that mmWave 5G is a nice-to-have, not a must-have. "Millimeter wave (mmWave) spectrum has great potential in terms of speed and capacity, but it doesn't travel far from the cell site and doesn't penetrate materials at all," Ray wrote in 2019. "It will never materially scale beyond small pockets of 5G hotspots in dense urban environments."

mmWave 'inevitable'

T-Mobile's mmWave antipathy contrasts strongly with Verizon's attitude toward the highband technology. Verizon's nationwide "5G built right" advertising campaign remains centered on mmWave 5G despite the fact that it covers less than 1% of the population with the technology, according to estimates.

And though Verizon is redirecting its 5G interests toward its new C-band midband spectrum holdings, it continues to boast of support for mmWave 5G. For example, Verizon's outgoing consumer CEO Ronan Dunne described mmWave 5G and midband 5G as "complementary." In September, he explained that "millimeter wave is, by far and away, the most efficient bearer at scale to offer the high, high traffic areas, the sort of high-speed experiences that customers want."

And Verizon isn't alone.

"From our perspective, just knowing what we know of wireless and how the growth of data is going in the spectrum efficiency, millimeter wave is inevitable, it's just a matter of time," Qualcomm CFO Akash Palkhiwala said recently. The company has argued that countries ranging from China to Russia to Japan will soon embrace mmWave 5G the way the US has. "Our position on millimeter wave remains unchanged," he said.

And other companies are rallying around mmWave 5G. For example, Sweden's Sivers Semiconductors recently said it would acquire mmWave specialist MixComm as a way to invest in the technology. And MediaTek – the world's largest mobile chipset vendor by volume – plans to add mmWave capabilities to its high-end 5G silicon starting next year.

Indeed, Bell Labs Consulting recently predicted mobile network operators in Europe can boost their revenue growth by up to 8% via mmWave networks in select locations.

But T-Mobile's Ray earlier this year suggested mmWave would remain squarely in the "fine, I guess" category.

"Lowband, midband [5G] carries the lion's share of the traffic and activity, and then you use millimeter wave in the areas where you see peak traffic and need, where there's massive density of customers coming together," he said in June. "So that strategy is there for us."

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

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