Small cells

T-Mobile: Small Cells? We're Dense Already

Ever wonder why AT&T and Verizon are talking about small cells now, yet T-Mobile remains mostly quiet about its use of the tiny basestations that add network density and capacity to 4G LTE?

It all comes down to how the T-Mobile US Inc. network was originally deployed, according to recent comments from CFO Braxton Carter. T-Mobile started with mid-band spectrum -- namely the 2100/1700MHz AWS band -- rather than the 700MHz bands that AT&T Inc. (NYSE: T) and Verizon Wireless started with.

Carter says that T-Mobile's network was "much more dense" from the buildout. "One macro [cell-site] of low band is equivalent to three mid-band sites, that's the rule of thumb," Carter said at a recent Oppenheimer & Co. Inc. conference. (See T-Mobile CFO Eyes Dish, Growth Opportunities.)

"Our ratio of megahertz [MHz] PoPs [points of presence] to subscribers is 1.7 to 1 and you look at AT&T and Verizon they have a ratio of 1 to 1, so, what that means is we have a lot more un-utilized spectrum that we can put to play," Carter said. "The reason AT&T and Verizon are having to densify to the extent that they are is that they don’t have the spectrum and the way they add capacity is by adding density."

Of course, T-Mobile, with just over 50 million subscribers, also has less than half the number of subscribers of AT&T and Verizon respectively.

Keep up with all the small cell news on our dedicated channel here on Light Reading.

Nonetheless, it is instructive to compare recent comments from the T-Mobile CFO and Verizon CFO. "The reason our capex will not decline is because in wireless you have to build out these small cells, these antenna systems and in-building coverage if you want to stay ahead of the capacity," Verizon CFO Fran Shammo said in August. [Ed note: Jeez, is it a competition to find the CFO with the most off-beat name for wireless carriers?] (See Verizon Beefing Up Network for VoLTE, Multicast Video.)

While T-Mobile's Carter said that the operator already has some distributed antennas and small cells in place and the prospects for small cells are "interesting," but it is clear that the operator is more focused on improving coverage with its freshly acquired 700MHz low-band spectrum. (See T-Mobile: Going Bananas for Low-Band .)

The carrier has started to add 700MHz sites to its network and will "seed the market" with compatible handsets in the fourth quarter. Adding low-band will allow T-Mobile to improve coverage in many suburban and rural areas in the US.

— Dan Jones, Mobile Editor, Light Reading

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DanJones 8/25/2014 | 10:53:55 AM
Re: Marketing Possible, I'm sure users don't care to know if they have a small cell or DAS nearby.
kq4ym 8/25/2014 | 9:49:18 AM
Re: Marketing That probably is a good reason, no comment doesn't bring attention to T-Mobile. I'm wondering though, if all the carriers could go back in time would they have made the same decisions on which soectrum to choose to rely on. That might be an interesting "if we could do it again" question.
Phil_Britt 8/25/2014 | 8:49:04 AM
Marketing I think the real reason T-Mobile has remained silent about small cells is that the others have made such a big deal about it that anything T-Mobile would say would just be "me, too" marketing, So T-Mobile is relying on other messaging.
MordyK 8/23/2014 | 12:19:24 AM
Re: Manifest density The problem with introducing a new unsupported band is that even when you perform an upgrade, the user does  not experience any service improvement unlike the addition of a new cell site or a small cell. Perhaps TMOB should create a serious device exchange program for customers looking for new service, or a loaner to check out what your coverage will be like with the new band included.

Wi-Fi is a can of womrs due to the lack of any QoS capabilities, although I certainly understand why TMOB pushed it when it had no better answers. 

Another point on Wi-Fi. If I wanted to rely on Wi-Fi for calls I'd go with Republic and save a bundle.
milan03 8/22/2014 | 11:52:45 PM
Re: Manifest density Lack of low band spectrum is certianly a valid point, but with WiFi Calling integration in the next major iOS release they may actually be able to compete. Also 700MHz A block will come in handy for VoLTE traffic hopefully soon. 

At this point, it's up to them to aggressively seed the market with VoLTE/700a capable UE.
MordyK 8/22/2014 | 11:45:58 PM
Re: Manifest density I'm referring to the lack of investment overall, although the urban side has been getting real investment over the last few years with visible results. But the lack of low-band spectrum has always left them with poor indoor coverage, and as was highlighted over 80% of traffic is indoors.
milan03 8/22/2014 | 11:28:10 PM
Re: Manifest density @MordyK:

I'm assuming that the coverage you're talking about has to do with T-Mobile's lack of investment in the rural environment. That's absolutely true, and they're finally in the process of upgrading EDGE areas to LTE. Their goal is H2 2015, which is very optimistic but possible.

But since they've been investing mostly into urban areas up until recently, their network's cell density in top matkets is second to none as their cell sites have been spaced for PCS (and later AWS) spectrum since the early days. They were simply forced to deploy dense grid and now it's paying off as they're the only Tier 1 operator in position to deploy solid VoLTE (eSRVCC) experience across the entire LTE footprint. That paired with many years of experience providing WiFi Calling could be very valuable for overall consumer experience, but also for T-Mobile's netowrk efficiency.

So in NYC for instance they have 3-to-1 ratio in terms of the amount of macros when compared to Verizon/AT&T, and when you consider significantly lower subscriber base, that's an extremely compelling user experience! 
brooks7 8/22/2014 | 6:36:24 PM
Re: Manifest density Dan, I thought that the reuse of their UMA infrastructure was part of it as well. seven
DanJones 8/22/2014 | 5:10:06 PM
Re: Manifest density Which is why they've been so big on WiFi Calling of course, so you get WiFi cover indoors.
brooks7 8/22/2014 | 5:05:10 PM
Re: Manifest density I have T-Mobile and just use WiFi when I am indoors.  I have a Samsung Galaxy 3 and thus have WiFi calling.  So, I think indoors is not much of an issue nowadays.


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