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T-Mobile touts rural bona fides

T-Mobile used its keynote appearance at a virtual trade show Wednesday to boast of its efforts to build 5G across the entire US, including in rural areas. The operator's appearance at the show, and executive's comments about rural connectivity, were noteworthy considering the show was hosted by the Competitive Carrier's Association, a trade group that primarily represents smaller wireless network operators in rural areas.

"We welcome the opportunity to work with other [CCA] carrier members in mutually advantageous ways," T-Mobile's network chief Neville Ray said in a keynote at the CCA event. "With 5G, the possibilities are endless."

T-Mobile has committed to deploying 5G service covering 85% of the population in rural areas and 97% of all Americans within three years after closing its merger with Sprint.

The operator is making progress on that goal – T-Mobile is now upgrading its cell sites with midband spectrum at the rate of 1,000 a month, Ray said.

"We're also lighting up midband in smaller cities and towns too," he said. "From Oak Ridge, Tennessee, to Oak Harbor, Washington. Pineville, North Carolina to Holbrook, Massachusetts."

Ray also touted the operator's new LTE fixed wireless offerings, and said the operator would introduce 5G fixed wireless to 50% of US households in the next six years.

Finally, Ray also discussed T-Mobile's efforts to develop a 5G ecosystem of apps and services, pointing to the operator's 5G Innovation Lab and announcing T-Mobile's new 5G investment fund, T-Mobile Ventures.

But Ray's comments on T-Mobile's rural buildout were particularly noteworthy considering the many issues affecting the buildout of 5G technology in rural areas.

Rural ripping and replacing

One major issue is the fact that a large number of smaller wireless network operators, primarily in rural areas, are facing government mandates to remove equipment they purchased from China's Huawei and ZTE over security concerns. While the vendors have argued their gear does not pose a security risk, new rules preventing the purchase of new Huawei and ZTE equipment are delaying some operator's plans to upgrade their networks because they're waiting for US lawmakers to allocate money to replace the equipment.

"The delay in funding from Congress and adoption of final rules by the FCC is causing massive uncertainty among small rural carriers who deployed Huawei or ZTE equipment," stated Carri Bennet with the Rural Wireless Association (RWA) in a recent release from the organization.

Players including the RWA and CCA are hoping that lawmakers allocate the roughly $2 billion the "rip and replace" program will cost to the next COVID-19 stimulus package, which remains hung up in negotiations in Washington.

How the "rip and replace" program might affect T-Mobile, which does not use equipment from ZTE and Huawei, remains unclear. At the very least it will delay rural operators that might be partnering or competing with the operator.

5G Fund areas

Another major issue affecting the deployment of rural 5G is the various government subsidies aimed at helping operators address the high cost of deploying services in rural areas. The FCC's Rural Digital Opportunity Fund and its 5G Fund are both designed to provide government money to operators to build services in rural areas.

T-Mobile's own 5G buildout plans have gotten tied up in the debate over how exactly to allocate the $9 billion 5G Fund. Some providers have urged T-Mobile to disclose its exact 5G buildout plans in rural areas so that the fund won't be impacted by T-Mobile's buildout efforts.

T-Mobile has balked at that notion.

"T-Mobile's future 5G deployment plans in rural areas are not a sound basis for inferring where unsubsidized carriers are likely to deploy," the operator wrote to the FCC in July. "First, T-Mobile's merger commitments are population-based, not geography-based and thus not a match for the geography-based 5G Fund. Second, the build plans underlying T-Mobile's merger commitments are not definitive plans for 5G deployment because T-Mobile retains the flexibility to modify them over time in light of market forces and the situation on the ground in a given area. Third, relying solely on T-Mobile's deployment plans would also be arbitrary and under-inclusive – ignoring the 5G deployment plans of AT&T, Verizon and others."

The FCC is scheduled to vote next week on a proposal that would "allow T-Mobile to make pre-auction, binding commitments to deploy 5G in certain areas, thus removing those areas from the auction inventory of areas eligible for support."

But the RWA isn't happy with that. "Such commitments by T-Mobile are speculative and could prevent rural carriers from being able to cost effectively deploy 5G in such areas if T-Mobile does not follow through on its commitments," the RWA argued in a filing to the FCC this week. "If T-Mobile were to renege on its binding commitment, the area would not be eligible to receive support and rural carriers would therefore be unable to obtain the support necessary to serve such areas."

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

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