Neville Ray, T-Mobile US president of technology, looks back and looks ahead
AUSTIN–T-Mobile US is inarguably in a strong position based on a rich spectrum portfolio, an astonishingly fast field deployment operation, and disciplined, clear-eyed network leadership from President of Technology Neville Ray. After a brief back-and-forth over how the hell you’re supposed to say VoNR out loud, Ray reflected on the work T-Mobile US has done in its 5G journey and teased news coming out “very soon” that sits in the “advanced network services” organization led by EVP of Advanced and Emerging Technologies John Saw.
Looking back, “I don’t see anything where I’d say I wish we had done something different,” Ray said while acknowledging the protracted regulatory process that put the Sprint merger in limbo for two years. “I wish that had moved faster…We’d be even further along on this 5G story. We were hesitant on what was happening in the mmWave space and we never really tried to fight the hype that came from Verizon and AT&T because we didn’t believe it.”
“This year is a big year for us,” he continued. “This is the year we complete the integration and the combination of the two networks. We’re early. That’s going to be a big milestone. Outside of that, I think the piece now is how do we keep and maintain all of our momentum on the various 5G bands. We’re in a great place. We have a great balance sheet as a company. It’s just all about making sure we keep and maintain the momentum we’ve established.”
Among its comp set, T-Mobile US is the only operator with a Standalone 5G network which the company deployed in August 2020 using its 600 MHz spectrum. In addition to ultimately supporting 5G voice calls, VoNR, without a Non-Standalone 5G or LTE anchor, Ray sees its investment in low-band as the “foundation” of the company’s network.
“I think the piece that’s really helpful for us on the 600 story is I never really understood the thesis, Sean, where you didn’t need 5G in the low band. If you think about our competition, they started in a very different place with mmWave. Almost a complete 180, maybe a 540, I don’t know. But if you think about many of the use cases, be it vehicular or agricultural, where you’re going to need maybe low latency but low data services on a broad, broad coverage basis, you could never do that with mmWave. You’re going to have to do that with low-band 5G. We always thought that was going to be your foundation. Our coverage is really strong in that layer. It’s a material lead.”
But what about mmWave? I shared with Ray my experience exploring Verizon’s network in downtown Austin on my way to the convention center hosting the Big 5G Event. At one point I clocked a 3.514 Gbps download speed and 172 Mbps upload speed. Those numbers are impressive and hard to argue with despite the primary present use case, for me at least, being running speed tests and posting about it on Twitter.
“I’ve always looked at mmWave as a great set of capabilities, of capacity and performance, where you have these excesses in peak and demand” like venues and buildings. But, “You’re not going to see a large-scale, on-street deployment of mmWave in the medium term anyway from T-Mobile because, quite frankly, Sean, we don’t need it.” T-Mo has an average of 100 megahertz of 2.5 GHz across the country and Ray said that number will continue to grow moving into 2023. “That can deliver the multi-100 Mbps service…[that] would support wearables quite comfortably,” he said, referencing lightweight AR/VR devices that are poised for rapid development and commercialization in the next year, maybe two.
But mmWave, he said, makes sense in big venues with lots of users. “That’s the mmWave spot. And I think we’ve been pretty consistent on that story and our messaging and our plans on mmWave. And we have good mmWave assets. It’s not as if we don’t have the spectrum.” But the focus, Ray said, has been on the low- and mid-band layers.
Beyond mobility, T-Mobile US is working to grow its market share in the home broadband space. A good deal of focus is on underserved markets where there may be only one ISP option or maybe no option. “We make it easy for you to switch,” Ray said. “You can trial the device and the product. We can get you on a contract that’s locked-in pricing. We can subsidize the switching cost for you up to $500. We are trying to bring the suite of un-carrier moves that we’ve used in wireless and bring those to bear in that space.”
If you consider the sweep of 5G marketing that has gotten the most air-time in the industry in the past few years, it’s stuff like automated guided vehicles, precision robotics, VR-based remote assistance and the like. That’s all cool, it all has clear benefits for carpeted enterprises and heavy industries, and it’s all being sorted out by a big ecosystem of players. But in terms of driving new service revenue growth at scale, that version of the 5G story isn’t quite ready to go today. But fixed wireless home broadband is. “And it may not feel like it’s a big, sexy thing,” Ray said. “But the good news is that there are great stories where customers are signing up for that service and for a lot of these communities, these smaller towns, they really had no broadband choice.”
And there’s something to that. Accessible, affordable, quality home broadband is important to real people trying to work and learn and play. Same thing with VoNR and its predecessor VoLTE. A reliable, high-fidelity voice call is an important thing to real people. I grew up in South Mississippi where hurricanes are a big, recurring issue. I don’t live there anymore but my parents do. When a storm comes through and the network goes down then gets triaged, first you try to call and nothing happens. Then you maybe get a quick, scratchy exchange the point of which is to find out, “Are you safe?” Then the network gets put back together and that first high-def voice call where you can catch up, get the details and commiserate brings with it a sigh of relief I’ve regrettably breathed more than once. Is quality cellular connectivity as showy as autonomous robots? No. But, again, it’s really important to lots of real people. “These are all opportunities for us to grow our business and meet customer needs in the 5G environment,” Ray said. “And we’re moving.”
What’s next? Ray called out “clouds on the horizon” related to current inflationary trends and seemingly never-ending supply chain pressures. “But we’re navigating and managing all of those right now. I think it’s an important year for us to finish what we started two years ago. From there, it’s all about pushing the envelope on the 5G feature set. That sounds like an easy thing to do but it’s a lot of work. We’re pushing really, really hard.”
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