Big four carriers touted comparative spectrum positions as key to 5G plans

Deutsche Bank’s annual Media, Telecom and Business Services Conference always provides excellent insight into mobile operator growth strategy, including investment in network infrastructure and growth in service revenues. In the U.S. the competitive carrier landscape is marked by unlimited offerings, a focus on a enterprise growth and the evolution to gigabit LTE and then 5G network. At the event this year, senior executives from all four carriers highlighted spectrum position as key to growth plans.

Ronan Dunne, Verizon Group EVP and President of Verizon Wireless, has a clear message relative to the carrier’s 5G position. “To be really, really clear, I’m not building a PR network. I’m building a network that’s worthy of Verizon.” After testing using millimeter wave spectrum to deliver broadband services, Verizon announced in November it would commercialize the service in three to five markets in the second half of this year. Sacramento, Calif., is the only named market.

“I have no intention of simply turning up,” Dunne said. “This is about creating a new experience for customers ,otherwise why bother? It’s a fascinating place–transformational. We’re transforming the home environment at the moment.” He said trial activity allowed Verizon “to understand the use cases, to understand the realities in deployment, to understand how we best set up the network to deliver the experience.”

As 5G matures in the market, Dunne explained that the beneficial cost dynamics alone make the case for network investment. “On the cost side, my cost to deliver incremental capacity reduces in a 5G world. It’s the most efficient bearer we’ve ever had.”

Sprint CFO Michele Combes reiterated Sprint’s plan to have the “first, national wireless 5G network in 2019. We believe that we have the best assets in order to go there. We have the best in terms of spectrum. We have both mid-band and depth, so which means the ability to really build a nationwide network, a 5G network.”

Combes is referencing Sprint’s massive 2.5 GHz spectrum portfolio, which is key to the company’s ongoing improvements to LTE network and laying the groundwork for 5G.

Sprint CTO John Saw discussed the role of massive MIMO deployments and spectrum position during Mobile World Congress in an interview with RCR Wireless News. He said massive MIMO is “our secret weapon to getting 5G built simultaneously with 4G. You need two enabling things. One is massive MIMO…The second thing is spectrum. What we can do,” Saw said, “is we can use the Ericsson massive MIMO radios, split it physically in two, then allocate some spectrum for LTE and 5G, then simultaneously broadcast in both modes. As we add more to the 2.5 GHz, and we densify with LTE and add 5G at the same time, we call it killing two birds with one stone.”

AT&T SVP and CFO John Stephens likened the carrier’s build out of FirstNet to building a house and leaving room to add 5G.

Stephens said the unanimous opt-in for FirstNet, a nationwide LTE network for first responders, gives AT&T the ability to conduct one network build that puts FirstNet into service, upgrades the existing LTE network and allows for a software-based roll out of 5G. AWS, WCS and the 700 MHz FirstNet spectrum are put into service “on a very economic basis because we can do one tower climb, we have the crane out there once, we have the people out there once, and they put all three pieces of spectrum in at once.” Stephens said the simultaneous deployment of carrier aggregation, 4X4 MIMO and other technologies “will add tremendous depth, coverage and speed to our network. If we can build efficiently, we’ll spend more money up front to get it done. We’ll invest more earlier as long as we can do it efficiently.”

Characterizing 5G as an evolution–AT&T’s gigabit LTE branding is billed as “5G Evolution”–Stephens said bolstering gigabit LTE in tandem with the FirstNet deployment is the first step. Second step, fiber; he said the carrier presently has fiber to 15 million business and consumer locations, and will increase that to 22 million by July 2019.

T-Mobile US CFO Braxton Carter made a bit of light of the commentary around 5G and spectrum. “It’s almost comical watching all the positioning,” Carter said. “It’s really fun watching all the carriers at Mobile World Congress, ‘We’re first, we’re first, our approach is the best.’ All the carriers, if you listen closely and get past the hype of their strength and why they think they’re in the best position, is you understand that 5G is band agnostic. 5G isn’t a technology that was developed for a certain type of spectrum. 5G is a technology standard that applies to all types of spectrum.”

He continued: “What we’ve said all along is that our 5G approach will be utilizing every part of our spectrum portfolio anchored on a very significant development for our company, which is a nationwide footprint of significant low-band [600 MHz] spectrum.”


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