5G networks need US government help: T-Mobile CTO

The leaders of 5G Americas and T-Mobile have told ZDNet that 5G networks need more spectrum and streamlined deployment processes, and the US government can help provide both.
Written by Corinne Reichert, Contributor

T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray and 5G Americas president Chris Pearson have told ZDNet that mobile carriers need more 5G help from the United States government on both infrastructure regulations and spectrum availability.

Speaking in an interview with ZDNet during Mobile World Congress (MWC) 2018 in Barcelona, Ray said there is a "huge ongoing dialogue" between 5G Americas and the federal government, with the latter having "an enormous role" to play in freeing up spectrum.

The US Department of Defence freed up around 100MHz of spectrum this week, Ray said, but it's still not enough and decisions are taking too long.

"I think as an industry, we all realise a lot more spectrum is needed for 5G to ultimately succeed in the US market, and that's across all bands," Ray told ZDNet, pointing to the millimetre wave (mmWave) and 3.5GHz CBRS bands.

"The US has consumed most of the commercial spectrum pretty rapidly over recent years, and for 5G we need a lot more.

"It seems to take an interminable amount of time in the US to bring any spectrum to market."

Pearson said that in addition to making more spectrum available, the government must also work on reducing the barrier to deploying additional infrastructure.

"Two of the key ingredients to 5G success is going to be more licensed spectrum into the marketplace, and densification of your networks -- and so for that densification to happen, what you need is more streamlined processes," Pearson explained.

"If you look at streamlined processes, you need leadership from the federal government but a lot of it is state and local processes that need to be streamlined ... we need more spectrum and we need more streamlined processes, and those are both things the government can influence."

Governments have started making some progress on cell siting arrangements, Ray said, with around 13 states now having passed some sort of legislation to ease the process of small cell deployments.

"We've seen a lot of good movement this year both on state and federal level to ease cell siting and specifically small cell siting, it's been a big topic of discussion," Ray said.

"Every operator is very conscious on how they deploy, and local community and aesthetics and all those things, and we work very, very hard to make sure we grow our wireless networks in a way that's of minimal impact to communities.

"But there are times when we face resistance and we need more help, and government is stepping up in aspects. More to be done, though."

Read also: Top 5G announcements from MWC 2018

T-Mobile had announced at MWC this week that it would be building out 5G across 30 cities this year, with Los Angeles, New York, Las Vegas, and Dallas to have the service by 2019.

The carrier -- whose announcement followed AT&T unveiling the 12 cities that will have 5G by the end of 2018 and Sprint earlier this week saying six cities will have 5G next year -- said its network would be built "right".

Ray told ZDNet that T-Mobile's 5G deployment is already "moving well", with the 600MHz LTE rollout beginning last year and much of the hardware being 5G NR capable.

"So whilst the software is not fully ready yet, it will be as we move through the balance of '18, so we intend to have 600MHz 5G capability live for customers as we move into '19 and devices become available," he said.

"In parallel, our millimetre-wave deployment of standards based will start this year as we now see the availability of millimetre-wave standards-based hardware, so those deployments will start for us in 2019."

Smartphone capabilities for both 600MHz and mmWave will come in the first half of 2019, according to Ray, who could not yet disclose what OEMs and manufacturers have been working on those pieces with T-Mobile.

"But we have very high confidence in what we can achieve in 5G in 600 and millimetre wave in 2019," he added.

Waiting until the 5G standards were set to begin rolling out 5G services was a longer-term strategy, Ray explained, and it means the network will be launched around the same time that consumer devices become available.

"It's way, way smarter and better to wait," he told ZDNet.

"We're very focused on the smartphone space, we think that's more relevant and material, and that's going to be the T-Mobile strategy: To put our shoulder behind the smartphone deployment in the first part of '19."

Ray told ZDNet that T-Mobile will be announcing more cities as it makes progress throughout 2018, but that it wanted to go after New York first in order to test mmWave in a dense, urban environment.

"I have a strong belief based on some engineering and technical support that an environment like that will be served very well by millimetre wave," he explained.

"But we need to try other topographies, and other landscapes, and other city environments, and we want to make sure that much of what we do is obviously we want to bring commercial service to life early in a year, but we really need to test and trial and see how does millimetre wave truly form in a mobile, dense, urban environment.

"Millimetre wave is going to be very dependent on a lot of ... building reflection and lots of beam forming and beam steering, and serving lots of people who are very mobile beneath those antennas and radios. So there's a lot of new physics and new engineering, and we're making that work."

T-Mobile can learn more while rolling out the network than it can in labs or trial environments, he said, with the carrier to begin using test products and devices by the end of the year to ensure reliability and performance by launch next year.

"We will pick cities where one we think we will really learn," he told ZDNet.

5G needs LTE upgrades

In making T-Mobile's 5G announcement, Ray had emphasised LTE-Advanced upgrades would form the basis for the network, with T-Mobile planning to build its 5G offering using both 600MHz and mmWave spectrum, as well as deploying 25,000 small cells for Licensed Assisted Access (LAA) LTE.

5G Americas president Pearson similarly spoke to the importance of upgrading LTE networks in the lead-up to 5G, saying that while Ericsson has predicted 1 billion people being on 5G by 2023, there will still be 5 billion on LTE in 2021.

"We don't want people to forget about the LTE innovation roadmap that's happening," Pearson told ZDNet.

"Even though 5G is extremely important to our industry ... LTE is important as well. I mean, there's a reason there's 576 commercial networks around the world today; it's going to carry a lot of the payload."

The comments from Pearson and Ray echoed those made by Australian carrier Telstra earlier this week, which pushed its "holistic" approach to building 5G off the back of a fully upgraded 4G network.

According to Ray, T-Mobile has held discussions with Telstra Networks MD Mike Wright on both 4G and 5G.

"Telstra's doing a lot of good work ... Mike Wright and their team we know very well," Ray told ZDNet.

"We share discussion on technology, and I think Telstra's worked very hard to advance LTE, and we've done very much on the same track.

"It's actually great to share with a company outside of the US that you're not competing with, and we can learn a lot from each other."

In terms of competition in the US, Pearson pointed out that it's important for the four major carriers to be pushing different forms of 5G technology, spectrum, and networking, because it boosts innovation.

"AT&T, Verizon, Sprint, and T-Mobile -- they're maybe all a little different in what they're doing, maybe the bands that they're doing, what they think the use case might be. And I think that's good for innovation and it's good for competition," Pearson told ZDNet.

And with Ray also serving as chair of 5G Americas, he said he needs to wear two different hats: One to encourage discussions between all US carriers to push 5G standards forward, and another to compete in his role as T-Mobile CTO.

"It takes a village to bring a technology like this to market, and we put our competitive hats away and work together -- and, when it's appropriate, we take them out," Ray said.

"We try to have some fun, too."

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