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Summary:

T-Mobile is bucking the trend of focusing single-mindedly on faster networks. Using a new antenna technology, it’s building better, more consistent mobile data networks. T-Mobile will roll out the new technology to multiple cities this year.

cell phone tower / cellphone tower / antenna
photo: Shutterstock / Peeratam

T-Mobile has begun upgrading its LTE network with a new kind of antenna technology that will help fix one of the biggest problems in mobile: the inconsistent signals and connection speeds our phones see as we move through the mobile network.

Anyone who has ever had five bars and a rocking data link to the tower, only to lose it 20 yards later, can attest to this. But starting in Chicago, Dallas and San Antonio, T-Mobile users will soon see those peaks and valleys become plateaus.

The technology is called 4-by-2 multiple input-multiple output, or 4×2 MIMO. You may already be familiar with MIMO if you’re familiar with how LTE or Wi-Fi works: multiple antennas send multiple parallel transmissions from the transmitter to the device. While nearly all LTE systems today use 2×2 MIMO — two antennas at the tower connecting to two antennas in the phone — T-Mobile is doubling up on spatial streams being transmitted over the network.

regional mobile carrier

Source: Shutterstock / Nneirda

What that means is that there will be a lot more signals flying at your T-Mobile 4G phone, tablet or mobile hotspot, ensuring you can get a better downlink connection even if you’re at the fringes of the network or their obstacles between you and the tower. The biggest benefits will be on the return trip, though. With more antennas at the tower to pick up your phone’s generally weaker signals, you’ll get a big boost in your uplink connection.

Gigaom first got the scoop on T-Mobile’s plans last June, when one of its vendors Nokia Solutions and Networks confirmed to me T-Mobile planned on deploying the antenna array technology. At the time, T-Mobile wouldn’t even acknowledge that it was using 4×2 MIMO, but this week T-Mo VP of Technology Mark McDiarmid confirmed to me that T-Mobile is in the process of rolling it out in multiple cities across its network this year as part of a larger LTE upgrade.

“We do see the benefits 4×2 MIMO offers and will be deploying this in many cities in 2014 as part of our Wideband LTE rollout,” McDiarmid said in a statement to Gigaom. “All of T-Mobile’s available devices currently support 4×2 MIMO and we’ll ensure that new devices will as well. We believe this will be one of the first deployments by a top carrier network in the US.”

Source: Flickr / swruler9284

Source: Flickr / swruler9284

Sprint is performing trials of a similar technology called 8T8R, which actually creates eight transmit paths as opposed to T-Mobile’s four, and will incorporate it into future upgrades to its new tri-band Spark network. Historically T-Mobile has always trailed its competitors when it comes to launching new generations of network technologies. It was the last to get 3G and the last to start rolling out LTE, but once it had gotten started it took advantage of its newer network equipment to surpass its rivals. It built the fastest the 3G network in the U.S. in 2011, and with 4×2 MIMO its now among the pioneers in one of the latest advancements in 4G networking.

T-Mobile wouldn’t offer any details as to where the network is now live, but Gigaom’s favorite network tracker Milan Milanovic found evidence of 4×2 in the wild in Chicago, Dallas and San Antonio by polling fellow network testers on Howard Forums. This screenshot supplied by forums user besweeet shows iPhone in engineering mode in San Antonio with the arrow indicating four transmit signals from the tower.

Source: Howard Forums user besweeet

Source: Howard Forums user besweeet

 

What does this mean to me?

So if you’re a T-Mobile subscriber with an LTE handset, 4×2 MIMO basically means you’re going to get a more resilient connection as you move throughout the network. You won’t actually see your peak speeds improve, but you’ll be able to maintain a fast, consistent connection far more often, even when the network starts getting crowded.

According to Nokia networks’ Head of Technology for North America Petri Hautakangas, at the cell edge – those fringe areas of the network where your connection often suffers the most — you could see a 50 percent to 60 percent boost in download speeds and as much as 100 percent increase in upload speeds.

Source: Shutterstock / Sashkin

Source: Shutterstock / Sashkin

That boost provides a lot of advantages to T-Mobile as well as its customers. By connecting more customers throughout its network with faster speeds it increases its overall data capacity considerably, meaning it will take a lot more traffic to make its network congested.

As for where the network heads next, the location of the three sightings we’ve had so far provides a hint. They’re all Nokia-built networks. Nokia’s systems are concentrated in the interior of the U.S. Ericsson holds T-Mobile’s contract for most east and west coast cities. If Nokia has the jump on Ericsson for this new technology, then it might take a while before it arrives in New York or San Francisco.

In any case, this technology is an important step for mobile networking, demonstrating the subtle shift away from building faster networks, to building better networks. The 5-10 Mbps speeds we typically see on a smartphone today is plenty fast. But providing a consistent 5-10 Mbps connection no matter where you go in the network? That’s where the mobile industry should be heading.

This post was corrected on Friday because an earlier version started that I wasn’t aware of any higher-order MIMO projects in the works in the U.S. I failed to mention Sprint’s work with 8T8R, which was added to the post.

 

  1. Cool. We’re thinking of switching soon. This is helpful info.

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  2. If you want some photos of T-Mobile towers, here you go: http://briansweet.me/files/towers.zip Those are NSN setups that are putting out 4×2 MIMO around Texas and several other places.

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  3. “So if you’re a T-Mobile subscriber with an LTE handset, 4×2 MIMO basically means your going to get a more resilient connection as you move throughout the network.”

    You ARE allowed to have TWO you’re in the same sentence.

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    1. Kevin Fitchard Friday, April 25, 2014

      Ha! Thanks for catching that, Don. It’s fixed.

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  4. Good for T-Mobile, however based on the article title, I came here expecting that they were deploying battery backups, generators, fuel cells, etc. and adding redundancy to network elements to create a resilient ‘network’. Now that would be a game changer for T-Mobile and make them more competitive v/s Verizon as far as business, Government and Public Safety users are concerned.
    As mentioned later in the article, 4×2 MIMO will deliver a more resilient ‘connection’ on the airlink, which is not the same as a more resilient network.

    Secondly, whether announced or unannounced, I expect all operators to be well along their way in deploying 4×2 or 4×4 MIMO. In fact, if you read T-Mobile VP McDiarmid’s statement carefully, he claimed this will be “one of the first…”, not “the first” deployment by a top US carrier. Heck, Sprint has already announced 8×2 MIMO with Spark, so this is not news really.

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    1. Kevin Fitchard Friday, April 25, 2014

      Hi GoBosDC,

      I guess we just think of resiliency differently. But you’re right about Sprint. Spark’s 8T8R completely slipped my mind. I will add that to the story

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  5. Sprint’s announced deployment of 8t8r capable equipment, but that service isn’t live, not to mention they never even gave us the timeframe for that service to go live.

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  6. AT&T is deploying 4X2 LTE 2nd carrier nationwide……Ands has been for a while.

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    1. @mark: Absolutely not. AT&T’s infrastructure suppliers are Alcatel-Lucent and Ericsson, and nether of them have 4×2 equipment ready for FDD deployment in volume.

      So that statement is completely false.

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      1. Humberto Saabedra Saturday, April 26, 2014

        I’m not sure where mark got the idea that AT&T was even deploying MIMO gear, but they don’t have such a deployment going on. AT&T Mobility seems to be focused on marketing now than anything resembling actual network improvements while they wait on the 600Mhz auction rules to get sorted.

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  7. How can I check if I’m using 4×2 on my android phone (note3)

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