Last week, I caught up with Cole Brodman, chief technology officer of T-Mobile USA. Brodman, who has overseen the buildout of T-Mobile’s 3G network, talked about why T-Mobile loves Android, has little time for Symbian, and is confident that its new HSPA+ network should be enough to compete with Verizon’s LTE network when it emerges. We discussed mobile applications and the innovation that’s happening in the mobile industry. While the interview is relatively long, Brodman’s views on the mobile industry, particularly Android, are quite illuminating and foretell the future. Here is an edited version of our conversation.
Om Malik: Can you give me an update on your network?
Cole Brodman: Our goal is to double our covered footprint from a pop perspective to exceed 200 million by the end of the year and to make our 3G national footprint available in all the key metropolitan markets across the country. (NOTE: T-Mobile will expand to more than 100 additional U.S. cities by EOY for a total of 230 cities.) We’re well on target to achieve that. We have the opportunity now with the newness of our infrastructure to move very quickly to the next-generation technology [HSPA+] that’s built on top of 3G.
Om: In talking about HSPA+ do you have some time lines on when that is likely to happen?
Brodman: In 2010, you’re going to see us start to integrate HSPA+ into our network. The background will start happening this year, but in terms of commercial capability, we’ll start rolling out next year.
Om: Timing for LTE?
Brodman: We really haven’t declared as a group that LTE is our path. Certainly, we have been in strong support of LTE technology for years. But at this point, in terms of committing a specific path or the vendors we’re going to use to do that, we’ve been doing more behind-the-scenes work on the technology. So I don’t have a date for you today, Om, but I think it’s fair to say that we’ll be there at the right time.
Om: The marketing of these services is actually more about perception and less about the abilities of the network. But if someone markets 4G and you’ve got 3G, it is a bit of a problem from a marketing standpoint.
Brodman: I agree, but I think that in itself may also be an opportunity. No one really understands exactly what 3G is, either. They just know that it’s potentially better than what they had before. The speed, capability throughput, economic efficiency, etc., on HSPA+ will keep us in the game. We simply need to be able to describe it to consumers in a way that will resonate.
Om: So if I’m a T-Mobile customer, what kind of bandwidth from 3G or HSPA+ should I expect at the end of this year or next year?
Brodman: Today on our 3G network, customers will see average throughput ranging in the hundreds of Kbps to peaks of up to 1Mbps. Today that’s what you’ll see with standard HSDPA. Our networks in general performed very, very well versus our competition, and in many cases much better. [With] HSPA+, I think you’ll see the ability to see peaks that are three to five times that. A lot of it at that point will start to come down to device capability. I don’t think you’ll see that capability in a smartphone, but I think it’s very possible to see it in a data stick and maybe a netbook that has the chip architecture and the memory to support it. In the future, we’ll see rates that are even greater than that, but I think that’s beyond 2010.
Om: Are a lot of people building HSPA+ into netbooks?
Brodman: Yes, but are a lot of people building them today? No. Is it in all of the module and partner roadmaps we’ve seen? Yes.
Om: Were you surprised at how popular netbooks got?
Brodman: It’s interesting that you brought that up; we actually had a meeting on it this morning with our CEO. I think the category has to move beyond being a cheap laptop to being a mobile communications and Internet device that’s richer than a smartphone and more portable than a laptop. Otherwise, I think it’s just what you said. People will look at it and say, “Isn’t it just a cheap, low-powered laptop?”
Om: Which makes me think the big question right now is backhaul. What are you doing for backhaul?
Brodman: There is not one solution to the backhaul question, so we’re actually pursuing multiple paths. We’ve been very, very aggressive in working with two categories of nontraditional backhaul partners. The first has been alternate access companies that are building businesses and networks around shared tenant or multi-carrier backhaul from the site. These could be fiber-to-the-site type companies that would build the capability out and partner with one or multiple carriers to the site to bring back not standard T1-type capacity, but metro Ethernet-like speeds to help us solve the 3G and 4G problem.
Om: Companies like Fiber Tower?
Brodman: Right, exactly — companies like Fiber Tower. There are a number of smaller, venture-backed startups growing quite rapidly that we’ve partnered with in different geographies. (NOTE: T-Mobile announced backhaul agreements last fall with Bright House Networks, FPL FiberNet, IP Networks and Zayo Bandwidth.) There’s a pace-the-buildout question, which is why you have to have multiple partners because anyone, especially smaller companies, can’t build everything out in one day or one year, so that has to be scaled. The second, and probably more promising, has been the cable industry. So it’s been in the last year or so that we’ve really started to make significant progress in partnering with the cable industry in terms of how we leverage their broadband capacity…and how we can extend it to the cell site. The third, a more organic opportunity, is to simply build high-capacity microwave.
Om: What kind of bandwidth are you providing to cell cites right now? What’s the roadmap – can you talk a little bit about it?
Brodman: Today our bandwidth is typically multiple DS-1s or T-1s to a cell site. We probably average between 3 and 4 T-1s per cell site today for our general 2G-3G business…We’re at 6 Mbps per second per site. Tomorrow I think the first steps are going to be something more like 20-25Mbps, quickly followed by 50Mbps, and eventually getting to 100Mbps+. I think over the next three to four years you’ll see it develop on that curve. I think with LTE or the more advanced versions of HSPA+ and how mobile Internet’s adoption could occur, we’ll need to scale between 20 and 50 Mbps per site at some of our higher-capacity sites in the next three years. I think beyond that, it’ll have to get beyond 50, but I think it’ll take a little bit of time before you see those kinds of needs on a broad basis. You may have localized hotspots, but I think that’ll take a little bit more time.