T-Mobile: Our LTE network is in a constant state of flux

Mobilize 2012 Neville Ray T-Mobile

I have a lot of respect for the man pictured above, but I wouldn’t want to work for him. For the last four months, T-Mobile US CTO Neville Ray has been running his engineering team ragged.

Since March, T-Mobile managed to expand its LTE network from just seven markets to 116 markets, including many of the biggest cities in the country. It’s LTE footprint now covers 157 million people.

“Neville does not let us rest,” T-Mobile VP of engineering services Grant Castle said — I got the impression only half jokingly — in an interview. “It’s not like we were holding back our launch in March. We really started cranking in Q2.”

T-Mobile logo NYSE listingTo put that in perspective, Sprint launched its first LTE network last summer, and so far it’s reached 110 markets, many of which are smaller cities and towns rather than big cities. It took AT&T well over a year to reach 125 markets. T-Mobile’s stated goal is 200 million people covered by the end of the year, but “as you can likely guess we’ll be well ahead of that,” Castle said. That will put it within spitting distance of matching its current 3G HSPA+ footprint, which touches 228 million people.

The most interesting thing about T-Mobile’s rollout is just how multifaceted it is. Ray, Castle and company aren’t just tossing up LTE sites in one city and the moving on to the next one. Once the initial coverage footprint is complete in a market, T-Mobile is starting to reuse spectrum from MetroPCS’s old networks to boost its cell sites’ capacity.

According to Castle, about half of its LTE cities now have networks use 10 MHz of spectrum (the same size as Sprint’s networks), while the other half tap a full 20 MHz (putting them on par with Verizon and AT&T’s systems). But those configurations are constantly changing: 10 MHz networks are growing to 20 MHz (it’s already completed this upgrade in Las Vegas). It’s even started experimenting with its first 40 MHz configurations, which would double speed and capacity of anything currently available in the U.S.

That’s only the half of it. T-Mobile is shutting down large portions of its 2G GSM network and is now filling the spectral gaps with more HSPA+ mobile data. It’s ultimate plan is move the entirety of its HSPA+ service into its old 2G PCS spectrum. The Advanced Wireless Service (AWS) airwaves it has traditionally used for HSPA+ would then become an exclusive LTE band. GigaOM has even learned that T-Mobile is planning LTE upgrades such as using advanced antenna configurations, which would create more resilient and better performing networks.

Having trouble following? Let’s just put it this way: In any given market at any given time, T-Mobile could be shutting old networks down while turning multiple generations of new networks on. Not only is it scaling those new networks outward for coverage, but its scaling them inward for capacity. As Castle pointed out T-Mobile’s networks are now in a constant state of flux. The T-Mobile cell site you see today could be a very different cell site tomorrow.

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