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T-Mobile and Sprint could form formidable 5G force

Lindsay Notwell

Combination of bandwidth & spectrum would affect ongoing 5G wars

The next chapter in one of the longest “will they or won’t they” debates in the telecom industry took a big step forward on April 29. T-Mobile and Sprint announced their plans to merge. In her article covering the news, Sue Marek of SDxCentral called the combined firm a “5G Powerhouse.” Looking at their respective spectrum holdings, I tend to agree.

Let’s rewind the clock to when Verizon announced the launch of 4G LTE on Band 13 (700 MHz). Tony Melone, Verizon’s CTO at the time, referred to those frequencies as “beachfront property” — and he was right. So-called low-band spectrum in the sub-1GHz range travels far and penetrates buildings well. At the time, Band 13’s 20 MHz of bandwidth provided significant performance nationwide, giving Verizon a market-leading advantage for a number of years before needing to augment it with other bands.

Bandwidth Needs Rise with 5G

Now it’s 2018, and 5G, which needs much more bandwidth than 4G, aims to deliver the blazing-fast speeds expected by the market. While T-Mobile’s $8 billion investment in 600 MHz spectrum gave it similarly performing frequencies in the low band, its nationwide average of 30 MHz of bandwidth will help it deliver wider coverage, but not necessarily speed. Don’t get me wrong; the network will perform well, but that’s likely due more to the fact that it will be initially unloaded than any other big features.

Well-Positioned with Ample Spectrum

Sprint owns 150 MHz of spectrum in the 2.5 GHz range that it originally obtained when it acquired Clearwire. Due to limitations in the design of LTE, only roughly a third of that is used for 4G LTE in any given market. Interestingly, that may turn out to be a silver lining, because the remaining 100 MHz is a LOT of spectrum for 5G.

Bandwidth & Spectrum Converge

Ten years ago, 2.5 GHz was not considered beachfront property, because it doesn’t propagate far or penetrate buildings well. But relative to the other frequencies being utilized for 5G, such as 3.5 GHz or millimeter wave in the 25-40 GHz range, it’s definitely closer to the ocean. Teamed with the 600 MHz reach, it’s a pretty powerful combination — or, as Sue says, a “5G Powerhouse.”

Wait & See

Keep in mind, this merger is far from a done deal. The FCC and FTC need to approve the merger to ensure no consumers are harmed by reducing competition in the marketplace. In the Tom Wheeler FCC, this would be a nonstarter. But in the Trump/Pai era, who knows? One thing is certain: The 5G wars are certainly heating up, and it’s going to be interesting.