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10 August 2020

T-Mobile wins US race to 5G Standalone, boosting its footprint by 30%

T-Mobile has gone live with the first phase of its 5G NR Standalone (SA) network, which relies on a full 5G core. This is the first in the USA and one of the first in the world, though Telstra, China Mobile and others have also switched on some commercial SA elements.

By deploying SA in its 600 MHz spectrum, TMO has expanded its 5G reach by 30% and its footprint now covers nearly 250m people in more than 7,500 markets across 1.3m square miles, according to the operator.

Verizon has remained focused, so far, on fixed wireless and on a targeted build-out in millimeter wave. It will implement dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) from later this year, which will enable it to extend its coverage by allowing 5G to work alongside LTE in 4G spectrum such as 1.7 GHz. It is pinning its hopes on significant wins in the CBRS and C-band auctions to improve the economics of wide build-out by adding to its midband assets, since it does not have significant 600 MHz holdings.

Verizon’s focus on high capacity, low range spectrum in the early stages has led to a race between AT&T and TMO to achieve ‘nationwide’ 5G coverage using the superior range of sub-1 GHz spectrum. AT&T said last month that it now covered 205m people in 395 markets, and plans to deploy 5G SA this year. It will also use DSS though TMO is more cautious about the emerging technology.

Neville Ray, TMO’s president of technology, said in a statement: “Since Sprint became part of T-Mobile, we’ve been rapidly combining networks for a supercharged ‘Uncarrier’ while expanding our nationwide 5G footprint, and today we take a massive step into the future with standalone 5G architecture. This is where it gets interesting, opening the door for massive innovation in this country — and while the other guys continue to play catch-up, we’ll keep growing the world’s most advanced 5G network.”

The operators says its SA network delivered a 40% improvement in latency during pre-launch tests and that could improve further, while the technology extends range and indoor penetration, because there is no need for an anchor transmission in LTE spectrum, as there is in the Non-Standalone architecture. That 4G spectrum is higher frequency than TMO’s 600 MHz band and so has shorter range.

With SA, the operators says it can cover “hundreds of square miles from a single tower” in the 600 MHz spectrum. It has the biggest holdings in that band among the US operators. The limited capacity in this band means the average data rates it supports have not been much higher than those of 4G, but the greater spectral efficiency of SA should improve this a little – TMO said download rates could be up to 30% better. However, the best performance for high volume data applications will come from combining 600 MHz with the 2.5 GHz spectrum gained with Sprint, and in some millimeter wave, to add targeted capacity where required.