There’s no question that T-Mobile’s home broadband service is a hit with consumers. The company added 1.6 million new subscribers so far this year and now has 2.1 million total fixed wireless access (FWA) customers.
At the same time, T-Mobile has also been pushing its top-tier Magenta MAX mobile plan that delivers unlimited data with no throttling of 4G or 5G data regardless of how much data a customer uses. This plan currently has under 20% penetration within T-Mobile’s subscriber base, but Jon Frier, president of T-Mobile’s consumer business, recently told investors on the company’s 3Q earnings call that Magenta MAX subscribers use the network at a much higher rate and are doing five times more gaming, two times more video and two-and-a-half times more social media than the average user. Plus, he believes many of these Magenta MAX customers are ripe for new bandwidth-intensive services such as augmented and virtual reality.
While T-Mobile’s subscriber growth — both in FWA and mobile – should be lauded, sources say additional usage of the company’s network is prompting it to take a more serious look at mmWave spectrum.
T-Mobile owns mmWave spectrum licenses — the company spent $931 million in the FCC’s 2020 mmWave spectrum auction purchasing licenses in the 47 GHz and 37-39 GHz spectrum bands. In addition, it participated in the FCC’s 24 GHz spectrum auction and in the 28 GHz auction.
But so far, T-Mobile only appears to have put that mmWave spectrum to use in a handful of markets. Back in the early days of 5G, T-Mobile deployed 5G in mmWave spectrum but it appeared to view the spectrum as primarily helpful for providing large amounts of bandwidth to venues where lots of people gather, like stadiums.
Investors routinely question T-Mobile about whether it has 5G capacity challenges and its executive team always downplays any notion of capacity constraints. During the company’s 3Q earnings call, T-Mobile CEO Mike Sievert explained that the company actually uses a “sector-by-sector” approach in which it studies every sector of every tower and predicts mobile usage. Then it uses that sector approach to decide whether to approve addresses in that sector for its home broadband service. Sievert said that it has rarely seen any constraints within a sector but did admit that in some neighborhoods where neighbors all sign up for the service at the same time, they did see some issues but otherwise there have been no problems. “It’s just a fantastic model,” Sievert said.
He added that T-Mobile is rapidly adding more spectrum across its footprint, both in the 2.5 GHz and the 1900 MHz bands, and as Neville Ray, president of networks at T-Mobile, mentioned on the investor call, the company’s move to 5G standalone (SA) also gives it an edge because SA is a more spectrally efficient technology than 5G NSA or 4G.
T-Mobile’s mmWave moves
But there are some signs that the company may be shifting its views on mmWave. T-Mobile recently filed a Special Temporary Authority (STA) with the FCC to conduct tests in the 39 GHz band in Las Vegas for another two years and is using Ericsson gear in those tests.
Plus, Sam Sneed of Sneed Mobile Tech, who regularly speed tests mobile networks, said that his contacts in T-Mobile’s engineering department have told him that the company is looking more closely at using the mmWave spectrum to relieve constraints in some of its busy sectors where the combination of home internet and Magenta Max subscribers are putting strain on the network. The deployment of mmWave will be “strategic,” Sneed said, and much more limited than Verizon’s mmWave deployment.
T-Mobile’s Sievert admitted on the company’s earnings call that the company has “barely tapped” its mmWave assets and he definitely left the door open to the possibility that it may put some of its capex budget toward its fixed wireless aspirations. T-Mobile currently considers its fixed wireless business as “capital-free” because it uses existing network to deliver that service.
“That’s something we wouldn’t completely rule out because we have great assets,” Sievert said.
The other thing T-Mobile isn’t ruling out is expansion of its fiber service. The company launched T-Fiber, a symmetrical gigabit fiber service in New York City, in August 2021 and is still offering the service to those that qualify within its footprint. Sievert said that the company is pursuing T-Fiber “at a very small scale so we can make sure that we’re learning.”
But it appears that T-Mobile may be more interested in a fiber play than it’s letting on. According to Bloomberg, citing unidentified sources, the company is working with Citigroup to find partners to build a fiber network for the home broadband market.
Whether T-Mobile uses its mmWave spectrum or builds fiber or does both, it’s clear the company has bigger aspirations when it comes to serving the home broadband market.
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