Call them the PoPs wars. T-Mobile set a stake in the ground with its intention to cover 300 million PoPs (points of presence) with its Ultra Capacity 2.5 GHz spectrum by the end of 2023. Verizon recently moved up its Ultra Wideband (C-band) coverage goal to reach 175 million people by the end of 2022, with plans to reach 250 million by the end of 2024. The race is on.

“I think we’re the envy of our competition,” T-Mobile President of Technology Neville Ray boasted during a Morgan Stanley investor event Wednesday. “There is no doubt.”

Any way you look at it, “they are fervently trying to catch T-Mobile, which is way out in front in this 5G space,” he said. He declined to provide updates on future deployment plans, saying that will occur during the next earnings round.

T-Mobile closed the year with 210 million people covered with its mid-band 2.5 GHz layer, and under that is its Extended Range 600 MHz low-band footprint, which is at 310 million PoPs, Ray said. That kind of geographic coverage is about five times that of what Verizon has on its low-band spectrum using dynamic spectrum sharing (DSS) services, he said.

A big motivator for acquiring Sprint was its bevy of 2.5 GHz spectrum and deploying that has been job No. 1. T-Mobile is coming close to approaching 50% of its network traffic being on 5G now, he said. Over 40% of T-Mobile’s postpaid smartphone devices are now 5G capable, according to Ray.

Unlike with 4G LTE, T-Mobile plans to rapidly expand its mid-band 5G footprint into rural and smaller town areas “in a very material way,” he said, noting that 40% of the U.S. is comprised of small markets and rural areas. It’s not as if that’s where nobody lives, either, he said, implying the market potential there is huge.

“We’re coming into town with, not a two-lane freeway. This is a 10-lane highway we’re laying down with massive 5G capacity,” Ray said. “It’s already happening. Where it’s happening, folks’ heads just spin … when they compare what they were paying and getting delivered to in those environments with what we now bring.”

T-Mobile is well on its way to covering 260 million by the end of this year and 300 million by the end of 2023. “Our competition has no announced plans to get even close to that,” he said.

Going from 210 million to 260 million PoPs covered doesn’t sound like a big increment, but that represents three times the geographic expansion. “So we did 3x this last year. We have to do 3x again to get to that 260. So a lot of sites coming in,” he said.

One advantage for T-Mobile is “the other guys are trying to start their engines on getting these deployment things moving. AT&T has not really even started,” he said, adding that AT&T is waiting for new 3.45 GHz gear. The 3.45 GHz auction is the FCC’s most recent auction and winners were just announced in January.

Yesterday, Apple announced its newest iPhone SE, but that doesn’t come with support for 3.45 GHz either, he noted. “It’s hard being in their position,” Ray said. “For AT&T, I think all their work is ahead.”

AT&T has said it’s on track to cover 200 million PoPs using mid-band spectrum by the end of 2023. But it’s likely going to provide updates at its investor event this Friday.

Ray said he thinks there’s a conscious decision on the part of his competitors to not bring 5G mid-band capability and capacity into more parts of the U.S. They’re going to have to reverse that at some point in time, however, he added.

“There’s a lot of catch-up the other guys have to do yet,” Ray said.

Verizon has talked about deploying its C-band spectrum, which was delayed last year into this year due to a big fight with the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA), at a faster clip than it’s done with other spectrum bands, including AWS and 700 MHz. It’s quite likely everyone is motivated to beat their own publicly stated goals, since over-delivering for these kinds of deployments is par for the course.

2.5 GHz auction in the works

Asked about the upcoming 2.5 GHz auction, Ray noted that there are two types of 2.5 GHz spectrum, the Broadband Radio Service (BRS) and Educational Broadband Service (EBS). The EBS licenses are what’s coming up for auction and that’s primarily a rural footprint, often referred to as “white spaces” on the map.

T-Mobile already leases and owns a significant amount of EBS 2.5 GHz spectrum. However, T-Mobile doesn’t want to reveal the details of its leases with educational institutions, and rivals like AT&T are threatening not to participate in the 2.5 GHz auction if they don’t know the lease terms.

Ray didn’t address any of that conflict directly. “We’ll be disciplined,” he said of T-Mobile’s approach to the auction. “We’ll look where there’s value, where the value exists for us,” he said, noting opportunities for fixed wireless. “We’ll see. I think there’s a lot to learn over the next three to four months once the rules get finalized.”

As it further integrates Sprint’s network gear, T-Mobile is in a position to decommission cell sites, which is where it gains great cost advantages, or “synergies” as they say in corporate parlance. “We’re ahead on that plan too,” Ray said.

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