T-Mobile is multiplying its low-band 4G capacity by up to six times to support people working and schooling from home during the COVID-19 crisis.
The massive growth comes in the 600MHz band, and it shows a dark secret of US wireless—much of our valuable wireless spectrum is hogged by companies that aren’t using it. T-Mobile’s expanded capacity comes by borrowing unused licenses from Dish, Comcast, and investment firms that haven’t been doing anything with them.
600MHz is a low-frequency band with great range and wall penetration, so this will especially help in suburban and rural areas. We should start to see capacity improvements within days, as long as you have a 600MHz (aka Band 71) capable phone. That includes most phones sold by T-Mobile since the beginning of 2018, even low-end ones. This list shows Band 71 capable phones right now.
The whole 600MHz band is 35×35 MHz in size. (They need to use the same bandwidth for downloads and uploads, so, 35 and 35.) In some critical metro areas—like almost everywhere from Wilkes-Barre, Pennsylvania, to Hartford, Connecticut, and most of New Jersey—T-Mobile only holds 10×10 of that spectrum, and the rest of it is unused.
T-Mobile’s 600MHz 4G will probably improve by 4x in this area.
That 10×10 is then sliced even smaller right now: 5×5 for 4G and 5×5 for 5G. That means the 90-plus percent of T-Mobile customers on 4G phones are only using one-seventh of the available 600MHz capacity in some areas. In that critical market area, T-Mobile will now be able to use the whole thing. “These agreements allow us to light up nearly all of the 600MHz band,” a T-Mobile spokesman told me.
Most phones aren’t only connecting to 600MHz; it’s part of a balanced diet of different spectrum bands. So you won’t see your phone’s speeds quadrupling. You’re just less likely to get a blocked connection or sub-5Mbps speeds as more people get online from home.
This map shows cities where T-Mobile’s performance is likely to greatly improve.
This also may not result in an improvement of T-Mobile’s low-band 5G service. “The majority of the spectrum is being used for LTE customers,” the company said. This is a smart choice; only a tiny percentage of users have 5G phones now, and on current devices in low frequency bands, 5G provides no noticeable performance advantage over 4G.
Right now, individual 4G phones can only use up to 20MHz of Band 71 at a time. That’s up to four times what they can currently access.
T-Mobile could make a few different decisions with its 35×35. The company could use almost all of it for 4G: a 20MHz channel and a 10MHz channel, where devices couldn’t use both channels at once but where the network would choose based on which was less crowded. Or it could assign a 20MHz channel to LTE and use 15MHz for 5G, which would improve performance on 5G phones. Thing is, there just aren’t that many 5G phones in peoples’ hands right now.
Complicating the 5G issue, the most popular 5G phones—the Samsung Galaxy S20 series—are missing a software update that would be needed to combine the LTE and 5G components of the 600MHz band within a single phone. Only the OnePlus 7T Pro 5G McLaren can do so at the moment.
In any case, it’s going to mean more T-Mobile capacity in a lot of areas.
Rural Sprint Customers Get Better Roaming
T-Mobile is also opening up roaming for Sprint customers, which will mostly benefit folks in rural areas. “We’ve taken steps to expand 4G LTE data roaming to Sprint customers by expanding roaming in select areas,” the company tells me.
That likely means Sprint customers will be able to fall over to the T-Mobile network in areas where Sprint doesn’t have much native coverage. On this map, that’s the light pink areas. Sprint users will need a recent phone able to use LTE bands 12 and 71 to get the best T-Mobile coverage. You can check your phone’s support at frequencycheck.com.
T-Mobile offers native low-band rural 4G coverage which Sprint lacks. (Source: Speedtest.net)
Welcome to the ‘New T-Mobile’
A lot of what T-Mobile is doing right now is what it planned to do when its merger with Sprint closed. The merger will almost certainly happen, but at the moment it’s held up by a California Public Utilities Commision meeting happening on April 16 and US District Court Judge Timothy Kelly, who we haven’t heard from for more than a month.
Activating roaming with Sprint would have been one of the first merger steps. Using 600MHz spectrum from Dish would have been another. T-Mobile is conducting this COVID-19 emergency plan for 60 days, which takes it well past the point when we think the merger will have closed.
So once this crisis is over, at least some of this is going to stay in place. T-Mobile taking these steps now will help speed up the transition when the merger closes, as well.
Time to Open Up the Warehouses
So who owns the rest of the 600MHz band and why haven’t they been using it? T-Mobile’s action shows one of the grimmest, ill-kept secrets of the wireless industry—spectrum warehousing.
Even as wireless carriers complain that they don’t have enough precious airwaves to give us high-quality service, investors are sitting on valuable airwaves they don’t intend to use to provide service.
Much of the 600MHz band is owned by satellite provider Dish, which claimed for ages that it had plans to build a wireless network, and never launched one. As part of the T-Mobile/Sprint merger agreement, Dish will now offer wireless service and will share that spectrum with T-Mobile, though, so that saga is over for now.
Dish owns a lot of 600MHz spectrum which T-Mobile can now use. (Source: Cellularmaps.com)
Some of it is owned by cable company Comcast, which offers wireless service in partnership with Verizon. That service doesn’t use the 600MHz airwaves, but at least Comcast offers some service to someone.
But quite a lot of it is held by investors who have no plans to use it for any public good.
Take Bluewater Wireless. Bluewater Wireless is controlled by Charlie Townsend, a wireless industry vet who ran network providers in the 1980s and ’90s. But Bluewater provides no wireless services, and has no apparent plan to; it sits on spectrum that could be used by providers like T-Mobile to improve Americans’ lives.
Columbia Capital is another bad actor. The financial firm has been gobbling up spectrum won by others, including AT&T and Channel 51, which Columbia part owns. Columbia has no plans to offer wireless services; it just sits on the spectrum until it can gouge someone else for it.
There is absolutely no public-interest argument for airwaves to be held by investment vehicles that have no plans to provide service. Fortunately, those investors are offering their licenses up to T-Mobile for this crisis—and hopefully, the FCC will mandate that things will stay that way.