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Partner Trey Hanbury interviews T-Mobile’s Steve Sharkey

Hogan Lovells partner Trey Hanbury enjoyed a lively and frank conversation with Steve Sharkey, Vice President of Government Affairs, Engineering and Technology Policy at T-Mobile as part of the 2020 INCOMPAS Show. The interview covered T-Mobile’s running start on 5G broadband deployment following the company’s merger with Sprint, insight into T-Mobile’s plans for meeting its commitments under the merger agreement, and the outlook for 5G deployment in the US. INCOMPAS has made the entire interview available on video, and we offer a few highlights of the conversation here.

T-Mobile is now a U.S. leader in 5G

Sharkey said that T-Mobile is now likely the global leader in 5G deployment, as the first to deploy a standalone network that does not rely on LTE as a base layer. T-Mobile is building its 5G network with a layer cake of spectrum. T-Mobile’s 600 MHz spectrum holdings represent the base layer with 5G broadband coverage for more than 250 million people and across more than 1.3 million square miles in the United States. The next layer is the 2.5 GHz spectrum acquired in the Sprint merger, which boosts the speed and capacity of the network. Millimeter wave spectrum represents the third layer and offers greatly enhanced capacity in more densely populated areas of the country.

To maintain its leadership, Sharkey said T-Mobile will continue to rely on its technological expertise, history of prioritizing strong infrastructure, and fast rollout of 5G services. Sharkey also emphasized the importance of T-Mobile’s customer-service philosophy. He noted that T-Mobile is now the second largest carrier in the US, which he credited not only to the Sprint merger, but also to organic growth driven by T-Mobile’s success at continually identifying and addressing customer pain points.

T-Mobile’s 5G deployment is moving at a lightning pace

T-Mobile has actually accelerated deployment during the COVID-19 pandemic and is upgrading cell sites at a rate of 700 per week, with a goal of reaching 800 per week by the end of the year. Sharkey said that the speed is a testament to the planning and preparation done by T-Mobile’s engineering team and the company’s willingness to plan for rolling out spectrum before it has spectrum in hand. Advance planning allowed T-Mobile to start turning on 5G in 2.5 GHz within days of closing the Sprint merger. Similarly, when deploying its 600 MHz spectrum, T-Mobile used radios that could support 5G, so when the technology became available it was relatively easy to turn on 5G services.

T-Mobile’s network has strong coverage

The low-band 5G network in the 600 MHz band is offering speeds of 40-80 Mbps. In addition, T-Mobile recently announced that it is in 90 markets with 2.5 GHz spectrum, offering average speeds of 300 Mbps up to 1 Gbps. As a condition of its merger with Sprint, moreover, T-Mobile has committed to covering 99 percent of the U.S. populations at 50 Mbps or greater, including 90 percent of rural populations at that rate, by 2026.

Maps are important for broadband buildout but they come with many challenges

Although funding to implement the Broadband DATA Act is currently a point of contention between Congress and the Federal Communications Commission, Sharkey said he believes that a solution will emerge on that issue, because everyone wants better data and bipartisan agreement exists on the need for accurate maps. He identified two other challenges that may prove harder to solve than additional mapping. The first is how to present increasingly complicated and layered data about coverage to consumers in a format they can understand and use. The second is how to ensure that all wireless operators are measuring the same things, especially as carriers pursue different paths to 5G.

Next steps

We encourage you to listen to the full interview for more on broadband mapping, funding for rural deployments, the current spectrum pipeline, and T-Mobile’s focus on fiber backhaul to improve its network performance.