A little under one year ago, T-Mobile turned on the first site in the US to use its 600MHz frequency, a low-band chunk of spectrum that provides much more consistent coverage, especially indoors or in rural areas. Building out the new network on a nationwide scale isn’t a simple process, but the company just announced that it’s now up and running in 900 cities and towns across 32 states, a huge achievement in just 10 months.
Of course, as with everything in life, there’s a catch. The 600MHz spectrum — which you’ll also hear referred to as Band 71 or Extended Range LTE — was until very recently used to broadcast analog TV into homes. T-Mobile is the first network in the world to use it for LTE, and as a result, the majority of phones don’t support it yet. That’s changing fast — recent flagship Android phones from Samsung and LG are compatible — but for anyone using an iPhone or an older Android device, all of T-Mobile’s efforts to roll out its 600MHz network mean nothing.
To call it a “massive milestone” is really an understatement. Normally, rolling out new spectrum takes years. Verizon, for example, bought 700MHz spectrum from the FCC in a similar auction in 2008, and didn’t turn the network on until 2010. T-Mobile has a list of every town and city that currently has some B71 deployed; this map from Spectrum Gateway is a few months out of date, but is much easier to browse. T-Mobile owns 600MHz spectrum covering all of the United States, so everywhere should be covered eventually. However, some regions still have TV stations broadcasting on the 600MHz channels, and those stations have to be migrated before T-Mobile can activate its service.
In addition to deploying B71 across the lower 48 states, T-Mobile is also incorporating it into its ongoing infrastructure rebuild in Puerto Rico. “After the devastating hurricanes that hit Puerto Rico last year, we saw an opportunity to rebuild the network better than new — to rebuild with 5G-ready gear. We’re laying the foundation for the island to become a technology and innovation hub in the future while adding coverage and capacity with 600 MHz LTE this year,” said Neville Ray, Chief Technology Officer for T-Mobile. “The team is working at record pace to deploy 600 MHz LTE throughout the country, and we’re already expanding the network and challenging the Duopoly in places they’ve never had to compete before.”
As for devices: right now, T-Mobile has six 600MHz-capable devices, including the LG V30, Samsung Galaxy S9, and Galaxy S9+. It says another dozen “across all price points” will launch this year. The big question, arguably, remains whether Apple will deign to launch a 600MHz-capable iPhone this year.