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One tiny detail could majorly delay T-Mobile’s 600MHz rollout

Published Aug 29th, 2017 2:33PM EDT
T-Mobile vs Verizon: coverage 600MHz

T-Mobile is moving at speed to deploy an LTE network in the 600MHz spectrum it purchased this spring. Just months after it gave the FCC $8 billion for new spectrum, the first 600MHz site is live, and the network plans to cover 1.2 million square miles in spectrum by the end of the year.

That’s a start, but it’s only a start. In order to deploy 600MHz across the nation — the end goal here — dozens of TV stations are going to have to change frequencies, off 600MHz and onto new spectrum. There’s plenty of money available from the FCC to make that happen, but T-Mobile could hit one bottleneck: people.

A report from Inside Towers, spotted by Fierce Wireless, says that there just aren’t enough trained tower-climbing technicians to do all the work necessary within T-Mobile’s ambitious timeline. “Inside Towers reported that one rep for Vertical Technology Services recently estimated only some 14 such crews are qualified; now, several executives back that up to Communications Daily. Because of this, Tower King II CEO Kevin Barber sees the repack as lasting between five to seven years, rather than three.”

Five to seven years, versus three, is a huge deal for T-Mobile. Deploying equipment to have nationwide 600MHz coverage within three years is crucial to its long-term strategy. By then, we can expect to see 5G coverage start to creep in, and that 600MHz network will be vital for providing consistent high-speed data anywhere, even in the most remote and rural locations. That’s why all of the 600MHz antennas T-Mobile is deploying on towers right now are 5G compatible, so minimal equipment changes will be needed to upgrade 600MHz from LTE to 5G.

Responding to the Inside Towers report, a T-Mobile spokesperson told BGR “We have over 1.2M square miles clear & we continue to remain bullish around clearing. We’ve already begun to enter into agreements with broadcasters to accelerate clearance timelines from the FCC mandated dates.”

T-Mobile has long known that getting TV broadcasters moved is going to be the bottleneck for deploying its new network. Just as the FCC 600MHz auction was wrapping up, T-Mobile had already inked a deal with ERI, an antenna manufacturer, to boost its production by 800% over the next few years. It’s already announced a partnership with PBS to accelerate the moving of PBS’s regional broadcast stations, and it’s constantly been aggressive about pushing the 39-month timeframe for getting its 600MHz network clear.

Why should any of this matter to you, the non-broadcast-TV-watching person? Well, T-Mobile’s investment in 600MHz has the potential to be one of the biggest shakeups in the wireless industry for years. One of the biggest reasons that Verizon and AT&T’s network has always been so good is their low-band wireless network. Thanks to the laws of physics, low-band wireless signals travel further and penetrate obstacles like buildings better than the mid-band and high-band spectrum primarily used by T-Mobile and Sprint.

That disparity is the reason that T-Mobile’s network still sucks in rural areas and indoors compared to Verizon. Network superiority is also the only thing Verzion has left to shout about, now that it’s started throttling unlimited video plans.

Ultimately, the bottleneck of tower crews isn’t going to stop T-Mobile this year. All the regions it’s planning on covering this year are places where there’s no TV stations to move, so it’s just a matter of T-Mobile setting the towers up. But a crunch in resources to reallocate spectrum could ultimately be very costly for T-Mobile, and only time is going to tell who’s right.