T-Mobile’s LTE Network Is Fast and Getting Faster

The T-Mobile booth at the Electronic Entertainment Expo in Los Angeles. Photograph by Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

T-Mobile is off to a good start with its nationwide 4G LTE rollout, having launched the new mobile broadband service on Tuesday in seven U.S. cities. Judging by all the network-testing activities we’ve been seeing lately, we’re sure to see several additional markets go live in the coming months. Chief Executive Officer John Legere called the network “smoking fast,” but the question is how T-Mobile’s LTE stacks up against the competition in this increasingly crowded 4G market.

Since the network just went online and doesn’t have an established user base, it will be several months before we start seeing reliable figures from testing companies such as RootMetrics or OpenSignal, but we can get idea of how T-Mobile’s network will perform, using what we know about the spectrum and the technology it’s using. As I’ve detailed before, no LTE networks are created equal, but T-Mobile has some advantages that will help its 4G service outpace its competitors.

Let’s tackle the spectrum first. T-Mobile is launching in the Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) band, using spectrum it has culled from the ongoing reconfiguration of its networks, as well as the licenses it won from AT&T after the Ma Bell-Mo merger failed. That gives it enough to deploy a 20 Mhz (that’s 10 Mhz upstream and 10 Mhz downstream) network in some markets—though only 10 Mhz in others.

To put this in perspective, Verizon Wireless has launched a 20 Mhz network nationwide—as has AT&T, with a few notable exceptions in certain cities. Sprint is building a 10 Mhz network nationwide. As we’ve seen from Root’s most recent report, the fully loaded LTE networks of AT&T and Verizon are averaging from 14 to 18 Mbps on the downlink and from 8 to 9 Mbps on the uplink. Sprint’s half-sized—though relatively new—network is still managing an impressive 10 Mbps down and 4 Mbps up.

We can expect to see some correlation between those speeds and T-Mobile’s after it loads its new 4G network up with subscribers. Still, T-Mobile isn’t stopping there.

As T-Mobile Chief Technology Officer Neville Ray re-farms further 3G spectrum for LTE, he will be able to boost many of its 10 Mhz systems to a full 20 Mhz. The big prize will come after T-Mobile closes its acquisition of MetroPCS (which at this point seems a given). Surgically adding Metro’s AWS spectrum to the current network will give it 40 Mhz of LTE in some key markets. That’s twice the capacity of the systems currently run by Verizon and AT&T.

As for technology, let’s just say there are some advantages from being late to market.

By virtue of its having dallied, T-Mobile is deploying the latest-generation base station gear Ericsson and Nokia Siemens. T-Mobile is fond of calling its network “LTE-Advanced ready,” and though the term really is just a marketing conceit, there’s a bit of truth in it. LTE is an iterative technology that improves over time. Because of its relative newness, T-Mobile’s infrastructure will be able to take LTE upgrades more easily and more cheaply; as device technology improves, T-Mobile will be able to support next-generation radio chip-sets sooner.

Technically, even T-Mobile’s most modest 10 MHz network could today support a theoretical downlink of 37.5 Mbps (though real-world network speeds would be much less) when connecting to the latest and greatest devices. Once it gets to running 40 MHz networks, however, T-Mobile’s 4G service will truly inspire awe. They will boast a theoretical ceiling of 150 Mbps.

As many as 150 Mbps may seem a bit ridiculous to your typical smartphone user, but the justification for those speeds isn’t to create individual super-connections. The purpose is to produce greater capacity that can be shared by more users. The more data T-Mobile can deliver to a large subset of users, the cheaper it can make data pricing. Making data cheaper is one of the main ways T-Mobile is setting itself apart from the competition.

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