Editorial: T-Mobile Needs To Focus On The Real Network Issue: The Large Swath Of 2G-Only Markets

After T-Mobile’s announcements last week, I spent some time over the weekend evaluating T-Mobile’s work over the last two years. We all remember how T-Mobile was effectively paralyzed by the attempted acquisition by AT&T in 2011, and how it really messed up the company. Initially, I felt that T-Mobile’s announcement of the modernization of its network throughout 2012 was a great plan. I was hopeful that this would finally mean that T-Mobile will bring its awesome HSPA+ network to its entire native footprint this year.

Obviously, that hasn’t happened. Instead, the large metropolitan markets were once again upgraded first. I understand why that happened. The larger markets offer a quicker and larger return on investment than the smaller ones. Smaller markets upgraded often have a high percentage of T-Mobile subscribers, so the return on investment was justifiably large enough to do it. It probably also helped to convince Apple to sign an agreement with T-Mobile to allow T-Mobile to carry Apple products with minimal changes required.

But T-Mobile needs to focus on its entire footprint for 2013. The vast majority of the largest markets have already received upgrades throughout 2012, and will certainly be part of the LTE deployment for the first half of 2013. However, T-Mobile has a very large footprint of markets that do not have access to any mobile broadband services above EDGE. Or worse, it relies principally on roaming to serve the area. While these markets are typically considered “small” markets, they do make up a rather significant portion of the population of the country. It is a bad idea for T-Mobile to continue ignoring them.

The entire states of West Virginia, Montana, North Dakota, and South Dakota have zero native coverage. Ostensibly, these markets are covered by the UMTS roaming agreement with AT&T that went active this year. Alaska has zero native coverage, but it served with roaming agreements with local GSM operators in some areas. Geographically, large amounts of Washington, Oregon, Nevada, Idaho, Colorado, Utah, Iowa, Arkansas, Mississippi, Alabama, and the New England area are not covered by a native network either. T-Mobile has spectrum licenses to deploy in these areas. For one reason or another, it has chosen not to. But T-Mobile needs to do something soon about those states, because it has a lot of spectrum that it paid a lot of money to get. If it doesn’t do something with them, it could lose those licenses at the end of the decade.

In the areas where T-Mobile does have a native network, most of it is 2G-only. A bit of it is still GPRS, but nearly all of the 2G network has EDGE now. With the major markets all modernized, T-Mobile needs to push forward in markets that have been neglected over the years.

Here’s a pair of example markets: Oxford, MS and Starkville, MS.

Oxford, MS is an interesting choice because it is surrounded by native 3G/4G coverage, but the area itself has only 2G coverage. According to FCC data, T-Mobile has at least 10MHz (maybe 15MHz) of PCS (1.9GHz, band 2) spectrum and 10MHz of AWS (1.7/2.1GHz, band 4) spectrum. It isn’t likely to get refarmed unless the entire subscriber base uses newer phones that can run entirely off of the 3G/4G network. Despite having one of the largest universities in the state and a diverse customer base, T-Mobile has not yet deployed any AWS service at all.

On the other hand, we have Starkville, MS. Starkville has at least 30MHz of PCS spectrum and 20MHz of AWS spectrum. Up until mid-November, it was a 2G only market. Like Oxford, it is a college town (home to Mississippi State University). While the official coverage maps have not been updated yet, Sensorly shows that Starkville does have 3G coverage now (and I’ve verified it is indeed active). I’ve even personally seen one of the cell sites being upgraded to the new modernized equipment this past weekend!

I brought up these two markets because they represent spectral situations that many 2G-only markets have (I’ve also been able to personally verify coverage accuracy there). The western half of the country is PCS-deficient, so more aggressive switchover to 3G service is required before refarming can happen. The eastern half is more often than not like Starkville, where it is AWS-deficient. The various deals T-Mobile has entered into this year (including the one to merge with MetroPCS) will improve the AWS situation in many of those areas. Not to mention, many markets have really old equipment up there. The equipment in place in Starkville and Oxford was put up by Powertel at the turn of the century. That makes it over ten years old! Equipment that old and suffering through natural disasters does not perform that well, either. These markets badly need the upgrades, and I’m certain that other areas are just like these.

T-Mobile’s most important task should not be deploying LTE, though that is something that needs to happen. Its biggest issue is that it has not deployed UMTS across its 2G-only footprint to drastically reduce the load on the 2G network so that capacity can be scaled down for M2M and 3G service can be lit up on PCS in as many markets as possible. T-Mobile has national access to AWS spectrum to deploy UMTS service, so it can do it. Granted, there are some markets that it is totally unfeasible to deploy UMTS service on PCS. That shouldn’t mean that T-Mobile should not deploy service on AWS. In all markets with that situation, there’s enough AWS spectrum to go around. Many of them can have both HSPA+ and LTE on it.

T-Mobile’s biggest (and most important task) for 2013 should be the elimination of 2G-only markets. Either through direct deployment or setting up a program similar to Verizon Wireless’ 4G LTE in Rural America program to have other companies do it for them (which would establish reciprocal roaming and limited network sharing agreements), it needs to get done. While it is unfortunate that many rural carriers offer only CDMA or 2G GSM service, such a program by T-Mobile could encourage a switchover and a vast improvement in the UMTS coverage situation. It may even offer a path for more constrained carriers to deploy LTE who don’t want to deal with Verizon Wireless.

In any case, T-Mobile’s primary focus next year should be on upgrading its entire 2G-only footprint to 3G/4G service. That would give T-Mobile customers a better quality of service and allow for T-Mobile to reduce its overall costs by dramatically simplifying its physical network and using newer, more reliable equipment. T-Mobile and its subscribers would both be very happy when that happens.

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  • jcj1

    This article is unnecessary as T-Mobile has already begun refarming their 2G to 3G/4G. Must be old or slow news day

    • superg05

      this was written December 10, 2012

  • JayBeeZee

    I know this is old, but… there isn’t any Tmob coverage between Jackson and Shreveport. That’s a really big gap and ~3 hour drive on I20. I can imagine people going between Dallas and Atlanta on Tmobile feel like they are in the dark ages for that stretch.

    Yet, they have the 4G billboards in a few places up in Jackson. That’s great. However leave Hinds county and you’re back to 2G.

  • theresolution

    Ok,
    I had to comment here. Great article by the way! I have been with T-Mobile since
    the days of Powertel. I live in the Jackson, MS metro area and the coverage
    here is still just as bad. They advertise 4g here and we only have 3g in a very
    small area. There is no roaming in this area. I know several people that would
    love to switch to T-Mobile but the coverage is just not here. It’s sad when
    your friends have coverage with ATT, Verizon or CSpire and you can’t even make
    a call let alone have data service. I have unlimited data with a GS3 but what
    good does it do me.

    I really want T-Mobile to succeed but the coverage needs to
    get better now! You can’t keep neglecting the smaller markets and expect to
    make it when the other carriers has had 3g here for several years and are now
    moving to LTE. Hell, CSpire has already lit up some LTE areas here. If CSpire
    had released the GS3 when I was ready to upgrade I would be with them as their
    plans are just as much a value as T-Mobile. Let’s just hope the new CEO see
    this article, all of the comments and realize this is a big problem that needs
    to be solved.

  • JayMoney88

    True and this one I REALLY hope they are working on for 2013

  • patstar5

    Exactly! My coverage in my area in Texas has 2g. While Att has hspa+. Have bad AT&T service in my town but 20 miles away I got 10mbps on hspa+. Also AT&T has hspa+ in other smaller cities while tmobile is only in metropolis areas.

  • patstar5

    Exactly! My coverage in my area in Texas has 2g. While Att has hspa+. Have bad AT&T service in my town but 20 miles away I got 10mbps on hspa+. Also AT&T has hspa+ in other smaller cities while tmobile is only in metropolis areas.

  • CWEST

    I live 45 mins from T-Mobile Corporate Headquarters and I can barely make a call half the time let alone get anything better than EDGE. My community has 30,000 plus people in it and it is all EDGE only.

  • spritemoney

    Anybody remember this map from the Jan 2011 investors meeting? http://www.tmonews.com/wp-content/uploads/2011/01/Screen-shot-2011-01-20-at-11.16.56-AM.png It’s 2013 and this DID NOT even come close of happening.

    • http://pharaohtechblog.blogspot.com/ Conan Kudo (ニール・ゴンパ)

      AT&T paralyzed them shortly afterward. They didn’t get much done at all that year. I expect that to have been pushed back to 2014 or 2015 with the announcement of modernization and LTE.

      • spritemoney

        I was thinking the same thing after I posted that comment. I really hope your prediction is right for 2014 or 2015. Honestly Phillip Humm and the AT&T deal really crippled T-Mobile, but it’s good that now they’re trying to be the Uncarrier. I’m not going to leave T-Mobile anytime soon, infact I got an iPhone for Christmas and now I’m happily using it on T-Mobile (with fast speeds). Currently I cannot recommend T-Mobile to a friend because of how their coverage is. John Legere is the savior of T-Mobile.

      • superg05

        please send this article to t-mobile ceo John.Legere@T-Mobile.com not just a link copy&paste maybe? he’s suppose to be at the other end a college should be a great place for upgraded deployment let him know

  • Bill Berry

    I absolutely agree with this article…if I cannot benefit from the high data speeds why can I not be allowed to use my old $5.99 unlimited plan? We have a donut hole here in the state of GA centered on Thomaston; Thomaston is a city, not a town, nada..zip, no T-Mobile whatsoever and I’m sick of begging. As for their towers they’re not like AT&T and Verizon Wireless; they restrict their high speed to dense population centers; if you’re in the country; forget it. Not even the interstates through these areas are high speed.

  • TmoJohnstownCustomer

    Where I live, I really only see EDGE and GPRS (Johnstown/Altoona PA region). Generally it is EDGE in town and GPRS along highways and rural areas between. I have to drive about 40 miles to see any 3G (UMTS). Last week, something interesting happened. I live under one of the GPRS towers and noticed that the signal kept fading in and out, so I switched to wifi calling. A few hours later, I turned off wifi calling and saw the GPRS has become EDGE! I’m hoping that this means the tower was upgraded to something modern like HSPA (But not yet “turned on”, but do not yet know. Would Tmo really invest in EDGE in 2013? I’m staying optimistic for now and I’ll post if I ever see “3G” on my phone. For now, at least it is an improvement. EDGE is slow but usable: GPRS typically timed out for everything: it was ridiculously slow. I agree with this editorial: if Tmo wants to expand, it has to be consistent and it needs to truly have nationwide high speed data. Some of the neighboring towers are still GPRS, So I can only wait and see if any changeover happens.

  • Blackberry 9900

    i live in New Haven County ,CT and always have problems with T mobile network .it can drop signal from 4G to GPRS OR EDGE or no service in seconds .I always wonder why I’m still with T mobile ,very poor coverage .UMA or Wifi calling now works ok ,but not always.I guess you get what you pay for .

  • disqus_R5vGq49Ttt

    I bow down to the writer of this article! I left AT&T after several years to go to T-Mobile. I live in city limits and for the most part have solid 4G coverage. My issue is when I leave the city limits AT ALL I have 100% 2G EDGE. I live in North Carolina. I would say that 90% of two major interstates here (I-95 & I-40) are 2G ONLY. Out where my family lives it’s 2G only where when I had at&t 4 years ago it was 3G. It’s absurd to know that 4 years down the road T-mobile can only offer 2G where AT&T had 3G coverage that far back. I have been to several part’s of the country and my experience is that T-mobile has HUGELY WIDESPREAD area’s saturated ONLY with 2G coverage. We say that they want to focus on larger markets first for monetary reasons, I understand that in part. The bigger picture is though…of the towns that have let’s say 50,000+ people in them that are solid 2G markets…how on earth do they think they are going to attract a smartphone user? T-Mobile your LARGE 2G coverage footprint hand’s down is your biggest flaw. Yes your cheaper then the rest….but the age old “You get what ya paid for” should be your tagline.At your current rate….I feel like the large 2G area’s in my state will finally be 3G in the year 2020 when Verizon, At&T, MetroPCS(haha) have deployed a 15G network that can teleport people.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Jeremy-Washington/100000190010519 Jeremy Washington

    if only there was a way to submit this to a t-mobile ceo but t-mobile already got a contract to improve service in rural areas from the gov but t mobiles the type to wait for a launch date or something so if they made improvements they have not flipped the switch yet

  • M42

    I’m going to print this article out, frame it and send it to T-Mobile’s CEO.

  • cpeeps

    Tmo’s biggest weakness is that as soon as you leave a major city, you have to switch carriers. Tmo can’t survive by only servicing people that live/work/refuse-to-ever-leave a major city. In NC, if you don’t live in Charlotte, Greensboro, or Raleigh you get EDGE at best with Tmo. Verizon, Sprint, and ATT, however, mostly cover the state.