T-Mobile will launch LTE in the Wi-Fi airwaves in 2016

T-Mobile came up short compared to Verizon and AT&T in the last 4G spectrum auction, but it looks like it’s found another source of airwaves, and these won’t cost it anything. At Mobile World Congress on Monday, T-Mo revealed that in 2016 it plans to deploy LTE in the unlicensed 5 GHz bands, the traditional home of Wi-Fi, and it’s likely the Wi-Fi industry isn’t going to be very happy about it.

[company]T-Mobile US[/company] has never made a secret of its interest in operating in the unlicensed bands, but until now we’ve never had a firm deployment date, and that date is actually pretty darn close.

The country’s fourth largest carrier will use [company]Alcatel-Lucent[/company] small cells – which are like big tower-mounted cells, just tinier – embedded with [company]Qualcomm[/company]’s radio processing chips and LTE-Unlicensed technology (T-Mobile has tested similar systems from [company]Nokia[/company] and [company]Ericsson[/company] as well). The carrier plans to start a trial of LTE-Unlicensed this year and then adopt LTE-U’s more technically sophisticated brother LTE-License Assisted Access (LTE-LAA) when it takes that network commercial next year.

I just spouted off a lot of acronyms there, but the key thing you need to know about LTE in the unlicensed bands is it will share the 5 GHz airwaves with Wi-Fi, moving from channel to channel to find a clear path for its 4G transmissions, just as Wi-Fi networks coexist with another in the same spectrum today. The problem is, according to the Wi-Fi industry, LTE won’t necessarily play nicely with the other Wi-Fi networks in the band, potentially forcing Wi-Fi users off of their own spectrum.

This issue is going to come to a head over the next year – it’s already becoming a major topic at MWC this year – as more carriers announce their unlicensed intentions. Basically the mobile and Wi-Fi industry are engaging in an old-fashioned turf war. It’s easy to see why carriers are interested in the unlicensed bands. They have hundreds of megahertz of airwaves they could potentially tap for their 4G networks, which could translate into faster speeds and more capacity for their customers.

But it’s also clear why the Wi-Fi industry isn’t exactly welcoming the carriers with open arms. The unlicensed band is meant to be open and shared, but carriers traditionally aren’t the open and sharing types. They’re accustomed to owning their airwaves and doing with them whatever they please.

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AT&T, Verizon, Dish were the big 4G auction spenders

If you were looking for surprise winners out of the blockbuster 4G spectrum auction that ended Thursday, then you’ll likely be disappointed. Only four operators paid more the $1 billion for their licenses and they’re the ones everyone expected to win: AT&T, Verizon, Dish Network and T-Mobile.

According to the auction results released by the FCC on Friday, [company]AT&T[/company] spent the most racking up $18.19 in bids for these Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) airwaves, while [company]Verizon[/company] came in second, spending $10.43 billion. The upstart in the auction, [company]Dish Network[/company], bid $9.99 billion through its two auction entities SNR Wireless and NorthStar Wireless. If there was a surprise in this auction, it was how little [company]T-Mobile[/company] spent: only $1.77 billion.

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Though the auction closed with $44.9 billion in total bids, that overall amount was adjusted to $41.3 billion because of discounts applied mainly to Dish Networks’ bids.

AT&T took the most expense license for $2.77 billion in metro New York and Verizon grabbing its Los Angeles equivalent for $2.06 billion. After those top two markets though, you see a three-way race for airwaves between Ma Bell, Big Red and Dish, as all three aggressively went after in the big metropolises like Chicago, San Francisco, Boston and Washington, D.C., as well as the remaining licenses in NYC and LA. Half of the total spending in the auction went to 15 individual licenses even though there were 1,611 total licenses on the block.

Meanwhile T-Mobile seem far more targeted in its license selections – or it just wasn’t ready to pay the high prices asked. Its most expensive license was for the Houston area, costing $263 million. It also picked up strategic licenses in places like Miami, Phoenix, San Antonio, Austin, Indianapolis, Cleveland and New Orleans.

AT&T, Verizon and T-Mobile already have LTE networks in the AWS band so they’re likely planning to use that spectrum to augment their current networks. Dish, on the other hand, has no network at all. It plans to repurpose some of its satellite spectrum for 4G use, and its auction winnings will complement those holdings nicely. The question is whether Dish really plans to become a carrier. It could partner with another carrier like Sprint or T-Mobile to build a network, sell its spectrum or just squat on it to see if it increases in value.

If Dish does choose to squat on its airwaves, it would be particularly shameless considering it just got a steep discount at the auction. As BTIG wireless analyst Walter Piecyk points out, Dish won all of its licenses through its two affiliates NorthStar and SNR, both of which qualify for what’s known as designated entity status. DE status is a kind of “poor carrier” classification that gives a bidder a 25 percent discount on any winning bid. If Dish had bid on its these licenses directly it would have wound up paying $13.3 billion, not $10 billion.

This post was updated several times Friday with more auction details and analysis.

 

Verizon starts killing off 3G networks to make room for LTE

Verizon has already launched two distinct LTE networks since it first turned on 4G in 2010, but now it’s started paving the way for the third. Unlike the first two, however, this new network won’t tap virgin airwaves. Instead Verizon has started cannibalizing its old CDMA EV-DO systems for PCS spectrum, marking the beginning of what will likely be a very slow death for 3G.

Gigaom’s favorite network spotter Milan Milanovic discovered signs of [company]Verizon[/company]’s new LTE network in Manhattan when he connected to it with a Nexus 5 (a device Verizon traditionally hasn’t supported because it doesn’t work over its primary 4G network) and a Galaxy S4. The 1980MHz/1990MHz chunk of frequencies has traditionally been part Verizon’s 3G EV-DO network, or it was until last month when Milanovic noticed it was turned off (Milanovic happens to be kind of guy who totes around an industrial spectrum analyzer.)

A spectrum analyzer shows LTE signals in portion of the 1900 MHz PCS band that formerly contained CDMA EV-DO.

A spectrum analyzer shows LTE signals in portion of the 1900 MHz PCS band that formerly contained CDMA EV-DO.

This week, though, Milanovic noticed that those empty airwaves had once again jumped back to life, but with LTE instead of CDMA signals. Milanovic said that he’s found Verizon LTE in the PCS band at cell sites all over Manhattan, but so far nothing in Brooklyn and Queens. The transmit power of the network is still very low and the internet speeds he’s getting are still very slow, he said, indicating that Verizon is still in the early stages of testing. There have also been reports on network-tracking site SG4U of LTE popping up on Verizon’s PCS band in Cleveland.

I pinged Verizon, and spokeswoman Debra Lewis confirmed that Verizon is indeed testing LTE on the PCS band, though she said Verizon wouldn’t go into any specifics on locations or timing for a commercial launch. Lewis also made the point that this should hardly come as surprise since Verizon has said it would begin repurposing a portion of its 3G bandwidth for LTE in 2015. In fact, as early as 2011, Verizon CTO Tony Melone told me Verizon would likely shut down 3G completely as all of Verizon’s data traffic moved over to 4G networks.

That day is still a long time coming, though. About 80 percent of Verizon’s mobile data traffic now rides over LTE, but some 40 million (41 percent) of the total devices on Verizon’s networks only have 2G and 3G radios. That means for the foreseeable future, Verizon will have to keep a modicum of EV-DO capacity online at every cell site to support those devices. That’s what we’re starting to see in NYC at least: Verizon appears to have shut off half of its upper-band 3G capacity across Manhattan.

As for 2G, it will be around even longer than 3G since it’s still Verizon’s primary voice network, but eventually Verizon will begin the bulk of its voice traffic onto its new voice-over-LTE service. What we’re witnessing is the very beginning of a long, slow march toward death for Verizon 3G and the gradual transformation of Verizon into a carrier providing all its voice and data services over a single network technology.

Here’s a great way to see how the UK’s airwaves are used

The U.K. telecommunications regulator Ofcom has just released an interactive “map” of the country’s radio spectrum, showing which frequencies are assigned to which use types – all the way from the 8.3-11.3 kHz band (weather stations) to the 250-275 GHz band (radio astronomy). For fans of such things, it’s a delightfully presented and highly useful resource, though it stops short of naming specific companies that own chunks of spectrum, like mobile carriers. For newbies, it’s at the least a great visual representation of the finite and invisible spectrum resources on which much of our technology relies. Ofcom’s U.S. equivalent, the FCC, also provides a spectrum dashboard with similar functionality.

Need spectrum? FCC plans TV incentive auction for 2014

The FCC is moving forward with a controversial plan to entice broadcasters to give up their airwaves so they can later be auctioned off to carriers who need more spectrum to deliver mobile broadband. FCC officials expect the auction in 2014.

DOJ green-lights Verizon-cable deal with minor conditions

The Justice Department is giving Verizon clearance to close its $3.9 billion acquisition of the cable companies’ 4G airwaves. While it is imposing conditions on their joint-marketing agreements — basically non-compete pacts — to resell each others wireline and wireless services, the concessions are relatively minor.

Memo to T-Mobile’s future CEO: Don’t change a thing

Philipp Humm is out at T-Mobile, and we don’t know why. Whatever the reason, the move is sudden, and T-Mobile finds itself looking for a new chief executive. We have some unsolicited advice for whomever that replacement will be: Don’t mess with Humm’s work.

Verizon, T-Mobile stop bickering, enter spectrum pact

All’s fair in love and war. Only yesterday T-Mobile was lobbying hard to halt Verizon’s acquisition of the cable operators’ 4G spectrum. Today it’s unopposed to the deal. What changed? T-Mobile and Verizon now plan to swap the same spectrum they’ve been fighting over.