Speaking to investors at Wells Fargo Virtual Media & Telco Day on Monday, Neville Ray, T-Mobile’s president of technology, said, “I have more small cells than I need. Is there some decommissioning in that space? Potentially — yes.”
According to a transcript provided by T-Mobile, Ray said his company is “looking to collapse and combine and do that most efficiently to build that density, capacity and performance.”
Although Ray maintained that small cells will continue to be a key part of the strategy, he said that T-Mobile would focus on reducing the number of small-cell sites to 50,000, a number that Ray has cited in previous discussions.
Last week, during a UBS conference, Ray also said the target is about 50,000 for the amount of small cells T-Mobile ultimately needs. He said his strategy is primarily a macro-based approach for 5G. “We’re going to pour huge amounts of spectrum onto the largest and most dense wireless network in the United States.,” he said. “I mean, nobody can dispute we have the biggest network – that’s like barking at the moon. We’re well over 110,000 sites today.”
Ray added that T-Mobile also has more macro sites than he knows what to do with, a factor that has reduced the company’s need for small cells.
Recently, Ray has emphasized the wealth of macro sites that T-Mobile enjoys.
“We’re not changing that number at all at this point in time,” he said. “As we see use cases and 5G traffic on these networks really start to grow and move and we fully understand the mobility patterns in many of these use cases that we can, if we’re honest with ourselves, define today, that obviously we’ll continue to review that math and those numbers. But right now, our plan is to again delivery synergies. This is a synergy-funded network upgrade program to deliver some synergies, small as they may be, in that small cell arena.”
T-Mobile started to decommission some small-cell sites last year, but expects to ramp up the process in 2021 — ahead of an earlier estimate of 2023 and 2024. At that time, Ray talked about decommissioning about 35,000 Sprint sites over the coming years, leaving 12,000 or 13,000 Sprint sites that it would bring into the T-Mobile fold for capacity, coverage or both.
T-Mobile closed the Sprint transaction about 14 months ago and together, they have almost 300 megahertz of spectrum in the mid-band arena, Ray noted. That includes AWS and PCS assets; folks sometimes forget that Sprint has what Ray called great PCS assets, as well as the 2.5 GHz that gets most of the attention. Sprint’s service was known as Sprint PCS in one of its earlier iterations.
“As we combine the two companies, both companies were building out small cells to supplement limited spectrum in certain areas, certain coverage hotspots and so on,” Ray said at the Wells Fargo event.
Meanwhile, Verizon plans to continue adding around 14,000 small cells for the next few years to build up coverage and eventually expects mmWave to carry 50 percent of urban traffic. Verizon controls more millimeter-wave (mmWave) licensed spectrum than its rivals and is using it to pinpoint high-density areas like stadiums and arenas.
Ray reiterated that T-Mobile also is using mmWave and noted its work in New York, but he said it’s more selective in deploying mmWave in venues where it needs that kind of extra capacity. Its stockpile of spectrum is skewed to 2.5 GHz and other bands as opposed to mmWave.
Mike Harrington is a contributing editor.