T-Mobile Plans for Growth, 3G in 2006

T-Mobile USA has big plans for 2006, the company told BetaNews in an interview on Thursday. The carrier intends to complete the rollout of GSM 850, which has boosted its coverage area by nearly 40 percent, and finally establish its long-awaited 3G network. T-Mobile also believes it could top Verizon in Consumer Reports rankings of quality service.

The biggest benefit of GSM 850 would be increased coverage, mainly throughout the central part of the United States. However, the rollout would also include rural areas of the Northeast and West. Altogether, nearly 400,000 square miles of new coverage has been added during 2005, according to the carrier.

Several roaming agreements have been signed with various operators, most notably Dobson, Cingular, Western Wireless, Centennial, EDGE, and RCC, T-Mobile's senior vice president of Engineering Operations Neville Ray told BetaNews.

"We've secured this year effectively all of the 850 footprint that was out there," he said. "There may be some incremental increases next year, but they will not be significant."

The difference is already clear; large swaths of the Plains states now have coverage, and a T-Mobile subscriber could now drive roads like Interstate 80 from coast to coast with much fewer service disruptions than before.

Ray explained that the reason why 850 has become popular, especially in rural America, is due to its propagation characteristics. "An 850 signal does propagate further than a 1900 signal," he said, explaining that a carrier can build less towers yet still have the same network coverage.

In the U.S., 1900 MHz has been the most commonly used frequency for digital cellular service, similar to the 1800 MHz band in Europe. Although their European counterparts use 900 MHz for rural areas, stateside carriers have turned to the 850 Mhz band to maximize network coverage.

From here on out, all of T-Mobile's phones will be compatible with the new spectrum, and the carrier will soon begin to move current customers to these phones through its upgrade program. "We're moving our base as quickly as we can to 850 capability," Ray said.

The company also thinks this rollout will begin to battle the perception that the carrier has had troubles with expanding its coverage. "There will be large swaths of geography where they will now have service from T-Mobile," Ray said. "The benefits are significant for a large portion of our customers."

Eventually, T-Mobile's coverage map would be practically identical to Cingular's, erasing the advantage its rival and others like Sprint-Nextel and Verizon have over the nation's fourth largest carrier.

"The differences on the map would be where Cingular includes analog-only coverage on its marketing material," Ray said. "That's not an unfamiliar story for Verizon too. When you compare their footprint with our footprint, the biggest difference is analog. It's not digital service, GSM or CDMA."

Ray also spoke briefly to T-Mobile's 3G, or third generation, plans, and seemed to indicate that the carrier may be following a more accelerated plan towards next generation data services. Cingular announced the launch of its own high-speed HSDPA network earlier this month.

Ray revealed that 3G testing was already occurring in some markets, although he declined to provide specific locations, as the networks are not publicly available.

"We are very hopeful that by the end of 2006, and definitely in 2007, we'd be able to bring 3G services to the market. Some of this is auction dependent," Ray said, alluding to a large cellular spectrum auction to take place next summer. "We're hopefully looking at a 3G deployment in late 2006."

While Ray did not specifically say which 3G technology T-Mobile would adopt in the United States, the carrier may choose to go straight to UMTS, the technology its European sister companies are currently using.

The 850 expansion would not contribute to T-Mobile's rollout of 3G, Ray said, explaining that in the near term, the focus of 3G would be in the metro areas. "A lot of rural America is covered by the smaller players and not the big carriers," he explained. "So I think it will be some time before you see 3G services in many of those locations."

Ray added that he expects the company's image to benefit from the expansion and sees a bright future ahead for T-Mobile.

"I look at Consumer Reports placing us a solid second to Verizon, and I think our footprint expansion this year will even further solidify our position. And in some cases, we're rapidly closing in on first place."

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