T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray.

There was a lot to unpack from T-Mobile’s second quarter earnings call this week – its position on unlimited plan promotions, record service revenue, and a prepaid net add dip. But also of note were comments on the Un-carrier’s small cell plans, which paint an interesting picture of how T-Mobile views and is preparing for 5G.

According to CTO Neville Ray, T-Mobile already has a network of 13,000 DAS nodes from its MetroPCS acquisition as well as around 2,000 newly built small cells. Ray revealed the latter number is expected to hit around 8,000 by the the end of this year, and reaffirmed that T-Mobile has a total pipeline to 25,000 fiber-fed small cell locations to build to. These small cell builds – such as the one in Los Angeles – are already yielding short term boosts in micro network offload and speed, but Ray noted they are also setting the stage for T-Mobile’s launch of 5G.

“Millimeter wave is important, and it is important for very high throughput capabilities and services in primarily in urban environments, because the propagation on millimeter wave is going to be very taxed and very limited. But for us, when I think about capital intensity deploying millimeter wave, for example, a lot of the small cells that we are going out and securing space on now, we are looking to secure space to provide a 5G box as part of that rollout,” Ray said. “So the actual cost to come back on a small cell about millimeter wave capability will be actually very small.”

Multiplied by a network-wide dependency on millimeter wave spectrum, Ray acknowledged an “incredible amount” of money would be needed to complete those upgrades. But, he added, 5G is about more than just millimeter wave.

“If you swing the pendulum to the other end of the spectrum and you think about low-band spectrum and the need for massive coverage, IoT capabilities, and technologies, that’s where you need the low-band spectrum similar to what we have now secured in 600 MHz to go make that happen,” he explained. “That’s the complete, sort of the polar opposite from the millimeter wave story, but it is a very, very important part of the 5G story.”

In addition to prepping its small cells for millimeter wave 5G, Ray said T-Mobile is using its 600 MHz deployment as an opportunity to deploy 5GNR-capable radios. Those radios will be able to be updated to 3GPP 5G standards via software upgrades down the line, he added.

“This is another great opportunity for us to minimize this kind of cash burn and effort and time and resources when it comes to low-band 5G rollout,” Ray concluded. “The module for the company is to make sure that we have an incredibly strong organic path, not just for LTE and what happens in this marketplace for the next two to three years, but come the 5G story that will emerge and evolve around us in the ’19, ’20 timeframe.”