Why is the T-Mobile-Sprint merger such a big deal? It’s all about 5G

Why is the T-Mobile-Sprint merger such a big deal? It’s all about 5G
After many months of back and forth between courts, commissions and public hearings, the merger between two of the four biggest wireless carriers in the US is finally happening. T-Mobile is acquiring Sprint. With that, the whole mobile service landscape in the States changes.

There are plenty of threads to pull of that bundle. But here we’ll talk about one of the main arguments the two companies had when defending the merger: the combination of frequencies they have available will greatly benefit customers of both carriers. But what does that mean exactly? Well, let’s see!

5G bands composition

5G is a term that’s thrown around constantly these days so it’s easy to assume that every time it’s mentioned, people are talking about the same thing. In reality, things are a bit more complicated than that. Just like there are different types of light: infrared, visible and ultraviolet, so is 5G separated in three segments based on wavelengths.

The three 5G spectrum segments are:
  • mmWave
  • Mid-band
  • Low-band

mmWave frequencies and speeds

mmWave is the highest-frequency band and ranges between 24GHz and 72GHz (24,000MHz and 72,000MHz). This is the most popular segment for two main reasons. First, because it’s the one that allows the super-fast data transfer speeds that carriers love to talk about. Theoretical top speeds are about 10Gbit/s but in practice users today can experience around 1-2 Gbit/s.

The second reason is what sparks all sorts of controversies surrounding 5G: the higher intensity of the waves. We won’t get into that right now; however, the same quality that worries people is also mmWave’s biggest drawback. Because the waves in this frequency range are so short, they are easily absorbed, or in other words, blocked. Your windows, or even your hands, can block a mmWave signal from reaching your device. This means the range of the mmWave band is extremely limited. For good coverage, carriers need to install many new transmitters, which is not only expensive, but ugly as well. This is why carriers need…

Mid-band frequencies and speeds

Mid-bands, often called Sub-6 (meaning below 6GHz), are the golden mean of 5G. They span between 2.4GHz and 4.2GHz (2,400MHz and 4,200MHz) and offer a good balance between coverage and transfer speeds, usually ranging between 100 and 400Mbit/s. Because the frequency is much lower than that of mmWave, the mid-band segment offers better coverage and is preferred for cities and suburban areas. Carriers can even use existing towers after upgrading them to support the new wavelengths.

Low-band frequencies and speeds

The low bands are the base layer of 5G. They range between 600 and 700MHz and can provide data transfer speeds ranging from 4G territory, around 30Mbit/s to an upper limit of about 250Mbit/s. While speeds are nothing mind-blowing, the benefit of the low-band is that a single tower can cover an area of hundreds of square miles. This makes it perfect for rural areas where broadband internet is often missing.

To better visualize the three bands and their penetration capabilities, T-Mobile made this handy graphic:

Speaking of T-Mobile, it’s time to get back to the merger and its benefits.

Band wars: T-Mobile and Sprint vs Verizon and AT&T

So, remember how moments ago we said how mid-band offers the best speed-to-coverage balance? And how it's important if you want to provide 5G to large cities, in other words, where most people live? Well, until now, T-Mobile didn’t have access to those frequencies and Sprint did.

So, without Sprint, T-Mobile lacked the core of its 5G network, leaving it with the “slow” low bands and the limited mmWave. The unification of the two carriers is best represented by the so-called layered cake of 5G, yet another graphic provided by T-Mobile:

With their powers combined, T-Mobile and Sprint have all the pieces for a 5G coverage that offers the fastest possible speeds your location allows for. This is why T-Mobile was so desperate to make the merger work. With it, the Un-carrier has a competitive advantage over Verizon and AT&T, at least for the time being.

That’s because both other carriers still lack access to the Sub-6 part of the spectrum and rely on mmWave only for 5G coverage. You can learn more about the specific bands carriers have from our 5G bands cheat sheet. The FCC is set to auction off parts of the mid-band frequencies for 5G use this summer. Both Verizon and AT&T will try to snag a piece for their own networks.

Until that happens, however, T-Mobile will be working around the clock to integrate Sprint’s network into its own. You can bet that there’ll also be plenty of ads reminding people about the advantage it has over the competition.

Of course, gaining Sprint’s 50+ million customers isn’t insignificant for T-Mobile either, but the most lucrative part of the deal was the access to mid-band frequencies.

Now, it’s up to the other two of the newly-formed big three to respond to the challenge. Who will turn out to be right? Will a more competitive T-Mobile push prices down for all carriers or will a market with fewer players push them up instead? Only time will tell!

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