Monday, January 23, 2017

T-Mobile the underdog changing things

I want to explain some of the few details behind what makes a carrier a carrier and how the perception of connection changes based on different factors. These factors often depend on resources that are limited and largely owned by the bigger corporations.

t-mobileTo start, I will need to give brief overview on how you connect to a carrier like AT&T or T-Mobile. They each own certain amount of airwaves known as spectrum, much like a TV station or radio broadcast. Each carrier can only then broadcast over spectrum that each of them own. And spectrum for cellular carriers is a very limited resource. The original spectrum to go up for sale was bought up by many different regional carriers. Most of these carriers have now been swallowed up by either AT&T or Verizon, who own the majority of the available low band spectrum.

What is low band spectrum versus the high band? Well, low band spectrum can reach much further distances, and penetrate walls much better than high band, but high band can push more through it. High band can get faster data speeds, or handle more concurrent phone calls, but covers a much smaller distance per broadcast location. To give a rough idea of that difference, it would take 3 high band towers to cover the same area as 1 low band tower. This makes the low band essential for deploying cell coverage into rural areas, as it is roughly speaking a third the cost.

T-Mobile 2 years ago, picked up its first low band spectrum from Verizon, for $2.4 Billion. Now, most spectrum is split up onto small blocks, sometimes down to the size of counties. So, this spectrum T-Mobile got, covered a lot of big cities and rural areas, but it was not nationwide. Also, this spectrum had been available and owned by many regional carriers, none of which had deployed anything to them. Why? Because AT&T was blocking it, which is another whole story I won’t get into. Now, having low band spectrum, T-Mobile could now compete in a way they were never able to before as they could start deploying into rural areas is wasn’t monetarily feasible before.

Just getting the spectrum though, didn’t solve T-Mobile’s problems. They had many hurdles to jump through, the main one being getting phones that could use this new spectrum. Not only do they have to either update or build to towers to broadcast this new frequency (spectrum), but for the end user to use it, their phone has to support it, and at the point of the sale, no phone was shipping with support for it, even though it had been existing for over 4 years. That was in thanks to AT&T, basically blocking the competition.

Now, we are a 3 years into T-Mobile owning this low band spectrum, and T-Mobile’s coverage is completely different because of it. I now can connect to a T-Mobile LTE tower in parts of the Upper Peninsula in Michigan, and have connection to LTE all the way along I-75 to the Mackinac Bridge. They have been deploying furiously out to the spectrum to cover rural freeways, so people can stay always connected, as that is what is now expected in this day and age.

You may say in response though, why didn’t I have LTE then for most of the trip to Detroit? Well, remember from what I said earlier, the end device has to also support this new spectrum. Unfortunately, Apple did not add the necessary capability for the frequency until the iPhone 6S. Google's Nexus 5 also lacks the hardware necessary for using this spectrum. Moving forward though, all iPhones will support it. All phones sold from T-Mobile and Google for over year now have supported it as do most other phones built for GSM networks.

Here is great map that will show you where T-Mobile owns licenses for this low band spectrum, and points showing where users have reported sightings/connections to it. This is just confirmed reported sites. There is likely far more within the areas owned, it is just they haven’t been put into the map as they aren’t known or specifically reported. For instance, the UP of Michigan has several towers, but aren’t displayed.

As you may notice in this map, much of the midwest is not covered. This is because US Cellular owns that spectrum. T-Mobile has made roaming agreements with them that go into effect Q1 2017 which means that if you go inside and lose T-Mobile signal, you may then roam to U.S. Cellular.

T-Mobile has been the driving force of major change happening in the wireless space. If in an area with T-Mobile, I like them the best as they offer more features on their network than AT&T and Verizon, plus they are not as evil a corporation. The trade-off is you might hit a few times when coverage is less than optimal in comparison, but make no mistake, AT&T and Verizon have shortcomings in their coverage and network performance as well as a much higher cost of entry, regardless of what the commercials say.

AT&T tried to merge with T-Mobile as T-Mobile was at the time failing, with over 4 quarters with a loss in customers. That merge failed as it was rejected by the FCC. From there, T-Mobile changed its plans and since then has grown every quarter and is now over twice the size making it now the 3rd largest carrier as it passed Sprint in Q1 2016. T-Mobile combined with Sprint are still smaller than AT&T. That just shows how large AT&T and Verizon are.

Because of T-Mobile, we now have the following across the other carriers:
  • No Contract options for services
  • Improved International coverage
  • Upgrade plans for those who always want the latest phones
  • Data rollover for unused data in a given month
T-Mobile’s Simple Choice plans first started with 500MB of data. The plans a year later changed to 1GB of data, which was automatically applied for subscribers but their cost remained the same. Little over a year later, it was increased to 2GB, again for the same cost. Something not seen from Verizon or AT&T. Then there is T-Mobile Tuesday where they give away cool free stuff. I’ve gotten many free movie rentals from Fandango, over $40 in credits for buying or renting movies on VUDU, free subs from Subway and Frosty's from Wendy’s.

All of this is the reason why I prefer T-Mobile.

Anyway, hope you found this useful. If you have any questions, feel free to leave a comment below.

Monday, April 27, 2015

T-Mobile's Ambitious LTE Deployment

It is fun to go back and review how things have changed over the years. Lets take a look at T-Mobile my carrier of choice due to their focus on improving the customer experience.

Back in 2012 they had a major problem. They were losing customers and had a failed merger with AT&T. They were now in a rough spot with everyone wanting LTE and T-Mobile had none. In comes John Legere in fall of 2012 with big plans for the carrier to bring LTE to the carrier, get the iPhone and do things that other carriers won't.

Below is a chart for T-Mobile refarming plan. Since they didn't have any open spectrum to deploy LTE to like Verizon or AT&T from the 700Mhz Auction, they needed to find space in their current spectrum. AWS was the clear best choice for deployment which currently housed their HSPA+ network. After this rollout was complete it would get LTE onto all the current AWS towers along with the current HSPA+. 

By the end of 2013 T-Mobile had a decent LTE footprint but it was far behind AT&T and Verizon. As soon as you left the urban area, thus leaving AWS coverage, you hit the PCS network, which for most areas was still Edge. In March of 2014, it was announced that by end of 2015, all Edge towers would be converted to LTE which would increase there LTE footprint even more. This was great, but still didn't solve the biggest issue of T-Mobiles, lack of rural coverage and poor reception in buildings.

T-Mobile knew this and sought to solve this by getting some low band spectrum. The only option there would be to get some of the 700Mhz spectrum. Block A was what they went after and they made a purchase of the licenses Verizon had which covered a lot of key areas like most of California, Southern Michigan, Central Minnesota, Florida, Colorado, some of Missouri and much of the east coast from Maryland up to New York.
In July 2014, T-Mobile took ownership of the spectrum from Verizon. They then started to build out on the new network in a few major cities that the new spectrum now covered. This helped fill in the gaps of coverage and initially went live in Cleveland, Colorado Springs, Minneapolis and Washington DC. This was within 6 months after they took ownership of the spectrum from Verizon.

Before the end of 2014, they also were able to pick up some other Block A licenses the biggest of which being licenses Actel, which they picked up from AT&T. This gave T-Mobile a much larger presence in the low band 700Mhz Block A spectrum by adding Arkansas, Louisiana and the rest of Lower Peninsula of Michigan along with the Eastern UP along with the rest of Colorado.

At the end of 2014, T-Mobile is known for having the fasted network, but still lacking in rural coverage but 2015 has huge potential for them. Now with low band spectrum, they can extend into rural areas at a much lower cost in the areas that they have licenses for and once they complete the Edge to LTE upgrade, their LTE network will look a lot better.

In February, T-Mobile gave an update to show what their planned LTE coverage will be by the end of 2015 and it looks very impressive. The big question is will they be able to meet this highly ambitious goal.
This layout shows many new areas with LTE coverage where currently T-Mobile has no coverage. One of those areas is Michigan. Currently T-Mobile only covers they very south around the main cities and highways. This map shows them growing into the northern parts of lower Michigan and into the Upper Peninsula. 

The midwest has plenty of growth to be seen as well through Texas, Oklahoma and Kansas. Florida appears to be a solid chunk of LTE along with the east coast.

This maps you may notice looks a lot like what Verizon's totes for their LTE network. If T-Mobile can match Verizon and AT&T in the rural areas and then keep their higher speed connections in their urban areas, we could see some major growth for the Magenta carrier.

The reports for 700Mhz Band 12 sightings are happening all the time now. Some new markets have been announced this year. I'm going to pick up a Band 12 compatible phone in the next month or so and start doing some searching to find new Band 12 towers and see if T-Mobile is able to meet their goal.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Stop buying phones and signing contracts with Carriers

Most people, when they think about phones, think about a carrier. That's because almost everyone phone currently on the market only work on one carrier and has all sorts of influence on the phone from the carrier. These are mostly geared towards things working out better for the carrier than the customer.

The big exception to this rule is the iPhones, as they are carrier independent, have no bloat or changes specific to a carrier. No features integrated into the device that talks back to the carrier saying when you activated certain features, like tethering.

In buying their phones, you also get stuck with all their apps and services they are pushing, which usually means they force out competitive items, for instance, Verizon blocked Google Wallet from there Galaxy Nexus because it competed against their Softcard service.

On top of that, each carrier get special made phones for their network, that has hardware that works on just their network, meaning that if you want to switch carriers, you have to get a new phone. Now, with cutting out hardware to work on all carriers, this doesn't save some costs in the cost of hardware for the phone, but the manufactures have 3 or 4 phones to support each carrier, meaning a lot more to produce and support.

The latest Google Nexus 6 phone, fully supports all the to US phone carriers from their 2G, 3G, and 4G LTE networks. It doesn't have any carrier built or imposed software on it. It is a phone that is built with the user in mind, not the carrier.

On top of getting phones that are tied to a carrier, we sign 2 year contracts for subsidized phones. This has been fairly beneficial for the most part between carriers and consumers because no one really wants to buy the latest smartphone outright as they cost $600 or more. Well, the point has come where we need to stop doing this and we need to start buying phone directly from the manufacturer and get them to stop building phones specifically for the carriers. There is so much wasted money going into the phones.

Motorola is now doing financing on their phones making them readily more available without needing to have the full amount to pay for phones upfront. I would like to see all the phone manufacturers start this same method and start getting their phones straight to the customers and bypass the middle man (carriers).

Once we all start buying direct from manufacturuers and stop going through carriers for their custom phones we will start to see better prices, better options and better competition. The carriers will then stop wasting time making custom phones and focus more on their networks and prices.

Saturday, November 09, 2013

Nexus 7 LTE

There are a bunch of tablets out there with many variations and options. I made my decision on the Nexus 7 for its price and features. Plus the fact it runs stock Android and gets updates fast made it a clear choice. There are also very few tablets out there with cellular capabilities and the Nexus 7 shines in that category.
Nexus 7

First off, lets talk about the hardware. With the quad core Snapdragon S4 Pro, it has plenty of performance and the 1080p IPS looks great and is very crisp. The tablet is light and thin making it very easy to take on the go.

The main feature this device offers that most tablets lack is cellular connectivity. This tablet offers LTE capabilities to Verizon, AT&T and T-Mobile. This makes this tablet very useful on the go and not tied down to the home. For T-Mobile and AT&T it also supports there HSPA and Edge networks so you have a very wide range of support.

At the price of $350, this offers a price lower than most iPad models that lack cellular connectivity and several hundred lower than the ones that do, which only come in the larger models and I prefer the smaller size for more portable use.

With this on T-Mobile, it has been a complete joy having this while waiting for the car being fixed or in the doctors office. I would highly recommend this to anyone looking for a great tablet.

Wednesday, May 15, 2013

Google+ Hangouts - Google's Unified Messaging

Google has released there new product which will be rolling out over the next few days to all Android 2.3+ devices. This addition has had a lot of hype and has a lot of good changes and qualities about it.

Basically, this new move brings all of Google's different chat methods into one unified system. So, now you can get the new extentions for Chrome, Gmail, Google+ or phone apps, and they all works seamlessly together for chat, voice or video communications.

The best feature about the new system is the notifications. Once read on one device, it is taken away as a notification on your other devices, so you don't have to disregard messages you've already read somewhere else. This is something that has bothered me for years and am glad to see a solution, that in my short testing, works very well.

The Chrome extension is very interesting. It runs and give a pop-up window on messages, which stays persistent across tabs. This is a great improvement over Gmail built in chat, which will be very useful for Chromebooks, which are becoming very popular.

The new system has a clean indicator, showing up to what point the other person as viewed and since a hangout can consist of up to 10 people, this could be very useful.

Now, many people are complaining that no SMS integration is implemented but I think we will be seeing this coming very soon. In reviewing the permissions for the new Android app, it shows that it needs permission to read, receive and send SMS messages. This heavily points to integration with SMS to deliver the message by SMS if they are not available. This would then put Google's new product ahead of Apple's iMessage for two reasons, the wider range of devices supported as well as only seeing notifications once.

Google has released what will be a great product, once it is fully implemented putting the ball into Apple's court.

Friday, May 03, 2013

Left 4 Dead 2 - Now Available in Steam on Linux

Left 4 Dead 2 has now been made available in Linux in Steam. This is the game that was first reported to be coming to Linux with the Steam client. It has finally arrived and will not disappoint. Just yesterday Portal was released and now Left 4 Dead 2. I don't know if Valve is seeing any profit with all this effort, but I am sure glad they are making the effort and give them my full support.

The latest reports show that Linux usage has peaked and has begun to decline. I am hoping that this is just due to the bulk of games being available being indie games that were mostly already available in Linux through other means. Hopefully the launch of major games like Portal and Left 4 Dead 2 will help bring those numbers back up and continue to rise to new heights.

I myself have many good games available in Linux from Oil Rush to Waregame: European Escalation. If Valve continues to bring there other Source games to Linux, that would be the end of Windows for me as I would have enough games to keep my busy.

Thanks Valve for making Linux users like me happy!

Cyanogenmod 10.1 - Galaxy Nexus

I've had my Samsung Galaxy Nexus for over 6 months now and I've realized a few things in that time. First is that the software on the phone, is much more important than the phone hardware. I would rather have Jelly Bean on 1 year old hardware, than Ice Cream Sandwich on the latest phone hardware. This is why the Galaxy Nexus was a good choice for me because with it, I can be on the latest version, though I do have the Sprint version, which does lag a little, but ultimately isn't the reason I moved too Cyanogenmod.

I ran Cyanogenmod on my previous phone, the Sprint EVO 4G. That made a huge difference and was much more pleasant than the stock HTC Sense interface which could be slow, though it did have some nice features to it. This time, having the Galaxy Nexus, even though it was the Sprint version, and being stock Android, my desire and need to move to a custom ROM was very small. Ultimately, the reason I moved was for just a few features that I wanted.

The first thing I love about the Cyanogenmod 10.1 release is that the pull down can be notification or the new Android quick settings. If you pull down from the center to the left, it is your normal notifications, but if you pull down from the right, it is your quick settings. You can also add more items to the quick list like GPS and LTE, which I really needed as well.

The one other thing I like, now that I am moved over is the circular battery indicator. I didn't care about this at first, but it is very easy to read and view exactly how much battery is left. The stock indicator can be very misleading at times. The new indicator is a must have for me now.

All in all, stock Android is an amazing, and I could get by on it just fine. Cyanogenmod though offers those few customization that just make the experience ever so slightly better in my opinion, making Android just that much better. I just wish I wasn't stuck in a contract with Sprint and their super slow data speeds in my area, but that is another story.