T-Mobile pounds the first nail in 2G’s coffin

T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray

T-Mobile isn’t just launching a sizable LTE network in 2013, it’s becoming the Grim Reaper for 2G technology as we know it. In an analyst conference call on Thursday, T-Mobile unveiled a plan to radically reshape its networks, shutting down the majority of its 2G GSM capacity so it can focus almost entirely on 4G. As a result T-Mobile will get a bigger, badder mobile broadband network and, to boot, will almost certainly land the iPhone(s aapl).

With this new network configuration, T-Mobile is pulling a technological coup. Though it is spectrum-poorest operator of the Big 4, it will wind up with a higher-capacity LTE network than Sprint(s S) and one with comparable capacity to AT&T(s T), while still being able to milk a massive HSPA+ network for years to come. In the process, T-Mobile is calling into question the so-called spectrum crisis. While other operators are desperately searching for new airwaves, T-Mobile found its future growth spectrum sitting right under its nose. Consumer groups and regulators are almost certainly going to ask why AT&T(s t) and Verizon Wireless(s vz)(s vod) don’t do the same.

The network numbers T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray revealed at the call were surprising: 90 percent of the carrier’s data traffic and 50 percent of its voice traffic are running over T-Mobile’s HSPA+ networks. That means its GSM networks are languishing even though they occupy half of T-Mobile’s average 54 MHz of spectrum per market. T-Mobile’s answer is to shut them down, clearing the way for LTE and more HSPA+.

T-Mobile plans to sunset between two-thirds and three-quarters of its GSM channels in the PCS bands leaving, only a modicum of 2G bandwidth left for older phones that don’t sport 3G or 4G radios and to support basic data services for its machine-to-machine communications business. All of that capacity would then be turned over to HSPA+, creating a mobile broadband network on PCS almost as large as the one it currently runs on its advanced wireless service (AWS) frequencies. Moving HSPA+ to PCS opens up many doors for T-Mobile, most notably the ability to support any iPhone Apple makes for the U.S. market.

But T-Mobile won’t shut down HSPA+ at AWS completely. It will turn off some of that capacity and combine the remnant airwaves with the AWS licenses it took from AT&T as a consolation prize for their merger’s failure. It would then use that capacity to build a 10MHz-by-10MHz LTE network over 50 percent of its mobile broadband footprint. That would give it the same capacity as Verizon’s LTE network today and double that of the LTE network Sprint plans to launch this summer. In the remaining half of its network T-Mobile can only support a 5MHz-by-5MHz carrier, which would make its capacity configuration similar to AT&T’s. But keep in mind, T-Mobile has a fraction of the customers of Ma Bell and Verizon – it can make 5×5 go a long way.

Ray and CEO Phillip Humm said T-Mobile USA is still on the hunt for more spectrum, and ideally it would like to lock down more AWS airwaves to create a massive 20MHz-by-20MHz LTE network. That seems unlikely considering that its competitors are quickly scooping up what unused airwaves remain in the market, but T-Mobile is also challenging those deals.

Though Humm and Ray didn’t discuss it in the call, there’s always the possibility of repeating its network cannibalization feat at a later date to capture even more mobile broadband capacity. As more voice traffic moves to HSPA+, and more data traffic moves to LTE, T-Mobile could shut down its GSM network almost entirely and continue the HSPA’s shift down to PCS, which would in turn clear more AWS airwaves for LTE.