T-Mobile’s new LTE network is fast, but it’s going to get a lot faster

T-Mobile is off to a good start with its nationwide 4G LTE rollout, launching the new mobile broadband service on Tuesday in seven cities And judging by all the network testing activities we’ve been seeing lately we’re sure to see several more markets go live in the coming months. CEO John Legere called the network “smoking fast,” but the question now is how T-Mobile’s LTE stacks up against the competition in this increasingly crowded 4G market?

Since the network just went online and it doesn’t have an established user base, it will be several months before we start seeing reliable figures from testing companies like RootMetrics or OpenSignal, but we can get idea of how T-Mobile’s network will perform based on what we know about the spectrum and the technology its using. As I’ve detailed before, no two LTE networks are created equal, and T-Mobile has some advantages that will help its 4G service outpace its competitors.

A work in progress

Let’s tackle the spectrum first. T-Mobile is launching in the Advanced Wireless Services (AWS) band, using spectrum it has culled from the ongoing reconfiguration of its networks as well as the licenses it won from Ma Bell after the AT&T-Mo merger failed. That gives it enough to deploy a 20 MHz (that’s 10 MHz upstream and 10 MHz downstream) network in some markets, but only 10 MHz in others.

To put that in perspective, Verizon Wireless(s vz)(s vod) has launched a 20 MHz network nationwide, as has AT&T(s t) with a few notable exceptions in certain cities. Sprint(s s) is building a 10 MHz network nationwide. As we’ve seen from Root’s most recent report, AT&T’s and Verizon’s now fully loaded LTE networks are averaging between 14 and 18 Mbps on the downlink and between 8 and 9 Mbps on the uplink. Sprint’s half-sized — though relatively new — network is still managing an impressive 10 Mbps down and 4 Mbps up.

We can expect to see some correlation between those speeds and T-Mobile’s after it loads its new 4G network up with subscribers. But T-Mobile isn’t stopping there.

Mobilize 2012 Neville Ray T-Mobile
Neville Ray, CTO, T-Mobile (c) 2012 Pinar Ozger [email protected]

As T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray refarms more 3G spectrum for LTE, he will be able to boost many of its 10 MHz systems  to a full 20 MHz, but the real prize comes after it closes its acquisition of MetroPCS(s pcs) (which at this point seems almost a given). Surgically adding Metro’s AWS spectrum to the current network will give it 40 MHz of LTE in some key markets. That’s twice the capacity of the systems currently run by Verizon and AT&T.

Sometimes it pays to wait

As for technology, let’s just say there are some advantages from being late to market.

By virtue of its dallying, T-Mobile is deploying the latest-generation Ericsson(s eric) and Nokia Siemens(s nok)(s si) base station gear. T-Mobile is fond of calling its network “LTE-Advanced ready,” and though the term really is just a marketing conceit, there’s a bit of truth in those words. LTE is an iterative technology that improves over time. Because of its relative newness, T-Mobile’s infrastructure will be able to take new LTE upgrades more easily and more cheaply, and as device technology improves, T-Mobile will be able to support next-generation radio chipsets sooner.

Technically even T-Mobile’s most modest 10 MHz network could today support a theoretical downlink of 37.5 Mbps (though real-world network speeds would be much less) when connecting to the latest and greatest devices. Once it gets to the 40 MHz networks, however, T-Mobile’s 4G service would be truly awe-inspiring, boasting a theoretical ceiling of 150 Mbps.

Of course, 150 Mbps may seem a bit ridiculous for your typical smartphone user, but the justification for those speeds isn’t to create individual super connections, but to produce more capacity that can be shared by more users. The more data T-Mobile can deliver to a large subset of user, the cheaper it can make data pricing. And making data cheaper is one of the main ways T-Mobile is setting itself apart from the competition.

Feature photo courtesy of Shutterstock user Villiers Steyn