The market to deliver broadband to unserved rural customers is ripe for disruption -- and a merged Sprint/T-Mobile organization armed with 5G and fixed mobile could be that disruptor, Sprint CTO John Saw told a financial audience today.
Speaking at the Wells Fargo 5G Forum in New York today, Saw discussed how the "New T-Mobile" might use fixed mobile to reach rural markets if the merger is approved. The 5G-oriented discussion also touched on dark and lit fiber, LTE, spectrum and massive MIMO. Saw often answered questions in two parts -- once if Sprint remains a solo company, again for if regulators approve the merger.
Rustic -- But Unconnected?
If the merger is okayed, the new T-Mobile could offer fixed mobile to rural homes, said Sprint's Saw. (Source: Frances Gunn Unsplash)
Regardless, Saw said, Sprint continues to invest; this quarter it sent out $1 billion in purchase orders on massive MIMO alone, he said. The provider is adjusting its strategy to the number of massive MIMO sites based on pilots and tests, he said, and continues to build on its LTE strategy.
"We are not slowing down our investment. Merger or no merger, we are not slowing down on improving our network," Saw said. "A lot of what we do actually is going to be foundational, not just for standalone Sprint, but for the new company as well if the merger is approved."
Fiber is playing a bigger role at Sprint, primarily for densification, although it does use 2.5 and microwave. Although Sprint prefers the control it gets with dark fiber, it recently acquired some lit fiber now fiber pricing has become more competitive, said Saw.
"Fiber is becoming an important part of our build, especially if we're looking at launching massive MIMO… with LTE and 5G. That's when you need fiber," he said. "We have recently done some dark fiber builds. We also continue to use lit fiber. Lit fiber pricing has continued to get very competitive lately. Basically, we continue to look at all types of backhaul where it makes the most sense."
Disrupting the digital divide
While it's not a good fit for today's Sprint, fixed wireless portends well as an opportunity for the new T-Mobile, based on tech, competitive and government factors, said Saw. In fact, the combined company could address about 85% of the underserved or unserved rural customers with no or one provider, he noted.
"We could launch fixed wireless today, but for standalone Sprint the economics for mobile are so much better," he said. "I think, if you look at the merger -- and with 5G and you have better spectral efficiency -- if the merger is approved we'll have a fairly big 5G footprint covering the rural market and rural areas, that's when I think the fixed wireless story becomes very compelling. Half of the American households do not have fixed broadband or only have one fixed broadband provider; I think this is a space the new company can disrupt. I think, with a bigger 5G footprint -- and you look at what the FCC's definition of rural is (about 62 million households) and, with fixed wireless, let's say 25Mbit/s down and 3Mbit/s up, the new company can cover almost 85% of that. That's when fixed wireless becomes very compelling and very disruptive."
Pressed on how the competitive pool then expands into organizations such as RLECs, especially those that are not meeting Federal Communications Commission expenditure rules under the most recent funding programs, Saw declined further comment.
"I just think that's an opportunity that's ripe for competition," he repeated.
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