In last night’s Superbowl ad, T-Mobile has Steve Harvey announced that T-Mobile has doubled their LTE Coverage and that T-Mobile has more “LTE towers” than Verizon does. While the commercial itself is moderately humorous given the play on Steve Harvey’s mistaken announcement at the flubbing of the Miss Universe contest, T-Mobile misstated a number of key facts.
First, “towers” and “cell sites” aren’t the same thing. The tower is the physical structure that supports the antenna equipment or the “cell site”. We can’t tell in this commercial whether T-Mobile is saying that it has more LTE towers than Verizon or whether it has more LTE cell sites than Verizon. If T-Mobile is suggesting that it has more LTE towers, then that doesn’t really mean much. Cell sites carry traffic, towers support one or more cell sites. Both carriers sold off their tower portfolios in recent years and neither owns that many towers. (We estimate 2,000 or less for each).
Assuming that T-Mobile means “LTE cell sites” when they say “LTE Towers”, they do in fact have more cell sites than Verizon. Since neither T-Mobile nor Verizon reports anywhere how many cell sites they have or how many of their cell sites have been deployed with LTE specifically, we suspect that T-Mobile is simply saying that they have more cell sites overall and even if both Verizon and T-Mobile have added LTE to all their cell sites, T-Mobile still would have more LTE cell sites. Based upon our research, we believe that T-Mobile has between 55,000 and 60,000 cell sites in the US, while Verizon has around 50,000-55,000. So technically, it is possible that T-Mobile has more LTE cell sites than Verizon. However, we can also say empirically that Verizon is adding more cell sites than T-Mobile- we get the requests from landowners approached by Verizon multiple times each week, while we hear from landowners approached by T-Mobile once or twice a month.
However, T-Mobile then further states that T-Mobile covers “pretty much everyone that Verizon does”. This is misleading at best and clearly stretches the truth. At the end of 3rdQ 2015, Verizon had 137 million subscribers while T-Mobile had 61 million subscribers. Make no doubt about it, T-Mobile has been doing great at adding subscribers, but adding “subs” is not the same thing as providing coverage to “pretty much everyone that Verizon does.” T-Mobile on their website claims to cover 304 million people with LTE while Verizon covers 314 million (I strongly doubt this). They point to adding 1 million square miles of LTE coverage in the last two years. T-Mobile then questions why Verizon doesn’t provide similar information, failing to mention that Verizon was just much farther ahead of T-Mobile in deploying LTE and didn’t have to catch up over the last 2 years.
T-Mobile’s spectrum holdings are primarily in the higher band spectrum in the PCS (~1900MHz) and AWS (~1700, 2100MHz) bands with some holdings in the 700MHz band. Verizon’s spectrum holdings are in the Cellular (~800MHz), PCS (1900MHz), AWS (~1700, 2100MHz), and 700MHz band. Verizon has significantly more lower band (700MHz and 800MHz) spectrum than T-Mobile. Lower band is more efficient in terms of coverage in rural and suburban areas and better for building penetration in urban areas. Higher band spectrum (which both companies own) is more effective for densification and adding capacity to the network in urban and suburban areas where there is a need for greater data use. In other words, Verizon’s spectrum holdings allow it to be more efficient with its cell sites than T-Mobile is with its cell sites especially in rural areas. In suburban and rural areas where T-Mobile does not own 700MHz spectrum, it will need to build 1.3 to 1.5 times more sites than Verizon to get the same coverage. (For more proof of this, please see the following Crown Castle presentation on frequency propagation of the different bands. So by default, to get to the same number of covered subscribers, T-Mobile would need more cell sites than Verizon. Maybe not 1.3 times as many but certainly more than the 5,000 or so additional cell sites than we believe it has over Verizon. In short, Verizon has a better LTE network and in the future will continue to outpace T-Mobile’s network.
The T-Mobile commercials also fail to address the depth of the spectrum holdings by each company. Simply put, Verizon has better spectrum and more of it. See this article in Fierce Wireless how much spectrum each carrier has for LTE deployments. If one reviews the maps, it is clear that Verizon has significantly more spectrum than T-Mobile across significantly more areas of the country. This can be demonstrated by the independent research by RootMetrics where Verizon’s network was awarded best overall performance in 104 metropolitan areas while T-Mobile was awarded best network in only 17. If you want a cheap wireless network- go with T-Mobile but only in their 700MHz markets. Just don’t be surprised in the future if T-Mobile’s network doesn’t keep up with your expectations especially if they continue to add subscribers without spending significantly more on their network. If you want better quality of service in the most places and are willing to pay more, ignore T-Mobile and go with Verizon.
While we believe that T-Mobile may have misled in its 2016 Superbowl ad, we do have to applaud them for what they have accomplished so far. In the areas where they have 700MHz spectrum and have deployed it, their network is comparable to Verizon (for now). They have been on a tear in terms of adding new subscribers and their ads are funnier than any of the other wireless carriers. However, we don’t blindly recommend using T-Mobile just because of their successful ads. First, examine this map of T-Mobile’s 700MHz spectrum holdings and areas where they have deployed such spectrum. Second, see if you can test the phone in your home and confirm that you get fast data and good call coverage. Third, review the open source coverage maps such as Sensorly or OpenSignal.