About the new iPhones and T-Mobile’s 600 MHz spectrum

Iphonex front side flat

If you’re in the U.S., looking at a new iPhone 8 or iPhone X and you’re a T-Mobile customer, you may wonder if the new phone supports T-Mobile’s LTE Band 71, new 600 MHz spectrum the company is in the process of bringing online. The short answer is no. Apple’s new phones don’t support Band 71 and can’t be made to. You’ll have to wait until Apple’s next iPhone refresh to get that capability. The devil is in the details, so read on for more.

T-Mobile’s Coverage Issues Explained

Some background: T-Mobile is great where you can find coverage, but finding coverage has always been the company’s Achilles’ Heel. Once you get away from densely populated urban centers with lots of towers, T-Mobile’s coverage becomes spotty at best, and its coverage inside buildings is historically crap, which is why the company made Wi-Fi Calling support such a priority as early as it did.

That’s because most of T-Mobile’s radio spectrum works between 1700 – 2100 MHz, radio waves that don’t go as far and which don’t permeate buildings nearly as well as T-Mobile’s competitors Verizon and AT&T, both of which operate in the longer 700 MHz range. A few years ago T-Mobile took a step to fix this with the acquisition of 700 MHz “A Band” spectrum from Verizon – LTE Band 12, as it’s known. The company’s built out LTE Band 12 coverage since then, but it’s still a patchwork, makeshift effort.

To get out from under this issue once and for all, T-Mobile is pivoting with a very bold move: They acquired 600 MHz spectrum earlier this year. Just as 700 MHz spectrum goes farther and works better inside buildings than 1700 – 2100 MHz spectrum, 600 MHz is better still. So with this move, T-Mobile is hoping once and for all to be able to go toe-to-toe with Verizon in areas where it just doesn’t compete very well. Like my neighborhood.

What’s more, T-Mobile has announced a very aggressive timetable to get it deployed – they want to see coverage improved by the end of the year. Whether T-Mobile can actually meet its aggressive timetable is a different story altogether – a lot of industry analysts think it’s going to take T-Mobile longer. If the past is prologue and based on the scattershot Band 12 rollout, their skepticism is warranted.

What’s more, T-Mobile’s marketing aside, it’s going to take a lot longer than the end of the year for 600 MHz to come everywhere that T-Mobile has signal, or even just the rural areas that T-Mobile has so much trouble competing with Verizon and AT&T. Expect this buildout to continue for the next couple of years. There are a few reasons for this, including the decommissioning of terrestrial television broadcast towers that use this same frequency spectrum.

There’s also an issue of manpower. Like every other carrier, T-Mobile is entirely dependent on a nationwide industry of independent cellular tower owners, operators and technicians to get their hardware deployed. Even if T-Mobile had unlimited funds to get a 600 MHz network up and running, there simply aren’t enough people in the industry who can climb the towers, install the new hardware, test it and get it working for them. What we’re talking about is a huge infrastructure effort that goes way beyond just flipping a switch and turning it on.

Why the new iPhones don’t work with LTE Band 71

T-Mobile is moving so fast it’s giving the rest of the cell phone industry whiplash. The problem is the smartphone industry, including Apple, just doesn’t move that fast. While a few low-volume, high-priced smartphones support LTE Band 71, most don’t, and won’t until 2018. That’s the situation Apple finds itself in.

In short, this is a challenge associated with supply chain management and quality assurance.

The hardware for the iPhone 8 and iPhone X was already finished before T-Mobile made this announcement. And the radio chips inside those phones were “baked” even earlier. It would have been unreasonable to expect Apple to go back to the drawing board to accommodate new spectrum from a single U.S. carrier.

So can’t you update iPhone cell radio firmware with new spectrum support? In short, no. And I don’t think you’d want to anyway, since there are a lot of secondary issues to consider, such as the shape and composition of the phone antenna, battery usage, and a host of other issues that will affect the use of the phone.

It’s also worth noting here that this issue is unique to T-Mobile in the US. No one else – anywhere – has yet announced support for LTE Band 57. So unless you’re a T-Mobile customer, and unless you’re in an area where T-Mobile plans to bring 600 MHz spectrum online soon, this should not affect your decision to buy an iPhone 8 or iPhone X.

I feel sympathy for anyone who’s on the fence about a new iPhone over this issue, because I’ve dealt with it myself. When the iPhone 6 was released, I was sure it would have LTE Band 12 support, and it didn’t. We iPhone users had to wait a full year until the iPhone 6S shipped before LTE Band 12 came to the iPhone.

Likewise, iPhone 8 and iPhone X users on T-Mobile’s network are out of luck. I don’t think that’s any reason to hold up purchase of those devices, especially if you’re a T-Mobile customer in an area with LTE Band 12 support. The company calls that “Extended Range LTE” in its coverage support map. Even though LTE Band 12 was hot news years ago when the iPhone 6 came out, T-Mobile’s buildout of Band 12 support is nothing close to finished.

If you’re like me and you’re upgrading from an older device that doesn’t support Band 12, you’ll see some incremental improvement if you’re in an area with LTE Band 12 support. If not, you may have to suffer through yet another upgrade cycle before you see the benefits T-Mobile’s making with its network – or just jump to a much more expensive carrier that offers 700 MHz spectrum support like Verizon or AT&T.

Neither is an ideal solution, but I don’t think there is an ideal solution. There’s always a tension between adopting cool new technology early and suffering because that technology doesn’t work as well as it could have if we’d only waited. There’s never a perfect time to buy new gear. My advice is to buy the best gear you can afford and accept that within a shorter timeframe than you’d like, it’s going to be replaced with something better. Don’t buy in to buyer’s remorse – be happy with what you have.

For my money, I’m thinking more about getting an inexpensive iPhone 7 Plus now that prices have dropped – especially on the resale market – and then hopping on board next year with an 8S Plus or an iPhone X.1 or whatever is available at the time.

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7 thoughts on “About the new iPhones and T-Mobile’s 600 MHz spectrum

  1. Peter says:

    Fantastic point. Also worth considering: Where you are. 600 MHz isn’t coming to all markets at the same time.

  2. Mike McDonald says:

    I’m also curious if the Qualcomm kerfuffle isn’t lurking in the background. We know T-Mo has the lowest penetration of iOS devices and the Android handset makers are constantly bellying up to Qualcomm’s buffet so of course the higher end Android makers will be first on the new network. Meanwhile, Apple has been hedging on Q-com chips tossing Intel a bone but Intel’s baseband chips haven’t quite reached performance parity. Might it be Apple is developing their own baseband chipset just like they went internal on graphics this year?

  3. Peter says:

    There’s no question that Apple is looking to get its own silicon onto its devices wherever and whenever it makes sense. As you point out, there are a lot of moving parts in the supplier market. I don’t think Apple would introduce their own silicon until the legal issue with Qualcomm gets sorted, though, and we’re still a way off from that.

  4. Stan says:

    Yes, it’s definitely unfortunate that that band 71 was not included, but the fact is, not many markets will be lit up with 600 mhz before the 2018 iPhone debuts. The exclusion of band 71 is more glaring for T-Mobile customers who don’t upgrade every year but are planning to upgrade THIS year.

    The entire rollout won’t be complete until 2020 and the first phase isn’t scheduled to be completed until late 2018. Some may or may not know, but the reason for this is because the spectrum that TMO purchased was used by TV stations, many of which will need to be transitioned to other frequencies and these transitions take time, some sooner than later and some markets with more or less than others. A few markets (mostly rural) have no TV stations to be transitioned, so they can obviously go on-air much sooner.

    See here for more info along with a good video on the phased transition:
    http://www.tmonews.com/2017/05/t-mobile-600mhz-spectrum-transition-process/

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