By Drew FitzGerald
Before T-Mobile US Inc. executive Neville Ray began building 5G networks, he first had to tackle color TV.
The British engineer earned some of his first paychecks more than three decades ago by working on radio masts, oil rigs and television-broadcast towers in the Middle East for a Dubai-based contractor. Some areas in the region had only recently replaced black-and-white TV broadcasts, while others were deploying expensive digital mobile-phone service.
As a "young college kid looking for exciting stuff, looking for travel, that was a great avenue for me to explore," the 58-year-old Mr. Ray, president of technology at T-Mobile, says about his early career. "So much was happening and was starting to happen."
The latest renovation project for Mr. Ray, who is responsible for managing and developing T-Mobile's wireless network, is prepping up to 85,000 cellular stations for equipment that can carry 5G signals. It's an expensive, complex undertaking complicated by the company's ongoing integration with former rival Sprint.
That process demands careful planning so that existing customers can keep using their existing phones while technicians install equipment that supports newer 5G specifications.
T-Mobile has ambitious plans for its 5G service, including eventually using it to serve devices such as connected cars, factory machines and farm sensors. This month, the company launched a new product called WFX Solutions that lets business customers send workers a dedicated Wi-Fi hot spot backed by 4G and 5G connections. The effort could help T-Mobile grow its relatively small share of business customers by connecting homebound workers over the air instead of through often-busy cable networks.
T-Mobile's 5G network benefits from a large cache of wireless licenses spread across the radio spectrum, from low-frequency airwaves suited for rural settings to ultrahigh-frequency millimeter wave signals that are typically used in cities. Midrange spectrum sandwiched in the middle gives the company a swath of frequencies that balance high data speeds with geographic coverage. Mr. Ray calls this stack a "layer cake" strategy.
Mr. Ray is relying on the usual suspects, as Nokia Corp. and Ericsson AB, to supply much of the electronics for his network upgrades. The carrier in 2018 signed two contracts totaling $7 billion to buy 5G equipment and services from the Scandinavian suppliers, and it awarded them more business earlier this year. T-Mobile representatives declined to share details about the annual values of the contracts, which cover several years of upgrade work.
"Obviously, it takes time to deploy those investments," Mr. Ray says. Network upgrades demand constant adherence to tight schedules, coupled with patience for the fruits of those efforts, he adds.
Mr. Ray's work for his current employer started in 2000 at predecessor VoiceStream Wireless, a relatively small Seattle-area company later bought by Germany's Deutsche Telekom AG and renamed T-Mobile. The carrier spent much of the following two decades beefing up its infrastructure and expanding wireless coverage in rural and suburban areas where more established rivals started with a firstcomer's advantage.
"I'd like to think we only took smart risks, but we took risks," Mr. Ray says, citing decisions to invest in technology and wireless frequencies that took years to deliver results. "In wireless, it's fierce. You have to stay on your toes and you can never be complacent."
Mr. FitzGerald is a reporter for The Wall Street Journal in Washington, D.C. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
(END) Dow Jones Newswires