T-Mobile has a plan to keep its LTE speed crown, and it involves Wi-Fi (sort of).

During its fourth quarter earnings call this week, T-Mobile's CTO Neville Ray brought up something that the company has been working on since 2015: LTA-U, which stands for Unlicensed.

Though T-Mobile is ostensibly tied with Verizon for best network in the U.S., beating it in speed in many markets while trailing in overall coverage, it said that it has no intentions to stop investing in its LTE network, which currently covers some 314 million Americans. In addition to continuing to roll out low-band 700Mhz spectrum in major markets like Chicago, San Francisco and New York City, T-Mobile intends to use unlicensed 5GHz spectrum to augment downlink speeds in more congested markets.

The initial call to action came all the way back in January 2015, but nothing has happened in the interim as the rollout of supported chipsets from Qualcomm, and devices from third-party manufacturers, have been held up by complaints to the FCC from various lobbying groups looking to prevent interference with existing Wi-Fi signals, which increasingly use that same 5GHz spectrum. But Ray said that the deployment of so-called Licensed Assisted Access (LAA) will happen in 2017 into 2018, and T-Mobile's customers, which are already disproportionally running LTE devices, stand to benefit greatly, and that the Wi-Fi interference problem is both overstated and likely to be overcome with cautious planning.

Presented without context, because T-Mobile.

Ray also brought up T-Mobile's proliferation of small cells in densely-populated markets as a way to alleviate congestion. The company has deployed over 1,000 small cells across the country, and plans to at least double that number in 2017, mainly to prepare for 5G — which is coming — but also to facilitate the transmission of those unlicensed 5GHz airwaves, which travel shorter distances than typical cellular signals.

T-Mobile's network advantage comes from pushing users to more spectrally efficient technologies before its competitors. Specifically, over 65% of the company's postpaid customers are completely off the 3G network, relying on LTE for both voice and data. He said that 70% of the company's entire spectrum allotment across Band 2, Band 12 and Band 66 uses LTE, and that will increase to 80% as it refarms existing 3G airspace. Of course, Verizon is not just sitting out of the unlicensed LTE space altogether, but like its rivals at AT&T and Sprint, it is at least a year behind deploying the technology to the public.

Over 65% of T-Mobile's postpaid customers are completely off the 3G network.

T-Mobile also said that, in light of its decision to allow T-Mobile One customers to stream HD video across its network, it would keep SD streaming as the default, and only anticipates a single-digit percentage of customers to actually enable the higher-bandwidth option.

For all of its bluster around T-Mobile One, zero-rating, net neutrality and undermining the competition, T-Mobile's network strategy appears to be as robust as any of its competitors. It was the only carrier in the Big Four to have year-over-year growth in wireless service revenue and postpaid net customer additions, and it believes that by emphasizing unlimited while rewarding customers that don't overrun the network — a recent "Uncarrier" announcement — it can continue to gain customers, add to the bottom line, and spur competition.

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