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T-Mobile to Start 5G Testing This Year, Too, but Says Don't Get Too Excited

The company says the real story is the gains it continues to make using today's network.

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Like rivals AT&T and Verizon, T-Mobile plans to start testing the next generation of cellular technology this year.

But network chief Neville Ray argues that all this 5G talk from the major carriers, especially Verizon, is largely a smokescreen to hide the fact that T-Mobile has caught up with them on 4G.

“They are trying to change the story,” Ray told Re/code in an interview Wednesday, after the company reported another strong quarter of earnings and subscriber growth. “Nothing they are doing is proprietary or unique.”

Ray reiterated that what customers think of as the arrival of such networks — the point when they can buy a smartphone and run it on the network — won’t happen until 2020. And Ray says T-Mobile will be ready.

“We’ll be right there with them or ahead,” he said.

But the real story, T-Mobile says, is the one that involves the subscriber gains it is making today, largely on the back of an improved LTE network and the fact that it offers free video and music streaming to its customers.

While outsiders have criticized T-Mobile’s Binge On, which offers unlimited but lower-quality video from many services, the company credits the service with boosting customer satisfaction. Operating chief Mike Sievert says that it has even led some customers to upgrade their data plan since the unlimited streaming part of Binge On applies only to customers on a data plan of three gigabytes or more.

“It was a big factor in our overall competitiveness,” Sievert said. “It was also a factor in data buying.”

But, after a year in which T-Mobile added 4.5 million postpaid customers, the company forecast this year that such gains are expected to drop to between 2.4 million and 3.4 million customers.

However, Sievert says that’s a reflection of the company being conservative, not the fact it thinks its big growth days are behind it. Sievert noted that its subscriber growth forecast is more robust than its initial one for 2015, though it raised that outlook throughout last year.

“We certainly have hopes and aspirations of exceeding it,” he said.

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