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Summary:

In 2008 Sprint promised to build a network that would change the face of the U.S. mobile industry. It never delivered. Now that SoftBank has reinvigorated the carrier, it’s time to hold Sprint to its word.

Ever since Sprint began bandying about the term 4G back in 2006, it’s been talking a big game about networks. It’s boasted about its significant spectrum holdings, its willingness to take the lead in new technologies, and its desire to overturn the established business models of mobile telecom.

But in those seven years, that promised game-changing network has failed to materialize. Sprint has been hobbled by financial troubles ever since it bought Nextel. And instead of building its own WiMAX network, it outsourced to task to Clearwire, which then found itself in worse financial shape than Sprint. Meanwhile, the vaunted global ecosystem Sprint hoped to build around WiMAX simply collapsed. AT&T and Verizon Wireless have long since passed it by in the 4G race.

Sprint logo signBut Sprint’s fortunes changed this week. On Wednesday, SoftBank closed its $21.6 billion investment in Sprint, picking up Clearwire as part of the package. SoftBank has fronted Sprint $5 billion in capital, and SofBank CEO and new Sprint chairman Masayoshi Son has promised to invest billions more in the company. By taking over Clearwire, Sprint also gains direct control over more than 100 MHz of spectrum in major markets across the country.

So, Sprint, it’s time to build that network you’ve been promising.

What the new Sprint can accomplish

Sprint now has the resources to create one of the most powerful, if not the most powerful, LTE network in the country — one that would certainly put its current LTE efforts to shame. A small portion of its 2.5 GHz spectrum is currently being used in the old Clearwire WiMAX network, and some of that spectrum is in weird configurations, making it less useful for mobile broadband. But the companies still have a lot of airwaves to play with.

speedometerBefore the acquisition, Clearwire was formulating plans for an LTE network that could support theoretical download speeds of 168 Mbps using just 40 MHz of its spectrum. Sprint could not only build such a network, it could build that same network capacity twice or possibly three times over as it optimizes its spectrum for mobile use and takes advantage of forthcoming LTE-Advanced technologies.

The keyword here isn’t speed — though Sprint can certainly build a fast network — it’s capacity. With more capacity Sprint can support more mobile broadband connections and deliver that service at a much lower cost to the consumer.

Sprint has some disadvantages. The 2.5 GHz airwaves aren’t the ideal airwaves for a nationwide network because their high-frequency signals don’t travel as far as the lower frequencies that AT&T and Verizon use. Also, Sprint has to use a variant of LTE called Time Division-LTE (TD-LTE) that no other U.S. operator is using, making it harder to get devices that work on its network.

But Sprint and its partners are solving those problems. Sprint is using its old low-frequency Nextel spectrum to build a plain-old LTE network with lots of coverage. And while TD-LTE is rare in the U.S. it’s being adopted by key operators all over the world, including Sprint’s new parent SoftBank and the world’s largest carrier China Mobile. Sprint won’t get TD-LTE smartphones tomorrow, but it will get them.

Old Sprint, we miss you

Back when Sprint was laying out its WiMAX blueprint, then President of 4G Barry West laid out a very compelling vision for the future of mobile broadband. Here’s what I wrote in a profile of West at the time:

West suddenly introduced the idea of a “4G” to the wireless landscape — a moniker that still irks chief technology officers today. From Sprint’s pulpit, he not only preached mobility but predicted the dawning of a new type of mobile operator that shunned the key tenet of any wireless business model, the cell phone. Instead, the mobile order would be driven by data-centric and consumer electronics devices connected to a ubiquitous network. It would be a network that combined the most attractive elements of the wireline broadband and mobile industries. Instead of paying for a broadband line to a specific physical address or paying to connect a specific device to a [mobile network], West proposed broadband should be an ethereal service surrounding customers at all times that could be accessed via any electronic means.

In 2008, those ideas were pretty controversial in the mobile industry, and some of them remain controversial today; especially West’s calls to eliminate contracts and treat mobile data access as a mere commodity. But West is long gone (He’s now CEO of a Boston startup called Collision Communications, developing — of all things — LTE-Advanced technologies).

Sprint CEO Dan HesseSprint and Clearwire kept to some of those principles. Neither got rid of unlimited data plans entirely, and as CEO Dan Hesse has pointed out, much of how Sprint defines itself is by what AT&T and Verizon are not. But it’s safe to say Sprint has since toned down its mobile broadband ambitions.

I’d like to see Sprint amp those ambitions back up. We’re starting to see operators around the world (Free Mobile) and here in the U.S. (T-Mobile) challenge the established order of mobile telecom. I don’t want Sprint to just join their ranks. I want Hesse and company to spearhead the movement.

And Sprint can start by building one big monster of a network.

Feature courtesy of Shutterstock user Max Krasnov

  1. Overpaying for the iPhone is one sure sign that things aren’t going well at Sprint

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    1. Initially, yes. As Sprint introduced the iPhone it was in dire need to raise capital. Mainly because of device cost vs customer ‘payback’ on the heavily subsidized phone. Did you know that once the iPhone launched Sprint saw it first positive quarter in the last six years? Doesn’t 22 billion in cash flow accomplish the need to raise capital? Sprint’s largest mistake was made when they bought a glorified walkie talkie company. Who knows, maybe the 800GHz will actually turn out to be the best thing for Sprint once it’s up and running on the network. I say ‘Who Rah!’ to Dan and team for making the SoftBank deal.

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      1. Kevin Fitchard Friday, July 12, 2013

        I don’t know Sandman, Nextel was an awful lot of heartache just some low-freq spectrum. Sprint could have used all of that money to compete at auction. Hesse has said it was was mistake. But you’re right. Now that the Nextel albatross is gone, they can do something useful with the spectrum.

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  2. Even with 100B, they cant really compete with VZ and T, dead men walking…

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    1. I think $5B should be plenty to get them started to competing with VZ, AT&T, and TMO. However, it has to be accompanied by a good pair of cajones to do something really big, as the author said, without that $1trillion wouldn’t be enough. This industry is due for some real diruption, it’s time to start competing by M&A and start competing by actually giving better service and lower prices!! #4 is doing it, it’s time #3 did something!

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      1. I meant STOP competing by M&A!

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  3. Andres Herrera Friday, July 12, 2013

    I’m actually a little excited about this. Hopefully they start rolling out 4G to the important (larger) US cities. The last few years have been pretty bad for data coverage (im in Phx).

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  4. yes…. i hope this is good news for sprint

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  5. Sprint started building their 4g back in 06,,,AT&T lobbied congress got an injunction to stop sprint from deploying the WiMAX 4g and they were not allowed to continue until 08.
    If not for that delay,,,sprint would have been miles ahead of the other guys. I still have my money on them
    Ps google the AT&T vs sprint case

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  6. marialeavitt@cox.com Sunday, July 21, 2013

    I have been a loyal customer, Since February 2013, the service went from Awesome to “Horrible” !! I couldn’t hear my friends or family, text messages failed to send, I dropped my home phone , there was no need for it. Now I am highly reconsidering it, and get a pager and dropping my Sprint service. I pay 2000. a yr now due to the upgrades on 2 of the three phones we have. I can’t stand the Pathetic responses I get from the customer service , we are Sorry they are updating our towers and it maybe your phone ,you may need to have your phone looked at, And I buy a air wave modem from Sprint to get a better signal, but what they did to ” upgrade ” their service, made it worse. I am seriously considering a lawsuit and I am sure there are many out there that will be happy to be a part of that. I want to get out of my contract and get most of my money back from a company that’s strives to give you crappy service .

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    1. Maria, what city are you located in? And what phone do you have?

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  7. I”m also tired of the delays and talk track from custom support. My 3g speeds are terrible to non-existent. We so have 1 iPhone 5 on on our account, and the LTE coverage here in atlanta is spotty to say the least. In Athens, LTE works everywhere but where the population is centered ( on campus.) With Sprint so far behind, it comes down to execution. No more excuses, Can Sprint execute on their network plans? So far, that answer is a resounding no. I have 4 months left on 4 of my phone contracts and will be looking for a shift forward in network coverage before upgrading or make a decision to switch.

    Unlimited data only matters if you can get data. At current speeds, I could never exceed any data limitations in a standard Verizon family plan anyway.

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  8. MINE QUIT WORKING. I WOULD GO TO ANOTHER CARRIER BUT I CANT CALL THEM MY PHONE DOES NOT WORK

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  9. I have 5 iPhones on my account plus 1 Blackberry. It is unbelievable that Sprint gets away with their horrible service and reception. I have called many times and still get the same responses from them! Nothing is ever credited to my account and my service is still horrible. I couldn’t imagine treating my customers the way Sprint has treated me.

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  10. In November of 2012 I purchased two Samsung Galaxy SIII at Best Buy in Connecticut. The Best Buy representative called its Sprint contact and promised 4G by January 31, 2013. It’s now October 7, 2013 and no 4G. My service is actually worse than with the old Sprint 4G phones that I had abandoned for the Samsung phones. The part that infuriates me is that Sprint will not let me out of my contract without exacting the full cancellation penalty, nor will it provide any credit for the lack of 4G service. There really should be some sort of class action lawsuit against Sprint.

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