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Summary:

Sprint has been promising a monster of a 4G network for years, but it’s failed to deliver. CEO Dan Hesse says that Sprint still maintains its mobile broadband ambitions, it’s just taking longer to realize them.

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Sprint has been talking about building the most powerful mobile broadband network in the country since 2007, but seven years later, it is still far from its goal. As it stands now, Sprint’s 4G network is the slowest in the country, has least amount of coverage in major cities and has the smallest overall capacity.

As I’ve written many times before, Sprint has always had the potential to build the most powerful LTE network in the country, but despite years of promises it has failed to live up that potential. I think it’s quite fair to ask if Sprint really does plan building the mother of all networks or if it’s resigned itself to delivering a run-of-the-mill mobile broadband service.

On Tuesday I got my chance after Sprint’s Q4 earnings call where it reported a $1 billion loss but new subscriber gains. In an interview with CEO Dan Hesse I asked if Sprint still maintained its grand 4G ambitions. Hesse’s answer: “Yes, but it will take us a while to get there.”

Dan Hesse in one of Sprint's commercials. Photo courtesy of Sprint.

Dan Hesse in one of Sprint’s commercials. Photo courtesy of Sprint.

Hesse was perfectly frank about where Sprint currently stands. He said Sprint still had a lot of catching up to get its LTE network into key markets like San Francisco, Seattle and Washington, D.C. and match the 4G speeds of its competitors. But he also pointed out that Sprint has a lot more barriers to overcome than its competitors. While Hesse insisted that Sprint has a “tremendous sense of urgency” to build its network, he added that a project of this scale simply can’t be rushed.

The trials and tribulations of Sprint

“There’s a complexity to this network build that’s never been undertaken, in my view, by anyone in the world,” Hesse said. “We’re playing three-dimensional chess.”

While other carriers are adding LTE as an overlay technology to their networks, Sprint is ripping its old network out, replacing every radio, every base station and every backhaul connection, Hesse said. And while Sprint may have spectrum out the wazoo, it’s not in the most easy-to-reach places. Most of Sprint’s competitors had access to a good 20 MHz of 4G spectrum over which they could build pristine new LTE systems. Sprint has had to stitch airwaves from across the electromagnetic spectrum, Hesse said.

Hesse also pointed out that Sprint has faced its fair share of obstacles. Right as it launched its first Wimax network in 2008 in Baltimore, the country was hit by a deep recession, which hit Sprint particularly hard as it was still hobbled by its ill-advised acquisition of Nextel a few years earlier. Wimax turned out to be the wrong 4G bet, and it was forced to switch to LTE in midstream.

Most recently Sprint has been reeling from subscriber losses after shutting down Nextel’s old iDEN network. Only this last quarter did Sprint start growing again, and even then most of its customer additions came from its virtual network partners, not from Sprint proper. And it still reported a $1 billion loss in the continuing fallout from Nextel’s demise.

Hesse said he wasn’t making excuses, but offering explanations about why its LTE strategy has taken far longer to execute. But now that its big investment deal with SoftBank is closed, Sprint’s finances are in better shape. By taking over complete ownership of Clearwire this summer it’s now in firm control of its 4G airwaves and 4G destiny.

Sprint’s 4G juggernaut won’t suddenly appear overnight, Hesse said, but you will start seeing evidence of it in some cities this year.

“I really can’t give you a magic date because the build will continue through 2015,” Hesse said. “We’re moving on a city by city basis.”

Sprint's nationwide network with LTE in orange and Spark in yellow

Sprint’s nationwide network with LTE in orange and Spark in yellow

Hesse is specifically referring to Sprint’s new Spark network, built on its treasure trove of 2.5 GHz spectrum. Today Spark is only present in 14 markets (Baltimore and Philadelphia came online this week), and it’s really only an average network compared to the new network behemoths T-Mobile and Verizon Wireless are building. But starting in the second half of the year, Sprint will start piling more frequencies onto Spark.

Using an LTE-Advanced technique called carrier aggregation, Sprint will shape a network with 40 MHz of spectrum, Hesse said, making Spark comparable to the fat pipes T-Mobile and Verizon are laying. Then in 2015 it will aggregate even more airwaves, creating 60 MHz systems that will presumably outpace any network in the field today.

In the process it will fill in the big holes in its current LTE coverage footprint such as San Francisco, Hesse said. While you won’t see blazing speeds in every city in the country, in key markets Sprint’s network will be unequaled, Hesse said. Sprint hasn’t given up its ambition of being the mobile broadband carrier of record in the U.S., he said; it’s merely delayed it.

“This is very much in our DNA,” Hesse said.

More false hope?

Dan Hesse is a very convincing man, but I admit I’m still plenty skeptical. I’ve always rooted for Sprint, but it’s hard to argue with its history.

Sprint's Network Vision involves replacing its network hardware with new base stations that can serve multiple bands including Sprint’s 800 MHz, 1.9 GHz spectrum as well as its 4G 2.5 GHz spectrum and could be configured to one day handle LTE. Photo courtesy of Sprint.

Sprint’s Network Vision involves replacing its network hardware with new base stations that can serve multiple bands including Sprint’s 800 MHz, 1.9 GHz spectrum as well as its 4G 2.5 GHz spectrum and could be configured to one day handle LTE. Photo courtesy of Sprint.

Sprint’s grand systems overhaul — called Network Vision — didn’t just begin last year; it started back in 2011. And while its new Spark network came online last fall, Sprint and Clearwire supposedly started building it in 2012. What’s more despite Hesse’s claim of urgency, I just don’t see it in its announced plans. Spark won’t be complete for three years, and even then it will only be in 100 cities.

Compare that to T-Mobile, which went from zero to nationwide LTE in just eight months. Admittedly T-Mobile’s LTE overlay isn’t quite as complex as Sprint’s complete network replacement, but T-Mobile has still faced many of the same obstacles. It’s had to cobble together airwaves and cannibalize its old 2G spectrum, all the while facing enormous competitive pressure from AT&T and Verizon Wireless. And within a year of completing its initial LTE rollout, T-Mobile plans to its double its speeds and capacity.

Mobile networking technologies are progressing at a rapid clip. Sprint’s competitors are building up their own spectrum empires, and they’re taking advantage of the same carrier aggregation technologies as Sprint. By the time Sprint’s grand network is actually built it might not be so grand anymore.

Maybe Sprint one day really will build the 4G network of every mobile data junkie’s dreams, but I for one am tired of waiting.

  1. I moved to Sprint with the release of the HTC Evo (and the promises of WiMax) and that should have been the lesson for me with failed promises of delivering the service beyond it’s initial release and ultimately never making it to my home or office.

    Instead, I jumped back in with the release of the HTC One, which I love as a phone, and I did it because Sprint had announced LTE for my market in just a couple of months. I confirmed the timeline before signing up again, and almost a year later I am still looking at 3G every day even though their own website says my area is covered in wonderful LTE. The local Sprint store (which also sits in 3G) explained it as this is a tower by tower upgrade and they are not turning on LTE until everything is perfect (tower, radios, backhaul) and it is backhaul that seems to be the long pole in the tent.

    I can commend them for doing a proper buildout and I am sure they are working within fiscal constraints, but I am tired of broken commitments and service that has become even more erratic over the last months and will be, hopefully, finding a carrier that actually provides what they promise.

    Sorry Dan, done with the lies. Either put up or shut up. We don’t want to hear it anymore.

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  2. Sad you didn’t ask him about tmo

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  3. I see you mentioning T-Mobile for some odd reason an awful lot for this to be a Sprint article. What bothers me is you keep talking about the speeds and capacity of T-Mobile but fail to mention that it’s 4G and even 3G footprint is TINY. Once you leave city limits you are stuck in 1990′s and 2000′s 2G coverage. Even some large cities are only 2G coverage.

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    1. Billy Jacob Kandah Wednesday, February 12, 2014

      hardly…

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    2. This guy is right. I have T-Mobile LTE in Eugene, and as soon as I leave the city to the freeway it drops to no connection or EDGE. the data over this links is limited, heavy packet loss, and almost no data gets through most of the time. The smaller cities which make up Oregon have no 3G or 4G, and the I5 freeway even between major cities like Portland and Salem is .. non existent. For this reason I think Sprint has the best network for the money, cause they have LTE even onto the freeway here and 3G at 2.4Mbps probably inbetween the LTE but I have not tested yet. The only real downside to Sprint are the locked down CDMA phones, that can’t be used on anyone elses network.. People today need unlocked world phones with GSM for resale value and easier trading/bartering, and like me, possibility to take my phone elsewhere in a pinch or even for multinetwork usage (I’d put in a SIM and use Sprint if there were a reason, for example).

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      1. But try actually finding a Sprint LTE signal _in_ Portland. And their 3G network is terribly slow.

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  4. Does he expect his competitors to give him time? Hey Dan, this isn’t Tee ball, there is no mercy rule.

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  5. What a completely slanted and misinformed view of Sprint, its current speed, its Network Vision and Spark buildouts, it’s relationship within the industry. Amazing. This article is stitched together from out of context quotes to out of context information back to out of context quotes and on to outright misinformation and is one of many many “hit” pieces on Sprint that have “magically” appeared to spread misinformation. Truth is Sprints’s 4G NV exceeds speeds of all the others, Spark where available blows the others away by 4x, right now. I can understand the frustration of some who while NV reached certain phases experienced issues, Hesse has been clear about that in conference calls, very clear, but to extrapolate that out to the entire state of the Network is just indicative of a writer who starts with a story facts be damned, sounds like someone doesn’t like Sprint finally delivering.

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    1. As a user of Sprint for several years, who has to travel for work, I find the article very accurate of the state of Sprint’s network. On top of the LTE mess, 3G performance has steadily worsened, once rock solid voice has become quite erratic, and customer service is nowhere as good as it was just 2 years ago.

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  6. Now this is great news for sprint customers like myself.

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  7. Sprint is basically building a completely brand new network. It has to do this in order to effectively get full use out of its spectrum portfolio and to stay competitive. Once sprint is done with this network upgrade, they will be ahead of the competition technology wise(I know, we’ve been hearing this for years) Keep in mind exactly though what sprint is doing. Lets put it into perspective.

    1. Prior to the decommission of the Nextel network, Sprint was managing around 68,000 cell towers. Next, Sprint turns off the Iden network.

    2. Sprints original CDMA network was built for 1900MHz spectrum. In its current footprint, it requires 38,000 towers. Now put 800MHz spectrum from nextel into play. To cover the same distance will require only around 11,000 towers.

    3. Then take the 2.5GHz spectrum. Clearwire covered 88 markets and used 16000 towers. That comes to around 181 cell cites per city (average). If sprint were to fill only cities with 100,000 people or more with 2.5GHz, That would be around 289 markets. 188(290)= 52,490 cell sites for 2.5GHz

    4 Add that on top of the 11,000 for the national footprint. That comes to a total of 63,490 towers, which is still less than it was managing before. I know most people will say “well what about the rural areas? sprint coverage sucks.” well, if you use nextels old network as a model, it takes about 30,000 towers to cover the urban areas, using 800MHz spectrum it will take around an additional 18000, to cover the remaining rural areas. Sprint would be at about 85 percent total land mass, like verizon. Do I think they will take this route, No. But the new network architecture and the spectrum portfolio do give it the flexibility to. This money is not going to waist, if sprint is still alive when the network build out is finished, you are going to see a brand new beast.

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    1. This was good information and well put together.

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    2. Good Job Grant Wednesday, March 26, 2014

      Great Job Grant !!! Sprint Spark for you first.

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  8. Too bad I’ve been paying for it for four years, funny Dan! Shame on me.

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  9. So glad that someone points out the realism of Sprint. People want the network of today, not the network of tomorrow. Tomorrow is always tomorrow and it never gets here.

    People are tired of the excuses and it shows. What’s the excuse for their pretty LTE network already being bogged down to less than 1 megabit speeds in many markets? Do those customers have to wait another 2 or 3 years for the future network again?

    It’s a shame. So much potential there but there’s too much failure to see it.

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  10. Sprint has been building that miracle network for almost 3 years. They expect to have it finished by 2017. They aren’t gonna be ahead of any competition even if they ever complete those NV upgrades as other national providers won’t be just sitting and spectating.
    If Sprints 2017 goal is to catch up with T-Mobile’s or Verizon’s LTE performance from the year of 2013, then we’re all doomed…

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