Sprint (s s) is moving ahead with its 4G plans and said it expects to upgrade to LTE-Advanced in the first half of 2013. Speaking at the 4G World conference in Chicago, Sprint VP of Network Development and Engineering Iyad Taraz said the No. 3 carrier will deploy LTE-Advanced Release 10 in a 10×10 spectrum configuration, achieving downloads speeds of 12-15 Mbps, according to Fierce Wireless.
The news adds more color to Sprint’s 4G LTE rollout, which it first discussed at its Strategy Update meeting earlier this month. Sprint executives at the meeting originally laid out plans to launch its own LTE network by mid-2012 using its 1900 MHz spectrum, covering 250 million people by the end of 2013 while still using Clearwire’s WiMAX network (s clwr) to serve its existing 4G customers. Now, Taraz said it will upgrade to LTE Advanced on its 800 MHz spectrum in early 2013, when it will also start migrating to VoLTE for voice service.
The interesting thing about Sprint’s announcement is how it might align with Clearwire, who has also declared it will deploy LTE-Advanced. The two companies are partners, but the relationship appears to be quite strained: Sprint executives said very little about possibly turning to Clearwire for LTE at their strategy update meeting despite being a majority owner in the 4G wholesaler. Clearwire has said it will take $600 million to launch an LTE-Advanced network on top of the cost of maintaining its WiMAX network though Sprint officials said the actual cost of running an LTE network for Clearwire would be much more.
But the fact that Sprint is moving ahead with LTE-Advanced means it could eventually join together with Clearwire on LTE, provided Clearwire gets its act together. The company has been struggling and has had trouble raising money to upgrade its existing WiMAX network.
LTE-Advanced has some advantages that are helpful for Sprint and Clearwire. LTE-Advanced, which is a different variation from the LTE deployed by Verizon (s vz) and AT&T (s t) today. LTE-Advanced can theoretically offer maximum download speeds of 1 Gbps stationary and 100 Mbps to users on the move, though a lot of factors can bring down those speeds, including a lack of large blocks of spectrum.
Sprint still has a lot of work to do. It said it can use its 800 MHz spectrum in 2013 and into 2014 then hopefully rely on its deal with LightSquared to get it through 2015. But that’s assuming that LightSquared can get past concerns about its GPS interference. After 2015, Sprint will need to come by more spectrum, which could come from Clearwire though it hasn’t made any such announcement. It will have to sort out its tangled relationship with Clearwire and decide what role Clearwire will play in its long-term 4G plans.
For now, Sprint must just get through the next year when the build out of the LTE network will sap most of its cash on hand, forcing it to look for financing. If it can get through to 2013, LTE-Advanced could be helpful in getting Sprint back into the 4G race, which has been taken over by Verizon. It’s a lot on Sprint’s plate and as my colleague Stacey pointed out, it could be a huge turnaround story or a crazy car wreck.