Sprint's 4G LTE Scramble

Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) isn't waiting for blanket 4G coverage in cities before switching on its new Long Term Evolution (LTE), instead aiming for street-level coverage that it deems useful for potential users.

4G on the street
Bob Azzi, senior vice president of Networks at Sprint, talked to Light Reading Mobile about the operator's LTE strategy Friday in the wake of its initial launch in 15 markets.

"We weren't planning to wait until we had all our cell sites covered," explained Azzi. Instead the cities went live "when we determined that we had a sufficient footprint that enough people could find it in enough places."

Azzi says Sprint uses LTE propagation tools to look at coverage before launch and doesn't "have a firm percentage" on how much of a market is covered before launch. "We focus on street-level coverage ... although it obviously has in-building coverage in there as well," Azzi says.

Rather than launch on a specific percentage, Azzi explains, the operator's teams look at whether the coverage available will "prove a useful enough experience for our customers for us to launch it."

This helps explain how the July 15 launch went from the initially announced five cities to 15. "We went from five to 15 quickly because we saw, 'Hey, these are ready.'"

It also explains how Sprint users in cities such as Atlanta and Houston aren't always finding the new 4G service. There are threads on Sprint User Forums searching for the 4G signals.

Sprint plans to quickly fill in the gaps in launched markets. "They'll find the LTE coverage in more and more places over the next several months," Azzi reassures.

In the meantime, Azzi says the operator's High Rate Packet Data (HRPD or eHRPD) handover mechanism between LTE and CDMA is working reliably on the operator's initial LTE smartphones.

Where next?
The Sprint network SVP won't say where exactly 4G services will be launched next. "We've got all sorts of candidates," he notes. "We won't stop until until we have a footprint that covers our CDMA cell sites."

The process is expected to be complete by the end of 2013.

The operator is on track to have 12 to 15 LTE devices on the market by the end of 2012. Azzi can't say if any of those gadgets will be a tablet.

Ericsson, Georgia & Texas style
Sprint has divided its LTE deployment among three suppliers: Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU), Ericsson AB (Nasdaq: ERIC) and Samsung Corp. The Swedish vendor is in all the initial 15 cities in Georgia and Texas.

"The first set of sites are from Ericsson," confirms Azzi. But, he adds, "there's nothing in particular to conclude from that. None of the suppliers are ahead or behind in the plan, if you will."

Azzi explains that the timing in getting the sites up and running has much to do with having the fiber backhaul in place in support of LTE, among other factors.

What's a market anyway?
Like other operators, Sprint bases the markets in which it deploys LTE on cellular maps defined by the Federal Communications Commission (FCC) , but not always strictly to the letter.

"We don't stick to it religiously, but we think that it's a good starting point," Azzi explains.

How fast is Sprint's LTE?
Sprint says it offers peak download speeds of 25 Mbit/s with averages of 6-to-8 Mbit/s. Uploads clock in at 2 to 3 Mbit/s. Speeds are "based on testing of deployed sites prior to launch," the operator says.

Map it!
See the LTE markets on the map below:

View Sprint 4G LTE Markets in a larger map

For more

— Dan Jones, Site Editor, Light Reading Mobile

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gtchavan 12/5/2012 | 5:26:47 PM
re: Sprint's 4G LTE Scramble

What does it take to update a base station to support LTE,  is it a forklift upgrade, swapping of a few cards or just a software change? Why doesn't all of these base station upgrade activity translate to sales for telco vendors?

joset01 12/5/2012 | 5:26:46 PM
re: Sprint's 4G LTE Scramble

The Sprint upgrade is intensive. They're putting in new basestations, radios etc.


The margins are lower on new hardware than the easier cards & software upgrades later on.

joset01 12/5/2012 | 5:26:45 PM
re: Sprint's 4G LTE Scramble

Azzi cited backhaul as one of the major factors in the deployment.

krishanguru143 12/5/2012 | 5:26:45 PM
re: Sprint's 4G LTE Scramble

It depends on what base station you are talking about.  For the past few years, vendors have been selling base stations that support the following:

GSM, IS-95 (CDMA), GPRS, EDGE, 1xRTT, UMTS/HSDPA, EV-DO, Wi-Max and LTE; so basically everything under the son.  The base station uses DSP’s so for them to support LTE it was more or less a software upgrade.  Not all base stations are like this, it depends on the vendor and when they were bought.  Given that 3G was rolled out and many base stations were not of this variety, many of the base stations would be a forklift upgrade, but not all.  Will the current base stations support 5G?  The answer is no, there will be more powerful DSP’s in use in a few years, so the current kit won’t have a software upgrade to 5G.  The current kit was done to get rid of the various base stations each technology had; having one makes things much simpler.  If Clear uses the above base stations, LTE will be more or less an easy upgrade for them.  If they don’t, then it is a fork life upgrade but they would utilize a bas estation that can provide Wi-Max and LTE.

opticalwatcher 12/5/2012 | 5:26:45 PM
re: Sprint's 4G LTE Scramble

I think the hardest part of upgrading a CDMA base station to LTE would be replacing the T1 backhaul. The forklift upgrade is probably pretty simple in comparison.

joset01 12/5/2012 | 5:26:44 PM
re: Sprint's 4G LTE Scramble



This isn't Clear we're talking about though. This is Sprint upgrading PCS sites for 3G and LTE.

gtchavan 12/5/2012 | 5:26:43 PM
re: Sprint's 4G LTE Scramble

Forget about the backhaul, I am thinking whether a base station that used to do 300kb/s per device, with a simple software upgrade can effectively support 100mb/s per device without major over subscriptions limitations.   Perhaps we are giving too much credit to Verizon for the software upgrade as opposed to spending real money to upgrade their base stations so this kind of over subscriptions is eliminated.   Does anyone know what verizon did to so quickly implement LTE and if they just did a software upgraded are they also vastly oversubscribed on thier base stations capacity for LTE devices?  

krishanguru143 12/5/2012 | 5:26:43 PM
re: Sprint's 4G LTE Scramble

Chances are, Verizon started to replace their Base Stations before the LTE implementation.  Given that the current gen from most vendors support everything under the sun, you can replace your current base stations.  The end result would be not be noticeable to end user.  Verizon was using EV-DO for 3G and there was pretty much no upgrade path beyond that; at least anything that the equipment vendors were looking at.  At most there were stop gap measures but no one was really interested in them; why spend the effort and the money on something that has no future?  So Verizon could have been swapping the base stations out for the past year or so, then it would just be a matter of turning on LTE.  The other carriers that need to replace their base stations are currently replacing as they go along as most of these would be the original base stations.  Sure the Verizon method looks better, but what happens if a new model of base stations was released before they actually turned on LTE?  Since these are DSP centric and they would follow Moore's Law, buying something 18-months ago when you didn’t require it as compared to now means that the current gen kit would be better.  Anyway you put it, there are pros and cons both ways.  Verizon did it because they HAD to.  EV-DO was well past its expiration date and their download speeds and capacity showed it.  AT&T and T-Mobile had the ability to upgrade their 3G to faster speeds and call it 4G.  Sprint was relying on Clear.  Verizon was odd man out so they were replacing base stations in anticipation of LTE.  They would just need a software upgrade to bring it into spec before rollout and then fine tune the network.

You should really look at what a DSP can do before stating that something that “supports” 300kbps can it support 100mbps.  Ti has used DSP’s in their baseband processors and when the industry went from 1.8mbps to 3.6mbps they did nothing but a software upgrade as the DSP has plenty of overhead room in it.  EV-DO supported around 5Mbps but you can have a base station that supports 100mbps LTE; that in no way means that EV-DO can do 100mbps; it is still bound by the technology in use, not the base station.

As for oversubscription, that would be the backhaul.  Not many devices are going to be support 100mbps right now, especially handsets.

krishanguru143 12/5/2012 | 5:26:43 PM
re: Sprint's 4G LTE Scramble

I know that, I used Clear as an example in that if they deployed the base stations that can be upgraded via software to support LTE, they would not be performing forklift upgrades like Sprint has had to do.

Sprint has been using EV-DO which is old hat and since they used Clear for 4G, most of the Sprint base stations would be old hardware.  Why would they upgrade their base stations until they had to when their original 4G plan was Clear and LightSquared?

joset01 12/5/2012 | 5:26:39 PM
re: Sprint's 4G LTE Scramble

That's the DSLReports take on this story:

"In other words, Sprint wanted the PR benefit of announcing a fifteen market launch without waiting until those markets were more saturated with signal," they say.


What's your take? Better to get something up or hit a certain percentage of coverage?

As far as I can tell all of the US operators are actually going back to fill-in coverage on some markets.

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