Sprint Dribbles Out 5G Updates, but Big Picture Still Cloudy

BARCELONA -- MWC19 -- Sprint -- the smallest nationwide wireless network operator in the US -- offered a few additional details today about its 5G launch plans, including some information about the services it will offer and the speeds and coverage it hopes to achieve.

However, left unsaid by the operator during its media event here at the Mobile World Congress trade show was any indication about how it might actually make money from 5G.

When questioned about how Sprint might price 5G when it launches the offering in May, CEO Michel Combes dodged the question and said instead that the operator would release additional details later this spring. However, Sprint's marketing chief, Roger Sole, promised the opertor would continue to be as aggressive in 5G pricing as the operator is in 4G pricing.

Sprint's silence on the pricing topic is noteworthy considering T-Mobile flatly stated this month that it will not charge a premium for 5G over 4G. "We don't have plans -- for the smartphone plans that you see today -- to charge differently for 5G enablement versus 4G enablement," T-Mobile's Mike Sievert said during the operator's recent quarterly conference call with analysts. He added that the carrier has "big plans for incremental revenues" from 5G growth by adding home broadband service and Internet of Things (IoT) capabilities to its network.

Despite Sprint's dodge on what is arguably the most important question facing the operator today -- how it will recoup the billions of dollars it's spending to build out a 5G network -- the operator did provide a few additional details about how it's rolling out the network technology, and what it can do. Sprint said Chicago, Atlanta, Dallas and Kansas City will be the first cities to launch with 5G in May, followed shortly by Houston, Los Angeles, New York City, Phoenix and Washington, DC, in the first half of 2019. The operator said it's targeting a 5G coverage footprint of more than 1,000 square miles across all nine cities.

Sprint is likely sharing that specific geographic coverage information because the operator is using its 2.5GHz spectrum for 5G; such spectrum relies on Sprint's existing macro cell towers and can transmit signals much, much further than the millimeter-wave spectrum currently being used by AT&T and Verizon for 5G.

Moreover, a Sprint video showed speeds on its network -- currently unloaded with customers -- approaching 430Mbit/s. In comparison, Verizon promises at least 300Mbit/s on its 5G Home fixed wireless service, with top speeds of 1Gbit/s, while AT&T recently said it clocked top speeds of 1.5Gbit/s on its own mobile 5G millimeter-wave network.

To be clear, the results of such speed tests indicate mostly nothing. Actual customers' real-world speeds will vary based on a wide variety of factors, including their geographic distance from a cell site, the overall traffic onto the network in their vicinity, the type of spectrum and device they're using, and a wide range of other aspects.

Interestingly, Sprint also showed off maps of the nine cities where it is building 5G coverage, and the geographic areas it is reaching. For example, in Chicago, Sprint is covering 20 square miles and 300,000 POPs with 5G, while in Kansas City those numbers are 110,000 square miles and 340,000 POPs. In New York City, Sprint is covering 30 square miles and 1.1 million POPs, in Los Angeles, 115 square miles and 1.4 million POPs, and in Washington, D.C., 85 square miles and 650,000 POPs. Samsung is the vendor for Sprint's Chicago market, while the rest are split between Nokia and Ericsson.

As during prior events, Sprint executives also worked to toe the line between trumpeting the company's 5G efforts and making the case that the company should be allowed to merge with T-Mobile in order to build a faster and better 5G network. Sprint executives declined to answer questions about what the company's 5G plans might look like if regulators at the Department of Justice and the FCC move to block Sprint's proposed merger with T-Mobile.

Although Sprint's 5G coverage and speeds were at the forefront of the operator's MWC press event here, the company also used the occasion to release a wide range of new details about its wider networking and business efforts. For example:

  • Sprint touted its three previously announced 5G devices, the V50 ThinQ 5G, the Samsung Galaxy S10 5G and the HTC 5G Hub. The HTC Hub device is particularly interesting because it offers services, including a home media center that can stream 4K videos and video at 60fps. Because Sprint has not yet released its 5G service pricing and usage parameters, it's unclear whether the company is going to position the Hub as a replacement for in-home broadband service.
  • Sprint said Google Fi, one of the company's many MVNO partners, would have access to the company's 5G network when it launches, as long as those customers use devices compatible with the network.
  • Sprint said customers who deploy its Curiosity IoT core can also make use of Amazon Web Services (AWS) storage, analytics and IoT development capabilities via an edge computing deployment. The company also announced a number of other updates to its Curiosity IoT platform for mapping, roaming and other services.
  • Sprint said its Curiosity IoT platform, launched less than a year ago with partner Ericsson, has racked up $230 million in signed contracts.
  • Sprint said it would pre-install startup Hatch's cloud gaming service on its forthcoming 5G devices. Hatch's cloud gaming service offers unlimited on-demand access to a curated lineup of more than 100 premium mobile games, though company representatives noted that a large number of those games can work on LTE networks with latency in the range of 50-20 ms. However, Hatch promised games for Sprint that would take advantage of the faster speeds and lower latency available on Sprint's forthcoming 5G network. Sprint did not disclose the latency it is seeing on 5G.
  • Sprint said it would devote 60MHz to LTE and 60MHz to 5G on its 2.5GHz spectrum.

    Mike Dano, Editorial Director, 5G & Mobile Strategies, Light Reading | @mikeddano

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