Sprint Plans to Add 4G LTE Urban Heft in 2014

Dan Jones
News Analysis
Dan Jones, Mobile Editor

Sprint says that one of its network aims for 2014 is to overlay faster, denser 4G coverage in big cities using LTE 2.5GHz spectrum acquired through its buyout of Clearwire.

Talking on the operator's third-quarter earnings call Wednesday morning, Sprint Corp. (NYSE: S) CEO Dan Hesse and Head of Network Operations Steve Elfman laid out plans for the "densification" of the LTE network in 2014.

This a three-pronged spectrum strategy for Sprint:

"Our plan is to build a multi-band LTE network that includes our 1.9GHz, overlaid by 800MHz and 2.5GHz, to provide greater coverage, speed and capacity, Elfman said.

The operator is busy completing its initial deployment of LTE on 1900MHz (1.9GHz). Elfman said that they now have 26,000 modernized 3G and 4G sites on air.

Sprint currently covers 230 markets with 4G LTE on 1.9GHz, but hasn't revealed exactly how many potential customers it covers in the US. "We anticipate 200 million PoPs finished by the end of the year on 1.9 LTE." Hesse said on the call. The initial 1.9GHz modernization is expected to be completed by the middle of next year. (See Sprint Adds 45 New 4G LTE Markets.)

As this year closes out, Sprint is starting to deploy LTE on 800MHz spectrum that should make for better in-building coverage. "We're just starting to deploy LTE on 800," Hesse said. (See Sprint to Offer First 3 Tri-Band LTE Devices.)

Current LTE speeds on 1.9GHz average at 6 to 8 Mbit/s, Elfman says. The operator hopes to add speed and depth to its 4G coverage by combining Clearwire's old 2.5GHz spectrum with its existing frequencies. Elfman says that speeds on the current "Clearwire build" peak at 50 to 60 Mbit/s. There will be 5,000 2.5GHz sites up by year's end. (See Sprint's LTE TDD Future to Boost Current Vendors.)

"We expect to be at roughly 100 million PoPs covered with 2.5[GHz] by the end of 2014," says Hesse. Don't expect the faster LTE sites to pop up in Wyoming, however, as Sprint made it clear it will be deployed first in high-traffic metro areas.

"We want to be very aggressive in our deployment... We want to get more dense in urban areas," Elfman said. "We want to be very aggressive both with the macro networks and small cells."

Elfman indicated that Sprint sees small cells as part of its plan to make its network more dense. Light Reading reported last week that Samsung Corp. has been rolling out LTE small cells to Sprint. (See Sprint Has Samsung 4G LTE Small Cells: Analyst.)

As it undertakes this massive network upgrade, the operator made a profit in the third quarter but continued to lose customers. The third-largest wireless operator in the US reported net subscriber losses of 360,000 for the quarter after shutting the Nextel network on June 30. (See Nextel Drags on Sprint as 4G Push Continues.)

Sprint reported a net profit of $383 million for the third quarter on revenue of $8.68 billion, compared with a loss of $767 million on revenue of $8.78 billion in the same quarter a year ago. The third-quarter net profit for 2013 was buoyed by a one-time, non-cash, $1.4 billion gain, related to Sprint's previously held investment in Clearwire. It posted an operating loss of $398 million for the quarter.

The company says that it sold 1.4 million iPhones during the quarter with 40 percent going to new customers. In total it sold 5 million smartphones.

— Dan Jones, Mobile Editor, Light Reading

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