Sprint Spark to combine LTE in 800 MHz, 1.9 GHz and 2.5 GHz, will offer 50-60 Mbps peak speeds

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Sprint (NYSE:S) announced it will brand its forthcoming tri-mode LTE service as "Sprint Spark," and said it will bring the service to the top 100 U.S. markets during the next three years with speeds capable of reaching 50-60 Mbps and perhaps faster.

The HTC One max, LG G2, Samsung Galaxy Mega and Samsung Galaxy S4 mini sprint spark

Sprint's first tri-band LTE devices will be the HTC One max, LG G2, Samsung Galaxy Mega and Samsung Galaxy S4 mini.

The company made the announcement after holding a media event at its innovation center in Burlingame, Calif., where it demonstrated 1 Gbps over-the-air speed in its labs.

Sprint said Spark is essentially wireless service that will work via the combination of its 800 MHz, 1.9 GHz and 2.5 GHz LTE spectrum. The technology will combine Sprint's FDD-LTE network in its 800 MHz and 1.9 GHz spectrum and its planned TD-LTE network in its 2.5 GHz spectrum. Sprint also said it would use carrier aggregation technology in the 2.5 GHz band to implement Spark.

The HTC One max, LG G2, Samsung Galaxy Mega and Samsung Galaxy S4 mini will be Sprint's first tri-band phones. The carrier said it will release all but the One max on Nov. 8; Sprint said the HTC gadget will be released soon thereafter.

The first markets with limited availability of Sprint Spark will be Chicago, Los Angeles, New York, Miami and Tampa. Sprint spokeswoman Kelly Schlageter told FierceWireless that customers in these markets who use Sprint tri-band LTE devices can expect real-world peak speeds of 50-60 Mbps, though it's unclear how widely available the service will be. She said that over time, depending on the market, peak speeds could be increased beyond that if Sprint uses multiple instances of carrier aggregation to create wider spectrum channels.

In interviews with reporters, Sprint CEO Dan Hesse made clear that with Sprint Spark will allow Sprint to continue to offer unlimited data plans. He also said the company does not have plans to charge customers different rates based on speed--yet. "Right now the answer is we're not planning to segment based upon speed," Hesse said, according to The Verge. However, Hesse left the door open for such pricing, noting "we may and there are regulatory issues in doing that as well, but it's possible we could."

Hesse also said that Sprint is open to the idea of toll-free data plans, including the idea of certain applications not counting toward a customer's data bucket. As for whether that might run up against net neutrality rules, Hesse said: "[Wireless spectrum] it is a finite resource... but again I'm a carrier guy so it's hard for me to even understand, it truly is and I've been looking at 'net neutrality' for a long time. It's actually a hard concept for me to get my head around. It's like telling the airlines you can't sell first class seats." 

The vendors that will roll out Sprint Spark are Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE:ALU), Samsung and Nokia (NYSE:NOK) Solutions and Networks. Noticeably absent from the list is Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC), which is Sprint's managed services vendor for its entire network and also a key vendor for its Network Vision network upgrade program. Alcatel-LucentNSN and Samsung wasted no time touting the contract win.

In an interview with FierceWireless at Ericsson's Business Innovation Forum in Tokyo, Ericsson CTO Ulf Ewaldsson said the company was not part of the Sprint Spark announcement but will "continue to compete for the operator's business." In addition he said that Ericsson will continue to be part of "Sprint's strategic network blueprint and will support and manage the network and services."

Sprint said the vendors will provide 2.5 GHz radio heads to enable Sprint Spark, and that each company will service approximately one-third of Sprint's deployment markets, much as Network Vision's deployment has been split among Alcatel-Lucent, Ericsson and Samsung.

The 2.5 GHz radios are expected to have capabilities for 8 Transmitters 8 Receivers (8T8R), which Sprint said will be a first deployment of its kind in North America. The carrier boasted that the radios will be capable of improved coverage, capacity and speeds when compared to the more traditional 2T2R or 4T4R radios used by competitors.

As part of its Network Vision network modernization effort, launched last year, Sprint expects to cover 200 million POPs with LTE on its 1.9 GHz spectrum by the end of 2013, and will expand that to 250 million POPs by mid-2014.

The company has also started deploying LTE on its 800 MHz spectrum, which was freed up from the closure of its Nextel iDEN network. That deployment will continue into 2014. 

As for its 2.5 GHz spectrum, Sprint plans to have 5,000 2.5 GHz TD-LTE sites on air by the end of 2013, a goal in line with Clearwire's previous buildout plans. Sprint expects to cover 100 million POPs with 2.5 GHz LTE by the end of 2014. Sprint controls 120 MHz of 2.5 GHz spectrum in 90 of the top 100 U.S. markets thanks to its acquisition of Clearwire earlier this year.

Today Sprint counts a total of 55,000 macro cell sites, a level Sprint expects staying at for the next few years. The company also will use small cells to augment capacity, coverage and speed. Small cell deployments are expected to begin in 2014, continuing into 2015 and beyond. Sprint did not say exactly how many small cells it plans to deploy. AT&T (NYSE:T), by contrast, plans to roll out more than 40,000 small cells by the end of 2015.

Sprint hopes that its LTE speed and capacity via Spark will give it an advantage over its competitors, but in terms of coverage Sprint is still playing catch-up. Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) now covers 301 million POPs with LTE and has started deploying LTE on its AWS spectrum to augment capacity. By the end of the year, AT&T plans to cover 270 million POPs with LTE and then 300 million by mid-2014. T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS) now covers 202 million POPs with LTE and expects to expand beyond that.

"We continue to believe Sprint will take share with a compelling network advantage when they have deployed 2.5 GHz spectrum," wrote New Street Research analyst Jonathan Chaplin in a research note. "The advantage will unfold gradually during 2014 and 2015 as they launch new markets, driving a steady improvement in sub trends.  However, the pace of change will likely be slow.  We expect sub losses through 3Q14."

For more:
- see this Sprint release
- see this separate Sprint release
- see this Engadget article
- see this The Verge article

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Article updated Oct. 31 with additional information and commentary.