Sprint's LTE rollout hampered by lack of backhaul and Network Vision issues

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Sprint (NYSE:S) is chugging along toward its goal of covering 200 million POPs with LTE by the end of 2013, but the pace of its deployment has lagged its Tier 1 competitors, including late-comer T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS), which launched LTE in March and now covers 157 million POPs in 116 markets. Sprint's LTE deployment has been hindered by a variety of factors, ranging from not enough fiber backhaul to issues related to its wide-ranging Network Vision network modernization project.

An in-depth look at the carrier's LTE deployment by CNET reveals a series of issues Sprint is working through as it races to catch up to its larger competitors Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) and AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) in LTE network breadth and depth, and keep pace with T-Mobile. Sprint, which just this month closed its deal with new parent SoftBank and its acquisition of Clearwire, has had to contend with months of drama surrounding its fate, mostly because of Dish Network's (NASDAQ: DISH) attempts to purchase both Sprint and Clearwire.

"We all would like this to go faster," Iyad Tarazi, head of network development and integration for Sprint, told CNET. "If there was a silver bullet, we would have found one." Sprint had originally hoped to cover 250 million POPs with LTE by year-end, but earlier this year scaled that back to 200 million. The carrier first deployed LTE in July 2012. 

Backhaul for the network has presented a major problem. When Sprint was relying on Clearwire's mobile WiMAX service for its "4G" network, Clearwire was using a great deal of microwave backhaul. As part of Network Vision, however, Sprint has been laying in more fiber to its cell sites, but that takes time and money. For its part, T-Mobile laid the groundwork for its LTE deployment years in advance by adding in fiber backhaul to its HSPA+ network before it refarmed its spectrum and turned on LTE.

Further, Sprint's LTE rollout has been hampered by cell site zoning issues. According to CNET, in New York Sprint needs to make sure that every cell site, including those from rival carriers, are operational before it can add LTE. Sprint also needs to contend with tracing down landlords for cell site deployments in the city and adding antennas in hard-to-reach places such as church steeples.

Another issue for Sprint is work on its existing 3G network. Sprint's Network Vision network modernization involved both LTE and CDMA elements, and the upgrades to Sprint's CDMA voice network are also slowing the deployment process down, since part of that involves ensuring that the CDMA network conforms with 911 requirements. "We are replacing virtually all elements of the network in what is a compressed timeline," Bob Azzi, Sprint's senior vice president of networks, told CNET.

Finally, Sprint in May said poor execution by its network vendor partners in the latter part of 2012 was part of what caused it to delay LTE deployments and its larger Network Vision network modernization plan, according to a securities filing.

Some of these issues should be easing soon. Sprint plans to deploy LTE on a 5x5 MHz channel in its 800 MHz spectrum, which had been used for its now-defunct iDEN network, in the fourth quarter. And Tarazi said that 5,000 Clearwire sites will be lit up for Sprint LTE this year in the 2.5 GHz band, with 500 in New York City alone.

As for its rivals, Verizon's LTE network now covers 301 million POPs. By the end of the year, AT&T plans to cover 270 million POPs with LTE and T-Mobile plans to cover at least 200 million POPs with LTE.

For more:
- see this CNET article

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