Sprint's Saw: Spark to hit 120 Mbps peaks at end of 2014, 180 Mbps peaks at end of 2015

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John Saw, Sprint's (NYSE:S) chief network officer, said that the carrier plans to expand its tri-band LTE Spark service to a two-carrier configuration toward the end of this year, which he said will result in peak download speeds of 120 Mbps. Then, by the end of 2015, Sprint plans to add another carrier to the configuration of its 2.5 GHz LTE network, which will result in three-carrier peak speeds of 180 Mbps.

The comments provide additional clarity into Sprint's rollout plans for its Sprint Spark service. Sprint is hoping the speeds supported by Spark will set it apart from its competition.

Sprint announced Spark last fall. The technology combines TDD-LTE network technology in Sprint's 2.5 GHz spectrum with FDD-LTE network technology across its 1900 MHz and 800 MHz spectrum bands. Today, Spark is available in parts of 14 markets, and it supports peak download speeds of roughly 50 Mbps and average download speeds of 12-15 Mbps. Sprint plans to expand Spark to 100 million POPs by the end of this year and roughly 100 markets by 2016.

Saw explained that Sprint plans to use carrier aggregation to combine two 2.5 GHz TDD-LTE channels "towards the end of this year," though he said that launch could happen early next year. He said the rollout of two-channel LTE on Sprint's 2.5 GHz spectrum will result in peak download speeds of roughly 120 Mbps, though average speeds likely will be slower. He said Sprint will likely gradually roll out e two-channel LTE on 2.5 GHz spectrum across specific markets, though he didn't provide details.

Saw said Sprint will add an additional carrier to its 2.5 GHz LTE network at the end of next year, giving the system three full channels and supporting peak download speeds of roughly 180 Mbps.

"Those are incredibly fast speeds," Saw said, adding that Sprint may even be able to increase speeds beyond that through additional technologies. "With smart antenna capabilities that we are putting in our systems we are able to leverage even higher speeds than those. We're talking about multilayer MIMO, and all that is being developed in our labs."

However, Saw said that Sprint Spark users today will need to purchase new devices to be able to access those faster speeds. He confirmed that the Spark devices that Sprint sells today will not be able access two-channel and three-channel 2.5 GHz configurations, thus forcing Sprint customers to upgrade to new devices that can access those configurations in order to make use of the faster speeds.

Saw said the upgrade process to two- and three-channel LTE will be relatively smooth for Sprint. "With the radios we're putting up, they are capable of two- and three-channel carrier aggregation, so it's a matter of a software upgrade for us to enable more carriers and aggregate them. So you don't need to climb the towers to implement that," he said.

The vendors that are rolling out Sprint Spark are Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE:ALU), Samsung and Nokia (NYSE:NOK) Solutions and Networks. A key part of Spark are the radios Saw referred to, which have capabilities for 8 Transmitters 8 Receivers (8T8R), and which Sprint has said will be a first deployment of its kind in North America. However, those radios are only going to start being widely deployed on Sprint's network around mid-year.

Saw said Sprint, Ericsson (NASDAQ:ERIC) and Sprint's other vendors are upgrading Sprint's sites, and after that work is complete then Ericsson takes over the day-to-day management of Sprint's sites under the seven-year, $5 billion network management agreement Sprint inked with Ericsson in 2009.

Sprint has previously discussed its plans to increase the speeds of Spark. In December, Sprint said Spark could eventually provide real-world speeds of 150-180 Mbps. Then, earlier this month, SoftBank CEO Masayoshi Son said he hopes to deliver up to 200 Mbps, presumably using Spark.

Moreover, Sprint isn't the only carrier using carrier aggregation technology and additional carriers to improve speeds. For example, AT&T Mobility (NYSE:T) said earlier this month it started using carrier aggregation technology to transmit over both its 700 MHz spectrum and its 2100 MHz AWS spectrum in Chicago and other markets, in order to boost LTE capacity and speeds. And T-Mobile (NYSE:TMUS) late last year said it has deployed a 20x20 MHz LTE network in Dallas, which should give the carrier additional capacity in that market as it prepares for a wider rollout of 20x20 MHz LTE service.

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