Sprint may tackle market for in-home broadband internet

Sprint massive MIMO radio with 8T8R radios
Sprint continues to deploy massive MIMO antennas on its path toward a 5G service launch. (Sprint)

Over the past year, Sprint executives have repeatedly said the company does not have any plans to use 5G technology to get into the market for in-home broadband internet. Instead, they have argued, Sprint plans to continue to remain focused on the market for mobile services.

But that might be changing.

In a recent interview with PCMag, Sprint’s Ryan Sullivan said that the carrier’s planned 5G “hub” device from HTC will be good enough for many people to use as their home internet connection. "You'll start to see us dip our toe into the water in home internet access with the products that we announce in 2019," Sullivan told the publication. The hub will be good enough to serve "small households, apartment dwellers, even small businesses" for primary internet access, he said.

Sullivan further explained that Sprint’s 5G service plans won't have the same usage caps as its current unlimited 4G plans—caps that are partly designed to prevent users from using their 4G phones as their primary home internet service.

Sprint plans to launch 5G in nine cities sometime in the first half of next year.

Sullivan’s statements run somewhat counter to previous statements by Sprint executives on the topic. “Our priority is mobile 5G,” said CEO Michel Combes in response to questions on the topic in October.

Sprint of course wouldn’t be the first mobile network operator to use 5G to reach into the market for fixed wireless internet services. That’s exactly what Verizon is doing today with its 5G Home service—the company is beaming 300 Mbps 5G signals into stationary receivers in homes and offices in parts of four cities, with plans to expand that offering to up to 30 million American households in the years to come.

Moreover, T-Mobile has made it clear that, if the company successfully merges with Sprint, it too will make a major move into the market for in-home broadband. Specifically, the company has promised to offer in-home internet services to 52% of the ZIP codes across the county by 2024, covering 64% of Charter’s territory and 68% of Comcast’s territory.

Interestingly, Sprint has made it clear that its planned 5G network would be able to offer the kinds of speeds typically only available through a fixed internet connection. At the recent SCWS show, Sprint’s Durga Satapathy said that testing by Signals Research Group shows that the carrier’s planned 5G network running in 20 MHz of its 2.5 GHz spectrum could offer average download speeds of 323 Mbps with 64T64R MIMO antennas, with 256 QAM disabled.

Of course, any attempt by Sprint to move into the market for fixed internet service would position the company directly against the likes of wired internet providers like AT&T, Comcast and Charter. And an in-home broadband service from Sprint would not only have to match the kinds of speeds provided by fixed internet players, it would also have to be able to support the kinds of traffic volumes users generate inside their homes through gadgets like TVs streaming HD Netflix.

Indeed, ISPs like Comcast and Altice have pegged average in-home internet usage at around 200 GB per month. That’s well above the 50 GB per month threshold that Sprint has on some of its unlimited mobile data plans -- if customers exceed that threshold, Sprint said it may slow customers’ mobile speeds.

To be clear, some fixed ISPs also cap their unlimited services: For example, Comcast charges its unlimited data users extra if they consume more than 1 TB per month.

Thus, if Sprint hopes to tackle the market for in-home broadband services, it would have to provide not only competitive speeds but also competitive usage parameters.

So should fixed internet providers like Comcast be concerned that companies like Sprint, Verizon and T-Mobile could use 5G to challenge them? Comcast’s CFO Mike Cavanagh said that the company still believes that 5G doesn’t pose a significant threat to its broadband business.

He said that through DOCSIS 3.1 and other technologies Comcast will be able to maintain a very economical option for high-speed internet for years to come.

“When you think about any competitor to that, whether it’s 5G or otherwise, it’s got to have high capacity, it’s got to have high speed and it’s got to have high reliability,” said Cavanagh. He said that considering the different spectrum levels and approaches for rolling out 5G, it’s difficult to see the path for any 5G deployment becoming a broadly addressable solution for residential broadband in the U.S.