By Nadine Manjaro
Over the past decade, investors, analysts and customers have fixated on Sprint's cellular network, particularly its struggles to accommodate the smartphone boom. But it's a mistake to overlook what Sprint is doing with Wi-Fi to improve coverage, expand its service portfolio, enhance its competitive position and minimize its postpaid churn, which is higher than those of its three largest rivals.
Sprint is no newcomer to Wi-Fi. Eleven years ago, for example, it struck a reciprocal roaming agreement with AT&T Wireless where the latter's customers could get service at airports with Sprint hotspots. Sprint subsequently sold its Wi-Fi network to Boingo as part of a strategy that continues today: Instead of owning hotspots, Sprint primarily relies on aggregators and other partners. A recent exception is its plan to build a network with Cisco in its hometown of Kansas City.
Sprint considers Wi-Fi to be the fourth layer of its network, complementing its 1.9 GHz, 2.5 GHz and 800 MHz licenses. A seamless, affordable user experience is key for encouraging usage and, in turn, alleviating the cellular network's workload. That's why beginning in April 2015, Sprint devices began automatically authenticating with Boingo's 35 U.S. airport networks and providing service at no additional charge. This example illustrates one component of Sprint's Wi-Fi business model: improving the customer experience by extending coverage without additional costs.
Sprint also is making it easier for customers to use Wi-Fi for calling rather than just data. More than 28 models of Sprint phones currently support Wi-Fi calling, including with native Passpoint support on Android and iOS devices. One notable limitation is the lack of seamless handoffs with cellular, which will discourage some customers. Sprint is focused on enabling this capability in home and office Wi-Fi networks by 2016, followed by public hotspots.
This example also illustrates the second component of Sprint's Wi-Fi business model: leveraging customers' home and office existing broadband services to enabling Wi-Fi calling. This strategy will be especially helpful in markets where Sprint has insufficient indoor coverage, capacity or both.
Sprint does not have a direct Wi-Fi monetization strategy. Its reliance on partners such as Boingo to eliminate the overhead of building and operating hotspots while still providing the revenue opportunities and competitive advantages that come with offering Wi-Fi services to consumers and enterprises. One example is using Wi-Fi to cater to the Internet of Things market.
Sprint's partnership strategy includes managed services that are bundled with business products. For example, in March, Sprint partnered with Ruckus and Cisco to launch Work Place as a Service, which provides enterprise Wi-Fi, SMS, presence, online collaboration, audio-video conferencing and other services.
Nadine Manjaro is a lead Wi-Fi analyst with Maravedis, a wireless infrastructure analyst firm. Past roles include IoT Program Director at Tech Mahindra, Senior Analyst for ABI Research covering wireless infrastructure, cloud computing and IoT consultant at Verizon and WiMAX Technology development role at Sprint. Nadine Manjaro has over 18 years of experience in wireline and wireless networking. She holds a BS in Industrial Engineering and a BA in Economics and Statistics from Rutgers University as well as a M.Sc. in Engineering Management from the University of Kansas.