Sprint critic defends his research of LTE coverage

The head of Advanced Frequency Engineering (AFE), which found Sprint Nextel's (NYSE:S) LTE coverage coming up woefully lacking in a handful of markets, is defending his research methods and planning an updated study to see if Sprint has remedied its shortfalls.

Click for a larger version of this map of Dulabone's test drive route.

Dana Dulabone, an independent consultant who owns Advanced Frequency Engineering in Riverview, Fla., told FierceBroadbandWireless that Sprint has been "haphazardly" switching on LTE sites. "In this industry we have something called the soft launch and then we launch," he said. "We build out the network, we optimize the network, then when we think it's good enough to launch, that's when we go from a soft launch to (saying), 'OK, now the public can use the system.'"

But Dulabone alleges Sprint is declaring LTE markets are "launched" before there is adequate, usable coverage. In the study he announced last week, Dulabone said his research showed that Sprint's LTE network in Dallas had only 10 percent coverage when he tested it in mid-August. He has since specified that he did not drive in residential areas of Dallas, though he said he tried to cover "as much area as possible to include urban, downtown, suburban, and highways."

Sprint has refrained from attacking Dulabone's report. "In terms of what he wrote, we're not actively disputing it," said Sprint spokeswoman Kelly Schlageter.

"I know we didn't launch anything at 10 percent, but we didn't launch it at 50 percent [either]. So there are going to be customers who don't have coverage at the point of launch, and we're very transparent on our website, sprint.com/coverage, about where we have coverage. You can go there, plug in your zip code and find out if we have coverage there," she said.

Yet Dulabone challenges that assertion. "I drove in some neighborhoods in Atlanta where I didn't have (LTE) coverage for three and half hours, but if you look at their map, it shows coverage there," he said.

"Sprint has one heck of a disclaimer on their website saying there may be gaps in coverage, but three and half hours in a residential area and nothing? They need to be more forthcoming and honest with their map," said Dulabone.

He said that at Sprint's headquarters in Kansas City, Kan., some parts of the campus have only 3G service while others have LTE as well. Even within a Sprint store his testing showed that only half of the store had LTE service.

Schlageter said that since the AFE study was compiled in August and early September, Sprint has increased coverage in its initial LTE markets by 10-15 percent. "We're really, really happy with the performance of the network where we have it," she added. Sprint has officially launched LTE in 19 markets.

Dulabone's original research tested the availability and performance of LTE services offered in Dallas/Fort Worth, Kansas City and Atlanta by Sprint as well as Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) and AT&T (NYSE:T), with the latter two companies having 100 percent LTE coverage in the areas tested. He intends to conduct follow-up research in the coming months and issue a second report assessing Sprint's deployment progress.

Dulabone said he was able to locate a number of Sprint's LTE-enabled sites in the markets he tested where commercial service was obviously blocked, likely because those sites had not yet been optimized. "I'm hoping that when I go back those sites that were blocked, and others that I could see, will be able to connect," he said.

Dulabone is a former Sprint employee, having started out with Centel Cellular, then moving to Sprint when it bought out Centel in 1993. "I have a long legacy with Sprint," he said.

As for the motivation behind his LTE coverage research, Dulabone said, "This is meant to be informational. It's not meant to be adversarial. It's supposed to be constructive in nature."

Dulabone said he was a senior RF engineer for Sprint when it launched CDMA in Tampa, Fla. "We did 191 sites. We built out all 191. We did our soft launch, did our optimization and then we launched it because we knew the customer would be able to have CDMA coverage no matter where they went in our coverage area," he said.

One problem for Sprint may be that signals from its robust 3G network are basically overwhelming the LTE signals that are being put out by a much smaller number of LTE-enabled sites. During his tests, Dulabone said he could see that Sprint had only "islands of LTE coverage" with no contiguous service, unlike the operator's vast CDMA network. "Just because I could see a 4G site on my spectrum analyzer doesn't mean that the consumer's phone could see it," said Dulabone.

In several instances, the Samsung Galaxy III handset Dulabone was using did not pick up LTE signals in areas where he knew Sprint had coverage. Power cycling the phone, basically switching it off and then on again, enabled the handset to finally identify the LTE signals.

As with all operators rolling out a new network technology such as LTE, Sprint is challenged in that it is building out entirely new LTE markets while filling in coverage in the LTE markets it has launched. "We're adding sites incrementally where we've already launched in addition to putting sites on air in other markets," said Schlageter.

For any new or upgraded site, the operator must get proper zoning approval and building permits, lease the cell tower site and ensure backhaul is in place before a site reaches the notice to proceed (NTP) stage. "The more of those sites you have in the pipeline, the more you can then really accelerate the things you are in control of, which is basically installing the equipment," said Schlageter.

"We're hitting a stride and the pool of sites where we've got notices to proceed is really significant, so now we can go install sites," she said.

Schlageter stressed that Sprint's LTE coverage is underpinned by the operator's existing CDMA coverage. "We are working to get LTE to our customers as fast as we can. We have also made a significant investment in making sure the transition back to 3G is very seamless. It's not as though a customer doesn't have coverage at all. If a customer doesn't have 4G, that customer would then fall into 3G coverage," she said.

For more:
- see this Computerworld article

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Article updated Oct. 8 to include a clarification from Sprint.