Sprint's 2.6 Gbps demo shows it is time to walk the walk

Tammy Parker, FierceWirelessTech

Sprint (NYSE:S) CTO Stephen Bye wants to know what you would do with a 2.6 Gbps mobile broadband network. I want to know when Sprint is going to build it.

Sprint joined with infrastructure vendor Nokia Solutions and Networks earlier this week to tout their joint demo that showed a single sector of a TD-LTE network can deliver data throughput of 2.6 Gbps.

Building on news of the demo, Bye wrote a blog entry on Sprint's website touting the "phenomenal speed" that had been achieved and seeking public comment on what kind of uses such speed would enable.

While the demo announcement said a lot about NSN's network equipment capabilities, for Sprint the news simply highlighted all of the unfulfilled promise that has marked the carrier's existence ever since it bought Nextel Communications and gained all of that lovely 2.5 GHz spectrum that it is now planning to use for its TD-LTE rollout. We've been hearing about the dominant spectrum position that Sprint/Clearwire gained via that transaction for nine years now.

It's one thing to have gobs of spectrum sitting around. It's quite another to put it to use. Sprint, for the most part, has not done that. Of course, Sprint's financial condition long precluded the carrier from taking action.

However, SoftBank's $21.6 billion deal to take control of Sprint changed all that. The cash is key to Sprint Spark, the operator's tri-band LTE service that was announced in October 2013 and requires lots of new equipment. But that deployment is not exactly moving at lightning speed. The addition of Kansas City last week upped Sprint Spark's footprint to 11 cities.

I found it odd that Bye's blog entry cited what to many consumers and industry observers is ancient tech history, noting, among other things: "Sprint built the country's first 4G wireless network from a national carrier" (apparently referencing the WiMAX network that Sprint intends to replace with TD-LTE), "the first nationwide digital PCS service" (where were you in 2002?) "and the first nationwide push-to-talk iDEN service" (the Nextel network that Sprint decommissioned last summer).

Even stranger is the fact that Sprint seems intent on raising customer expectations regarding what it could do, only to dash them by not bringing the promised capabilities to fruition. Bye noted that prior to the recent 2.6 Gbps demo, Sprint in October 2013 demonstrated 1 Gbps over-the-air speed with Samsung and 1.3 Gbps data speed with NSN using 60 MHz of spectrum and TD-LTE.

To his credit, Bye acknowledged that the 2.6 Gbps "speed record" claimed this week is not a "real-world speed today which a customer can experience." But he waxed prosaic about the fact that today with Sprint Spark "we're delivering wireless peak speeds of 60 Mbps, and that's very fast."

If I could deepen my voice enough, I'd utter a George Takei "oh, my" in response to someone telling me that 60 Mbps is "very fast" right after claiming to have just demonstrated 2.6 Gbps capability.

Since I can't, I'll have to reference what Neville Ray, CTO of T-Mobile US (NYSE:TMUS), said during last month's Citi 2014 Internet, Media & Telecommunications Conference about Sprint Spark delivering 60 Mbps. "It's kind of old news. That isn't much of a start against LTE services that can outperform that very, very handily," he commented.

Ray noted that T-Mobile had already achieved real-world speeds of 147 Mbps on the downlink using a 20 MHz + 20 MHz deployment in Dallas. "This is impressive stuff," he said.

At the same conference, T-Mobile CFO Braxton Carter, commented: "If you look at what we've done with the 'un-carrier,' the foundation is the network." T-Mobile started 2013 with zero LTE POPs but by early January 2014 it had 209 million POPs on LTE, which Carter noted represented a mere three-quarter rollout.

In comparison, Sprint started deploying LTE as part of its Network Vision modernization effort during July 2012. Bye said last month during a press event that Sprint expects to finally wrap up Network Vision this year, bringing LTE service to 250 million POPs. The carrier expects to roll out Sprint Spark to at least 100 cities by 2016.

What is really scary is that Sprint and T-Mobile are still apparently trying to get together and create a third carrier with significant scale that can up the ante and take on AT&T (NYSE:T) and Verizon Wireless (NYSE:VZ) from a position of strength. I support that reasoning, but such a merger would only be pro-consumer if T-Mobile CEO John Legere and his can-do T-Mobile crew were put in charge of the joint operation.

Leaving Sprint's management in charge of a merged Sprint and T-Mobile would likely inject the "un-carrier" with the mañana attitude that doomed Sprint's merger with Nextel and is keeping Sprint from moving aggressively--I mean really aggressively--to exploit its 2.5 GHz spectrum holdings.

Bye ended his blog post with this: "To the entrepreneurs, the innovators, the developers of tomorrow, we ask them to consider: what would you do with an intuitive, brilliant 2.6 Gbps mobile broadband network?"

My reply is that Sprint would discover the answers to that question quite quickly if it would simply roll out the network Bye is describing. There are myriad examples in tech where the applications for a technology were not evident until it was available for people to use.

Build it and they will come, Sprint. Don't build it, and your competitors will.--Tammy