Sprint's 5G plans: No surprise to analysts

Sprint's plans to conduct 5G demos with Nokia and Ericsson during the COPA America soccer tournament next month didn't come to any surprise to analysts. After all, all the other major U.S. operators are conducting 5G tests, so why wouldn't Sprint?

"Cynically, I think Sprint has to talk about what their plans are for 5G from a PR front so they don't get lost in the conversation," said Bill Ho, principal at 556 Ventures. "They're battling in the near term the perception of catching up to their competitors. Despite having a large spectrum portfolio, of which 2.5 GHz is their future, the balance between being 'smart' in their CapEx spend and the need to keep up with competitors is tipping towards the continual view that they're still catching up."

During the company's quarterly conference call on Tuesday, Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure said Sprint views its 2.5 GHz spectrum at the low band spectrum of 5G and he said Sprint is well-positioned for 5G with the spectrum holdings of more than 160 MHz of 2.5 spectrum on average across the top 100 U.S. markets, giving Sprint more high band capacity than any other carrier in the U.S. "We look forward to leveraging our deployment experience and working closely with our vendors to expand the use of 2.5 GHz and higher band spectrum as we evolve to 5G," he said, according to a Seeking Alpha transcript.

Ho said what's notable about Sprint and its focus on 2.5 GHz is that in one of the earnings slides, it highlighted 5X (20 MHz) TDD carrier aggregation. "I am not sure if that is in the 3GPP specs, but if it isn't, it surely has been brought up so they can take advantage of it (finally after all these years)," he told FierceWirelessTech.

Brian Goemmer, president of Allnet Insights & Analytics, said he doesn't see Sprint as having a lot of excess spectrum in the 2.5 GHz band for 5G deployments. The target for LTE Advanced is 5 x 20 MHz channels, and Sprint's 160 MHz of 2.5 GHz spectrum includes up to 42 MHz of spectrum in the 2.5 GHz Mid-Band, where deployment needs to be deferred in most of the top 20 markets because educational video operators are still transmitting in the Mid-Band spectrum. "Eliminating this 42 MHz of spectrum brings the 2.5 GHz holdings relatively close to the 100 MHz target," he said.

While Sprint has acquired a good deal of experience working in the 2.5 GHz range, that experience probably isn't going to lend much insight into how things work at the higher bands. However, if Sprint can point to specific things, like proprietary algorithms or build-out relationships it has established via 2.5 GHz that can translate to siting for 5G, that could be valuable.

"I think they have to point to whatever they can point to," said Peter Jarich, vice president for Current Analysis Consumer and Infrastructure services. Sprint has to address 5G not only because everyone else is talking about it, but also because it's in a sort of defensive position, he said. If the tables were turned and everyone else had been talking about 5G and Verizon was not, then Verizon could probably get away with not talking about it. But it's a different situation for Sprint.

Just this week, CommScope announced that Sprint has committed to "an extensive deployment" of its small cells in small to medium-sized business locations. The deployment is part of Sprint's network densification plan, which the company continues to pursue both for LTE services and in advance of 5G. The cells are based on Qualcomm FSM small and Qualcomm VIVE Wi-Fi chipsets and support both 2.5 GHz TD-LTE and 802.11ac dual-band, dual-concurrent Wi-Fi.

Small cells are a crucial part of Sprint's strategy to improve its network while cutting some of the costs associated with traditional macrocells. "When you're poorer than the rest (of the carriers), when you have less money, you're going to deploy your network" in different ways, Sprint CEO Marcelo Claure said during a conference call with media representatives following the carrier's quarterly earnings release this week. "We're a lot smarter in how we're deploying our network," Claure continued, saying the carrier has begun to employ a "site by site" strategy. "We're not going to the tower companies and signing a 20-year agreement if there's no need."

In comments submitted to the FCC last month, Sprint noted that it holds about 19,000 fixed microwave licenses and is one of the largest users of licensed fixed microwave systems in the U.S. Sprint operates more than 200 microwave paths at 28 GHz as a lessee, and as 5G services emerge, the need for backhaul services, included fixed microwave backhaul, will increase, the operator said.

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