5G will provide Sprint with the opportunity to finally change customers’ perception of its network as well offer a whole new wave of services, providing a double whammy.
That’s according to Michel Combes, Sprint’s newly installed president and CFO, who spoke at the Deutsche Bank 26th Annual Media, Telecom & Business Services Conference in Palm Springs, Florida, on Wednesday. Combes, a former Alcatel-Lucent CEO, was appointed CFO and president in January.
5G presents a double opportunity for Sprint, he said. For one, it will allow Sprint to change the way customers think about its network. “It’s obvious that in the past few years, we have suffered from a perception on our network,” which was not always that great.
It has invested in the network and its 4G network is much better today than it was a year ago, but perception has not caught up. “5G will allow us not only to bring the best network in the country, but also to change perception, which will give us opportunity probably to rewrite a little bit our plans.”
Once perception changes, it will be able to close the gap in terms of pricing, which will support its desire to reignite growth in wireless revenue, an easy “get” for Sprint, which is not the same for its competitors, he said.
Second, 5G unlocks new types of services thanks to speed and low latency, leading to new AR/VR services and others, including in the IoT space. “We believe that we are just at the beginning of this journey,” he said.
Sprint has promised a national launch of 5G in the first half of 2019 and it's banking on its abundance of 2.5 GHz spectrum. The company has more than 160 MHz of 2.5 GHz spectrum available in the top 100 U.S. markets, giving it the largest nationwide block of sub-6 GHz spectrum. Combes called the 2.5 GHz mid-band spectrum a “sweet spot” for 5G.
Sprint already has announced that it will expand its macro cell sites by roughly 20%. Only 50% of its sites today have 2.5 GHz, and its intention is to bring all three bands (2.5 GHz, 1900 MHz and 800 MHz) to its sites. It’s also embarking on a small cell program to deploy 40,000 small cells, and on top of that, it has deals with cable companies to roll out additional small cells. Its Magic Box program is on track to reach more than 1 million deployed; it has already passed the 100,000 mark.
Massive MIMO is the big play for Sprint that will really improve speed—10x what LTE offers—as well as extend coverage and bandwidth at the edge of the cell, and that deployment starts in earnest the second quarter of this year. Massive MIMO not only improves 4G but allows a smooth move to 5G; when 5G NR software is available probably by the end of the year, it’s only a matter turning on 5G via a software upgrade, he said.
Having a national 5G network in the first half of 2019 aligns with when the handsets are expected to be available on a commercial basis.
As for millimeter wave spectrum, Sprint is very comfortable with what it’s got at 2.5 GHz, but it’s also pragmatic and if spectrum comes up for auction that it could add to its existing portfolio, it will consider that. “But today, we have largely enough” with the spectrum in its hands, he said.
Sprint has had some experience in fixed wireless in the past and it is trialing it, but the main 5G use case is mobile, he said. That doesn’t mean it wouldn’t do any fixed wireless—it has plenty of spectrum to pursue that if it decides to do so, he said, but it’s not the main focus.