Sprint CTO: Together we can build much bigger 5G network

Sprint massive MIMO radio with 8T8R radios
Sprint's Massive MIMO radio units are part of its path to 5G. (Sprint)

Sprint is not slowing investment in its network while its proposed merger with T-Mobile gets reviewed, but it will be able to offer a much more compelling 5G service if it is allowed to combine the two, according to Sprint CTO John Saw.

Speaking at the Wells Fargo 5G Forum in New York City on Thursday, Saw noted that things are improving for Sprint network-wise, indicative in things like third-party reports that compare download speeds.

His tone was decidedly more upbeat than the voice in the Public Interest Statement that makes it sound like Sprint is in deeply dire straights if it doesn’t merge with T-Mobile. But he made clear the two will be better combined as one. “I think together we can build a much bigger 5G footprint, with much higher capacity, at a faster rate,” he said.

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What Sprint brings to the table is its 2.5 GHz spectrum, most of which is unused. “The race to 5G is all about finding available spectrum that is not encumbered by LTE. For Sprint, it’s going to be 2.5 GHz,” he said. T-Mobile brings its swath of 600 MHz spectrum that will be used for 5G. “If you put together the two, you can really build a nationwide 5G network,” he said, with a window of opportunity to do it now—faster, with a bigger footprint.  

5G is all about driving densification in coverage, and combining the spectrum assets of the two will enable them to densify a lot faster. “Now’s the time to do it,” before they put a bunch of money into their own individual 5G builds.

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But until the deal is approved and done, the two companies need to operate as separate individual entities, and merger or no merger, “we are still going ahead and improving our network,” he said. A lot of it will be foundational for 5G, and that will include Massive MIMO, one of the things Sprint is testing and deploying as a bridge to 5G.

“We’re not slowing down our investment,” he said, echoing what Sprint President and CEO Michel Combes said previously. “Merger or no merger, we are still going ahead and improving our network.”

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Case in point is Massive MIMO. “A lot of our investment is focused on making sure that we densify our network and we add Massive MIMO” where it’s needed for capacity and for 5G eventually. Sprint has been making adjustments to optimize how much Massive MIMO it deploys and which towers get it, but he reiterated that it doesn’t add a lot of weight to the towers because they’re replacing three components—antenna, remote radio head and a lot of coax—with a one-box solution.

It’s also notable that Sprint is the only North American carrier with TDD spectrum for LTE. Others use FDD, which means transmitting and receiving on different bands. With TDD, the transmit and receive are done in the same band, and with a system like Sprint’s, it works for all phones, including ones already in the market. If Band 41 is supported in the phone, the consumer can get the benefits of Massive MIMO, he said.

Asked about his thoughts on fixed wireless, Saw said Sprint could launch fixed wireless today; Saw’s previous employer, Clearwire, was doing just that. But today, for standalone Sprint, the economics for mobile are much better in 5G. If the merger is approved, they will have a fairly big 5G footprint, including the rural markets, and that’s where the fixed wireless story becomes compelling, according to Saw. “This is a space the new company can disrupt,” with a bigger 5G footprint and the ability to offer competition to these households.

With the 28 GHz millimeter wave auction coming up in November, Saw said that type of spectrum is certainly complementary to what Sprint has; it can be used as an overlay on 2.5 GHz where it needs a lot more capacity. “We would be very open” to look at opportunities to acquire some of that spectrum if the economics make sense.

He also provided a little bit of insight in how the two network teams are approaching things. In working with T-Mobile CTO Neville Ray’s team, “it’s amazing how aligned we are in terms of seeing ahead and what we need to do for 5G,” together, he said. “I think there’s a lot of alignment between the two teams.”