Sprint hints at upcoming network densification strategy using 2.5 GHz spectrum

Sprint (NYSE: S) CEO Marcelo Claure said that the company is finalizing plans for a massive densification of its network using the company's 2.5 GHz spectrum. Called the "Sprint Next Generation Network," the plan calls for a balance of small cells and macrocells and promises an improvement to both network speed and capacity.

Speaking on the company's first-quarter earnings call with investors, Claure said that the company has issued a request for proposal from the industry's vendor community and is currently evaluating those proposals.  Although he declined to reveal exactly how many small cells and macrocells Sprint is planning to add to its network, he said that the long-term plan will dramatically increase coverage and capacity and over time will include the deployment of Voice over LTE technology. He also said that the new Next Generation Network plan will produce potential cost savings compared to the company's prior Network Vision network modernization plan.

Earlier this year a source familiar with Sprint's network plans told FierceWireless that the company was planning to significantly expand its LTE network by adding potentially up to 20,000 cell sites and repurposing existing sites.  In an interview with FierceWireless, Sprint CTO Stephen Bye declined to say how many sites Sprint will add.

"Within our footprint, what we'll do is make sure that we deliver a consistent and reliable experience," he said. "As we look at densification, it's not simply about building for capacity." Sprint can achieve that with its 2.5 GHz spectrum on its own, he said. The goal is to make sure data speeds and performance are increased throughout the network, he added.

Sprint is looking at traditional network equipment vendors, Bye said, as well as "what we consider disruptive players" that bring a "new thinking about how to architect networks." Bye said Sprint will be "measured and pragmatic" in how it chooses its vendors going forward.

The Network Vision plan, which used gear from Alcatel-Lucent (NYSE: ALU), Ericsson (NASDAQ: ERIC) and Samsung, "created a disruption to the customer experience. I can assure that going forward that memory stays with us, and as we do this evolution of our network and densification of the network, we will be pragmatic [and] deliberate."

Sprint plans to spend $5 billion on capital expenditures in 2015 and Claure said that much of that will go toward the company's improvements to its 2.5 GHz TD-LTE network. He added that the company also has $1.4 billion available from vendor financing for its 2.5 GHz network gear to use toward the improvements.

Claure also touted the company's improvements to its 800 MHz LTE network, noting that the 800 MHz LTE network will be complete by year-end where rebanding is complete. He also noted that with the expansion of its 800 MHz and 2.5 GHz LTE networks, Sprint's LTE coverage now covers 280 million POPs. 

Bye said that Sprint is not disclosing how many POPs it is covering with 2.5 GHz LTE or how many it plans to cover by year-end. He said that the spectrum will be deployed where and when it is needed to augment capacity, but that Sprint is busy deploying tri-band LTE "Spark" network gear, as part of its ongoing deployment of 800 MHz LTE. In some markets, Sprint is able to deploy an extra 5x5 MHz block of spectrum in the 1900 MHz band for additional LTE coverage and capacity, he said. 

Claure also reiterated the company's plans to deploy 2x20 TDD carrier aggregation in the 2.5 GHz band to improve its LTE network. Earlier this year, Sprint said it would use carrier aggregation on its TD-LTE and FD-LTE transmission across all of its spectrum bands, meaning that Sprint will eventually be able to deploy 1900 MHz FDD-LTE for uplink and 2.5 GHz TD-LTE for downlink, and improve the coverage of 2.5 GHz LTE to levels that its 1900 MHz spectrum currently achieves. Carrier aggregation, which is the most well-known and widely used technique of the LTE Advanced standard, bonds together disparate bands of spectrum to create wider channels and produce faster speeds.

Bye said that in the fourth quarter of 2014 Sprint started seeding its device base with phones that can take advantage of 2x20 carrier aggregation in the 2.5 GHz band, and now has seven such models in the market, though he declined to say how many actual devices that translates into or what percentage of the subscriber base has a device capable of using the technology. Some of the models include the Samsung Galaxy S6 and S6 Edge and HTC One M9, he said.

Sprint has started deploying the carrier aggregation technology in the network. "We haven't made a big deal about that yet because you really want to have enough gravity where you have enough devices in the mix and enough of the deployment in the market where customers beginning to see that speed advantage," he said. "I can assure you that Sprint has not slow rolled" on carrier aggregation, he said.  

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